Stress, Immune Function, and the Magic of Breathing
by Tim Keim, IAYT Certified Yoga Therapist, Clinical Ayurvedic Specialist
What’s magic about breathing? Breathing is automatic – we don’t need to think about it – it just happens, right? Yes, breathing is automatic as a part of the autonomic nervous system and normal bodily function. But, as you may have noticed, we can take conscious control of the breath, and that’s where the magic begins.
First, let’s go back to the wisdom of our ancient ancestors. It doesn’t take much research to see the value they placed on the conscious control of the breath. If you’ve read this column in the past, you know that my area of study is yoga and Ayurveda, the healing side of yoga that dates back over 5,000 years to south Asia. This tradition, which descends to us from the shamanism of pre-history, bequeaths to us easy-to-use, safe, effective, nonpharmaceutical methods for managing stress, mood and well-being with the power of the conscious breath – the very act that keeps us alive!
As yoga and Ayurveda were transplanted to the West in the early 20th Century, anecdotal reports of their health benefits began to appear in works authored by their practitioners and the popular media. As these reports began to pile up, it became obvious that people were getting benefit from these practices and neuroscientists began researching the effects of mind/body techniques.
Stress, as we’ve all come to realize, decreases our ability to fight disease. For instance, poor breathing hygiene depresses immune function and reduces lymphocytes that guard against infection. We create chronic stress in our bodies with shallow chest-breathing that fails to fully engage the diaphragm, the primary breathing muscle.
The diaphragmatic breath stimulates the vagus nerve which releases acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that regulates emotional response. Additionally, up to half of our dopamine, the reward neurotransmitter, is produced in the gut. The full diaphragmatic breath signals the brain to release dopamine, relieving pain and increasing a feeling of wellbeing.
Combining diaphragmatic breath with yoga postures showed an increase in production of GABA, gamma-aminobutyric acid, reducing excessive, anxious mental activity. This practice, it is hypothesized, “directly impacts the brain” by stimulating the vagus nerve.
With the barrage of bad news pouring from the media during the pandemic, fear, worry and anxiety are running high. Modern science confirms what our ancient ancestors knew so long ago – repetitive, conscious, slow diaphragmatic breathing diffuses negative emotions and encourages optimism, faith and positive action.
So, how do we reclaim our calm by practicing this breath technique?
Sit in any comfortable posture with the shoulders gently rolled back so the chest is open. Take a few slow breaths and let them go with long, slow sighs. Sighing helps relieve stress in and of itself.
Place your hands on your belly and apply gentle pressure to the abdomen. Breathe against this pressure and feel the belly swell rather than become concave. Notice the breath spreading into the pelvis supplying deep, relaxing massage as it rises into the navel, solar plexus, and heart. Pause for a brief moment at the top of the inhalation to feel the delicious fullness of the lungs and to refocus your attention on the breath.
Release the breath slowly and use the abdominal muscles to gently exhale. Pause here to reset the attention.
Watch each stage of the breath as it rises and falls to help maintain your full attention. To help concentrate the mind on the breath, count each stage of the breath as you inhale and exhale. If the mind wanders, gently bring the attention back to the flow of breath.
Practice this mindful breathing technique for 5–10 minutes to begin with and gradually increase your time and benefit. You can also lie on your belly initially to get a good feel for how the diaphragm pushes into the ground. This is the same natural breath we use when we’re sleeping.
With consistent practice we develop stronger mental capacity that reduces fear, worry and anxiety. It was this very practice that helped me quit antidepressants seven years ago. My regular practice of yoga with conscious diaphragmatic breath has helped me strengthen my nervous system so that I can now do without pharmaceutical chemicals.
Our simple, conscious breath gives us the power to build a consistent state of physical and emotional health. Good cheer and a buoyant mental outlook, it turns out strengthen immune function and make us more resistant to disease. The primal force of the quickening breath, common to us all, is our great reservoir of happy resolve and enduring connection to the Universal Life Force.
From this self-renewing fountain we can live victoriously and make the kind of contributions we are uniquely qualified to offer our families and communities.
Tim Keim is an IAYT Certified Yoga Therapist and Clinical Ayurvedic Specialist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.