A hot topic for breathing researchers lately has been slowness. Recent studies by cardiologist David O’Hare and others have shown that slow-paced breathing can have a positive impact on heart rate variability, a measure of the heart’s ability to adapt to stress. Increasing HRV makes the system more flexible and resilient. That’s why it’s often cited as a predictor of longevity and overall well-being.
None of these studies surprised Richard Brown, an associate clinical psychiatry professor at Columbia University—and an adept in aikido, qigong, Zen meditation, and other practices—who has spent most of his career studying the benefits of slow breathing. He and his wife, Patricia Gerbarg, an assistant clinical professor at New York Medical College, have developed a program of exercises, detailed in their book The Healing Power of the Breath, which have produced remarkable results in studies of patients with anxiety, depression, insomnia, and other conditions.
The exercises are based, in large part, on traditional qigong and yogic practices, and the couple’s work with patients over the past 25-plus years. According to Brown, the ancient qigong masters had a deep understanding of how the autonomic nervous system works. As evidence, he cited a treatise in the Tao Te Ching, that “starts out by saying that the purpose of breathing practices is to become like a newborn baby,” which aligns directly with O’Hare’s research on breathing and heart rate variability. The ancient Chinese texts, Brown said, instructed beginning students to learn slow “natural” breathing first, to restore yin to the body, which is related to the parasympathetic nervous system. And once they’d mastered that, they were given fast breathing exercises to generate yang, which parallels the sympathetic system. Then, in the final stage, they returned to slow breathing to integrate and balance the practice.
One of the most startling studies on the effectiveness of slow breathing was done by Italian cardiologist Luciano Bernardi. He had a group of professional mountain climbers practice breathing at a pace of six breaths per minute for one hour a day for a two-year period while they were preparing for a Mount Everest ascent, and then compared their performance with a similar group of elite climbers who didn’t do slow-breathing training. Both groups reached the summit, but the slow-breathing climbers did so without using auxiliary oxygen and averaged about 10 breaths per minute at the end of the climb, while the other climbers resorted to oxygen and finished breathing twice as fast at their counterparts. Another surprising result was that the slow-breathing climbers were able to use 80% of their lungs’ surface during the climb, which is essentially the maximum possible and about four times greater than that of average breathers.
The core of Brown and Gerbarg’s program focuses on three exercises: 1) coherent breathing at a pace of five to six breaths per minute; 2) resistance breathing, characterized by a slight tightening at the back of the throat on the exhale; and 3) moving breathing, an innovative way of using the imagination to circulate energy throughout the body. These exercises, taking about 10 minutes total, have been shown to help balance the autonomic stress-response system, relieve anxiety and other symptoms of stress, and improve sleep. According to Brown, they are particularly effective when combined with an additional 10 minutes of movement and meditation.
Brown and Gerbarg have spent a good deal of time over the past two decades teaching breathing exercises to survivors of mass disasters, including the 9/11 World Trade Center attack, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and the Sudan and Rwanda genocides. One of the studies they did after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami showed that slow-breathing practices dramatically reduced symptoms of PTSD and depression—in a matter of days, in some cases.
“What trauma does is disrupt the healthy balance of different parts of our nervous system, which are meant to work together,” said Brown. “When people have to strive to survive, their stress response becomes overactive and the soothing part of the system declines. But we’ve found that you can bring it back into balance by shifting the way you breathe. More research needs to be done on this, but our feeling is that breathing breaks the link between negative emotions and the memory of events. It kind of washes away the stored pattern of the incident and reformats your cerebral cortex.”
A moving example is the story of Sonya, an office worker who was miraculously rescued from the World Trade Center. She’d been working in the towers during the previous attack in 1993, so she didn’t hesitate when the first plane crashed into her building on 9/11. She got up from her desk on the 80th floor and started running down the stairs in high heels as fast as she could. Halfway down the stairwell, she collapsed from exhaustion, but two men carried her the rest of the way, in total darkness except for the faint glow of a distant policeman’s flashlight. Twenty seconds after they escaped, the building collapsed.
