It feels so good to be cared for.
As babies we are dependent on others for comfort, and a nourishing meal or a bath or a good nap is enough to turn any day around.
But, as adults, it’s a little harder to bounce back. We’re busy with responsibilities. We’re overwhelmed. And, when anxieties arise, a good meal or a bath or a nap isn’t always possible! But there is something that is always possible, something that we can do to calm ourselves, anytime, and anywhere. And it’s something that we’ve been doing since the day we were born.
Conscious breathing has the power to soothe. It reduces our anxiety in just moments. The breath has physiological effects on our bodies and brains, and, if we know how to use it, we can calm ourselves with care.
I first discovered the breath in yoga. It may sound silly to say that I discovered my breath when I’ve always had it, but it’s true. As part of the yoga practice, we’re not only instructed on how to move through the poses, but how to breathe as well.
After all, it’s not really yoga if there is no breath!
When I started yoga, I was unaware that the breath had so much importance. I was new to exercise, and it was all I could do to focus on where to put my arms and my legs, how to twist my torso, and where to place my gaze.
But soon I became more aware. In every practice, the instructor provides specific instructions on how and when to breathe. And it’s a special kind of breathing, too. It’s called Ujjayi, or Victorious Breath, and it’s done throughout the practice. One movement, one breath. That’s yoga.
To breathe like this, we’re supposed to constrict the backs of our throats and seal our lips, so the air goes in and out of our noses. This kind of breath makes the sound of the ocean, and, like the ocean itself, it’s meditative. The instructor tells us when to inhale and when to exhale and even reminds us to breathe when a difficult pose makes us hold our breath.
The breath is nature’s way of quelling anxiety. After a practice, regardless of what transpired earlier in the day, the day is no longer as it was! How is this possible? And how does it work for everyone in the practice, especially when none of us are exactly the same, and none of our days are exactly the same, either?
The Gut-Brain Connection
The breath works, no matter who we are, because it activates the vagus nerve, the longest nerve of the autonomic nervous system. It runs from the brain, through the neck and chest, right down to the abdomen, literally linking our minds with our guts. This nerve controls the parasympathetic nervous system, making it responsible for the body’s relaxation response, as opposed to its stress response. When the vagus nerve is activated, a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine is released, delivering calming messages throughout the body.
All this happens with just a few conscious inhales and exhales. And that’s good to know when we’re anxious or feeling out of control, for our breath is always at hand. It’s what lets us care for ourselves. And that’s why it’s works for everyone. It’s universal.
Breathing intentionally does more than just calm the mind. When the vagus nerve is activated, not only does it relax our brain waves, but it also helps our hearts beat at healthy rates, reduces pain and inflammation, and consolidates our memories. Directly connected to the gut, it also regulates chemical levels in our digestive systems, so that we can process food and derive the proper nutrients from our meals. (more…)