Using your breath to boost your health and well-being
Updated: Oct 11
We are living in an unprecedented moment. Every person around the world is experiencing changes: new daily routines; shifts in relationships and roles; loss of work for many, overwhelming or new risks at work for others; financial shortfalls; concerns for the health of loved ones and ourselves. Hardships that might have seemed manageable under normal circumstances become harder to deal with, and we are separated in many ways from our usual support systems. The uncertainty of how to balance new challenges and how to prepare for what’s to come is emotionally exhausting. It can lead to destabilization of mental and physical health. Engaging in a conscientious breathing practice cannot prevent or cure COVID-19, but it can help your body prepare to fight the virus should you come into contact with it.
How is this possible? In response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, the global population is experiencing a tremendous increase in both acute and chronic in stress. This is particularly dangerous as the natural human response to stress – the activation of the sympathetic side of the autonomic nervous system -- represses the immune system. A mindful breathing practice can help to bring your immune system back to a more robust state of being.
The physiological effects of stress on the body
In a perfect world, a strong stress response is a good thing. It is our nervous system’s way of telling us that it perceives a threat and prepares our body to survive. It increases our heart rate and opens our blood vessels. This allows blood can move quickly to our arms and legs so we can fight off a predator or jump out of the way of an oncoming car. When the stress response is triggered it also shuts down body systems that are deemed non-essential in the critical moment, such as digestion and elimination, reproduction, and immune response. When the threat is relatively short-lived, this system increases our chance of survival. After the threat is eliminated or contained, the body switches to a resting response where the internal systems needed to maintain a healthy body come back online. However, when the threat continues for weeks or months or even years, the nervous system and all the other body systems that respond to it can become out of balance. The result is many of the “stress-related” diseases so prevalent in American society today, such as heart disease and diabetes. With the new threat of COVID-19, the hit to our immune system under new and ongoing sources of stress poses an obvious problem.
How does conscientious breathing support the immune system?
The truth is that there are innumerable strategies for reducing stress – working with your hands, getting out in nature, connecting with loved ones, meditating, exercising, etc., etc. I would encourage you to engage in as many stress-reducing activities as you can during these unprecedented times. So why should you also consider spend designated time each day focusing on something you do all day anyway?
Data coming out of some of the top research institutions in the US indicate that regulated breathing activates a small part of the brain called the insula, which regulates the autonomic nervous system – the part of the nervous system that determines whether your systems should be supporting flight or fight, or rest and digest. Breathing is unique among body systems in that it is governed most of the time by the autonomic nervous system AND it can be controlled by your conscious mind. You can choose to breathe in a way that signals to your brain that things are under control, there’s no need to fight the world at the moment. Since we can’t go out right how anyway this is a good time to take care of things from the inside out. This includes devoting energy and resources to boosting the immune system.
What does it mean to breathe in a way that sends the right signals to your brain? To bring balance to your nervous system, the simplest technique is to balance your breathing. That is, measure your breath so that your inhale and exhale are the same length. Even 10 breaths with even inhales and exhales can begin to bring you back into balance. More breaths will bring greater balance. Longer inhales and exhales will also have a more profound effect on your brain, your body, and your mind. If you want to enhance a feeling of calmness further, once you feel balanced, you can begin to extend the exhale so that it longer than the inhale.
Because breathing, or respiration, is part of the autonomic nervous system, it will have the most immediate effect on your stress response.
Breathing exercises can be done anywhere. You don’t have to leave home or get any special equipment.
Breathing exercises can be done anytime and don’t require a lot of time. In fact, the more you practice, the quicker you’ll notice your body’s physiological response each time.
Starting a breath practice is as easy as taking 10 breaths with equal inhales and exhales before you start your breakfast each morning.
If you need some inspiration to get started, please enjoy this recording of a 5 minute exercise to help you achieve balance and calmness.
Amy Santullo, Yoga Therapy with Amy, Chapter 122
Amy Santullo is a certified yoga therapist and yoga teacher. She takes great satisfaction in sharing what she has learned with others so they can adapt time-tested and accessible practices to improve their own well-being. She has been a member of WNA Chapter 122 since October 2019. Amy holds a RTY-500 designation from Yoga Alliance and C-IAYT certification through the American Viniyoga Institute. To learn more about her work please visit www.yogatherapywithamy.com.