Breathing Through It
Taking It All In (Or Not)
There is a lot going on in the world that is making us want to hold our breath and duck away. Obviously the swirling airborne virus is one of them, but many of us have gotten to a point where we just don’t want to take in anything anymore. It’s too much.
Asian Medicine holds that the body shuts breathing down as a protective adaptation. Anything that enters our bodies from the outside world—be it food, air, or something we hear, see, smell, taste, or touch—has to be processed by the Spleen(the main organ of digestion). The constant stream of information we’re all subjected to (and, truthfully, subject ourselves to) is very taxing to the Spleen, so the body finds various ways to take in less. It simply wasn’t made to process this much for a prolonged period, so it clogs our sinuses to cut off scents, makes our ears stuffy to block noise, and makes us unconsciously hold our breath.
The Lungs are considered the most exterior of the organs. They are the first place where outside comes into our bodies and are therefore a logical place to block out outside information. Have you ever come to the realization that you’ve been holding your breath for who knows how long? This is your body subconsciously modulating stimulation. But of course we have to breathe—we need oxygen to survive. Therefore, when we breathe again, we do so shallowly, using our chest muscles instead of our diaphragms, filling only the top portion of our lungs, so as not to take as much of the outside world in. As babies, not yet tensed and hardened against the world, blissfully unaware of SB 8, Afghanistan, and Ida, we breathed with our bellies. By the time we’re adults, we’ve armored up and diaphragmatic breathing comes pretty unnaturally.
The problem with shallow breathing is that it signals to our body that we’re in fight or flight mode because that’s how we breathe when we actually are in fight or flight. This activates the sympathetic nervous system and tells other areas of the body to be on high alert. There’s a lot to be on high alert about these days; it’s not wrong! But it’s physiologically bad for you to be in “scanning the savannah for lions” mode the majority of the time. This state raises our cortisol, which can alter sex hormone levels and our ability to properly recuperate during sleep. This also majorly disrupts the smooth flow of Qi, and without that, basically everything in the body becomes dysregulated. Yang qi flows up, agitating the Heart and Spirit (Shen), leading to insomnia, restlessness, anxiety, and palpitations.
“The perfected breathe all the way to their heels, unlike ordinary folk who breathe only as far as their throats.”
Zhuangzi, 3rd century BCE
This is where working with the breath comes in. We can consciously alter our breath to get more oxygen in and to tell the body that it’s ok to stop and take things in at that moment (and thereby signal that it got faked out with that whole fight or flight thing). We can sink the Heart and Shen back down.
One of the more researched breathing patterns is resonant breathing (also called Coherent Breathing). This pattern consists of taking about five or six breaths per minute.As James Nestor notes in Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art (I highly recommend this book), this breathing pattern corresponds with the natural breathing rhythms of Japanese, African, Hawaiian, Native American, Buddhist, Taoist, and Christian prayer. The geographic and temporal distribution of these cultures makes it unlikely that this is a coincidence.
Italian researchers had subjects recite a Buddhist mantra and the Ave Maria (in Latin)—both of which have 5.5 breaths per minute patterns—and found,
“Whenever they followed this slow breathing pattern, blood flow to the brain increased and the systems in the body entered a state of coherence, when the functions of heart, circulation, and nervous system are coordinated to peak efficiency.”
Other researchers studying the 5.5 second breathing pattern on patients with anxiety and depression found that patients practicing this breath for 5-10 minutes per day saw profound decreases in their symptoms. These researchers also used this technique to restore lung function to 9/11 survivors with ground-glass lungs (which is also seen in Covid survivors). I recently told a patient about this breathing pattern and he told me that he’d learned it as a paratrooper in the Army in a class on resisting torture!
It’s hard to time a 5.5 second breath, so choosing either five or six seconds works. You can either count to yourself or use an app. My preferred app for this is Pranayama, which allows you to create custom breathing patterns (there are no pauses here: 6 (or 5) second inhales, followed immediately by 6 (or 5) second exhales). If it’s too hard for you to take breaths this long, choose a shorter length and work your way up.
Another app I really like that introduces a number of different breathing patterns for varied situations is Breathwrk. This app has notifications that remind you to take some breaths throughout the day. It also offers very short options: one patient started practicing 2 or 3 one-minute breaths throughout the day and noted a marked decrease in his anxiety. Remember, this is all about getting out of your head and back into your body and reminding it that there is no reason to be in fight or flight mode.
If apps aren’t your thing, just count. A tip: inhaling activates your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) and exhaling activates your parasympathetic (rest and digest), so if you’re trying to calm down, make your exhales longer than your inhales (I usually make the exhale twice as long). As with all diaphragmatic breathing, you want to use your diaphragm as a bellows, pushing it down to suck air into the lungs, and relaxing it to push air out. Put one palm on your belly and the other on your chest and make sure to breathe deep into your abdomen (it should push your belly hand out slightly); you may feel your heart rate increase on inhales.
Resonant breathing has a great deal of research behind it, so I highly recommend giving it a shot. That said, any time you can take a break from your day, get out of your head and into your body, and supply yourself with more oxygen is helpful. It’s worth it to find a way that works for you!
And a few random things:
Just for kicks, I made a Breathe playlist!
I’ve been feeling more and more of my Gen X-ness lately. I’ve watched this TikTok repeatedly and laughed every time (sound on is a must). Reminds me of the 90s (with cats).
Thanks for reading! If you have any questions or comments, please leave them here.
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When an organ is capitalized, it refers to the concept of that organ in Asian Medicine.
This comes out to 6 and 5 second inhalations and 6 and 5 second exhalations, respectively.
Quoted from James Nestor, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art (Riverhead Books, 2020), p.83.
Please note that there is no research to date on using breath work to combat Covid sequelae.
Richard P. Brown and Patricia L. Gerbarg, The Healing Power of the Breath: Simple Techniques to Reduce Stress and Anxiety, Enhance Concentration, and Balance Your Emotions (Boston, Shambala, 2012).