This time of the year can be overwhelming for many of us and easy to let the busyness of the season chip away at good wellness practices that we might normally have. There is a simple exercise that we can do anywhere, anytime for even just a few minutes at a time. Breathing.
With centuries old roots in Eastern practices like mediation, yoga, tai chi and Buddhism, the simple act of breathing has incredible benefits to the body and mind, including relieving stress and anxiety, promoting better sleep and supporting treatment of certain health conditions related to the lungs and heart.
Benefits of Breathing Exercises
- Improves Focus and Mindfulness -- Breathing exercises force you to concentrate on the pace and depth of your breath. That means in most cases you are choosing a quiet and comfortable place and time to do this. You are actively working on taking in and pushing out air, which means you are replacing all of life’s distractions with this practice of inhalation and exhalation. You are focused on your body and mindful of what you are doing and feeling.
- Lowers Blood Pressure – When we are stressed or anxious, our blood pressure goes up and the natural “fight or flight” response kicks in. Conscious deep breathing can help slow down that nervous system response by causing the blood vessels to relax and widen, which lowers the blood pressure. Among those who practice breathing exercises regularly, many choose to lie down during their breathing exercises which also lowers blood pressure.
- Fights Depression and Lifts Mood – Studies show that breathing can help alleviate symptoms of depression and improve mood. A University of Pennsylvania medical school study cited yogic breathing as an effective technique for medicated patients with major depressive disorder.
- Reduces Cortisol – Often referred to as the stress hormone, cortisol can be good and bad for us, just as there are good and bad stresses in our lives. While it helps your body respond to stressful situations, high cortisol levels for a long time can lead to weight gain, high blood pressure, chronic fatigue, sleep problems, brain function, depression and other health issues.
- Improves Sleep – The Centers for Disease Control says one in three American adults are not getting enough sleep on a regular basis, and this is dangerous to mental and physical health. Sleep experts recommend breathing exercises or mediation as an easy and effective ways to prepare the body and mind for sleep by relaxing the muscles, trigger sleep-promoting hormones.
- Prevents Cardiovascular Disease – With cardiovascular disease as the leading cause of death for men and women in the U.S., one of the most important preventative health measures we can take is managing risk factors of heart disease. It’s also been shown to improve survival rates and quality of life for patients. Yoga and pranayama, a slow breathing component of yoga, are identified in an article from the National Institute of Health as an important nonpharmacologic intervention – in other words, a way to reduce the risk of heart attacks without the use of medications.
Top takeaway: Breathing is a natural and involuntary activity of the body that when harnessed with intention by us can be one the most powerful tools to create wellness. It also happens to cost absolutely nothing and requires no skills – just breathe in and out, think about the sensation of filling your lungs and then relaxing as push out the air, and repeat.
Trivia takeaway: We mentioned pranayama as a breathing practice in yoga. “Prana” means life force or energy source, and “yama” means control or restraint.