Afterward, Sonya developed PTSD and was constantly haunted by anxiety, nightmares, and unbearable feelings of distress. She tried conventional treatment, medication, and some alternative approaches, including resistance breathing. But nothing seemed to work. Finally, seven years later, she signed up for one of Brown’s and Gerbarg’s workshops and made an impressive recovery. At the end of the weekend, she revealed this was the first time since the tragedy that she felt as if she’d gotten her life back.
Making Friends with the Breath
My experience was somewhat less dramatic. But I spent a few weeks practicing Brown and Gerbarg’s exercises, using the CD included with their book, and was impressed by the calming and energizing effect the techniques had on me. I think it helped that I had done Vranich’s intense workouts and had a greater command of my breathing muscles. At one point, I was so immersed in the long five-breaths-per-minute sequence that I lost the self-consciousness I’d often experienced meditating, and let myself surf along with the breath. The years I’d spent terrified of my breathing suddenly faded into memory.
A few weeks later, I did my last BIQ reading with Dr. Vranich. It seemed almost anticlimactic, given everything we’d been through, but the tale of the tape was indisputable. My inhale measurement was 41½ inches and my exhale 37¾ inches, for a total of 3.75 inches and 99% vital lung capacity.
“Congratulations, sir, you’re a completely horizontal breather!” she exclaimed. Then, without missing a beat, she added, “Now that you’re an A student, why not go for an A-plus?”
You must be joking, I said to myself. But looking into her eyes, I realized that in her view, despite all the work I’d done, I’d just skimmed the surface.
Jim Morningstar, a psychologist I interviewed for this story, describes the breath as one of our most intimate companions because we can’t go for more than a couple of minutes without it. “When you connect with your breath, you’re connecting with your spirit,” he said. “That’s the experience many people have doing breathwork. After a while, they’re not breathing anymore. They’re being breathed.”
Clearly, I still had a long way to go. But I was excited about the next part of the journey because my relationship with my breath had shifted. To borrow Humphrey Bogart’s famous line, it felt as if this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Practice: A Daily Breathing Practice to Bring Balance to Your Life
In her book Breathe, Belisa Vranich says this five-minute routine will allow you to reset your body after a particularly stressful day by drenching every cell in it with oxygen—it will be a welcome relief to a body that’s been flooded with carbon dioxide and low oxygen, adrenaline, and caffeine. The exercise will also allow you to quiet your mind so you can hear yourself think and will help you feel centered, balanced, and more connected to your feelings and the feelings of others.
Duration: two minutes
- Lying on your back, put one hand on your belly and one on the top of your chest.
- Breathe through your mouth in order to take in as much oxygen as possible.
- The first inhale should make your belly rise. (The hand on your chest should not move.) Then, without exhaling, take another inhale and fill the top of your lungs. (This time the hand will move.) These two inhales should be distinct, even if the second one is small.
- Exhale enthusiastically, for the same amount of time as the two inhales took, combined.
- Make sure to continue breathing through your mouth for the entire first part. The first time you try this, you may feel like you’ve hit a wall after 20 breaths or so. If that happens, encourage yourself calmly and firmly to continue breathing. However, don’t push yourself too hard.
Duration: three minutes
- Move your hands away from your body. Rest your arms at your sides, palms up. Let your feet fall outward. You may keep breathing through your mouth or switch to your nose. Relax your lips, your face, and the roof of your mouth. Let your tongue get heavy. Very important: Let your jaw relax. Pay attention to your cheeks, ears, and neck, relaxing them with each exhale. Relax your shoulders and the rest of your body.
- Continue scanning your body to ensure that you’re not holding tension anywhere. Imagine that with each inhale you are letting yourself float a little higher, and with each exhale you are letting yourself sink a little deeper. Try to move your mind away from thinking and simply keep your attention on your physical sensations. Observe your breath as if you were watching another person.
- As Vranich points out, “Relaxing your body so that stress hormones and blood pressure decrease recharges your battery within minutes and encourages mindfulness. Do it as often as possible, ideally every day.”
Keywords; breathing, relaxation, health