Over the past few weeks I have written articles on cortisol, meditation and heart rate variability.
Well todays article is all about the basics of breath work. This topic links in nicely with the above articles already written and how breath work can assist in reducing cortisol, shifting your heart rate variability and can be used in conjunction with meditation.
So lets start by explaining what exactly breath work is.
Breath Work is basically a series of different type of breathing exercises which can affect different parts of the body. I will cover the basic exercises later in the article but first you need to understand something called the HPA axis and how this is linked to stress and cortisol.
The Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis describes the interaction between the hypothalamus, pituitary gland and adrenal glands.
The main function generally attributed to the HPA axis involves the body's reaction to stress. When something stressful happens to us, our initial response is mediated by the sympathetic nervous system. This response occurs almost immediately, and results in the secretion of epinephrine and norepinephrine, both of which work to enact changes that you would generally expect if you felt stressed or frightened, like increased heart rate and perspiration.
Almost immediately the HPA axis is stimulated. The hypothalamus responds to signals like elevated norepinephrine levels by secreting corticotrophin-releasing-hormone into the bloodstream. This hormone increases the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, perpetuating effects like elevated heart rate. The pituitary gland then releases further hormones into the bloodstream, which travel down to the adrenal cortex and leads to a series of intracellular events that result in the adrenal glands secreting the hormone cortisol.
While proper functioning of the HPA axis is essential for dealing with stress, there is a problem when the HPA axis is stimulated too much. This can lead to physical and psychiatric problems. Individuals with elevated cortisol levels may experience a suppressed immune system response, making them more susceptible to infection and repeated HPA axis activation has been linked to type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease. Cortisol has also been demonstrated to have detrimental effects on memory and cognition, and high cortisol levels are implicated in mood disorders like depression.
So as you can see too much secretion of cortisol is a bad thing and will cause chronic stress.
So how do you fix a HPA Axis Dysfunction?
The simple answer is with breath work. Research as shown there is a definite link between stress and breath. For example when you take short rapid breaths this stimulates the fight or flight sympathetic nervous system and when you take slow deep breaths you stimulate the rest and digest parasympathetic nervous system.
Here is a list of the different types of breath work you can try and see which one you prefer.
1. Box Breathing
This technique is simple to learn and is the one I personally use. It is sometimes referred to as 4-4-4-4 breathing. Imagine you are completing a box. Start by inhaling through your nose for 4 seconds. Then hold your breath for 4 seconds. Then exhale through your mouth for 4 seconds then hold the exhale for a further four seconds completing the box. This technique done a few times helps you enter a relaxed state.
2. 4-7-8 Breathing
Now this one is very similar to box breathing. I have tried this one but find it harder. Start by inhaling through your nose for 4 seconds. Then hold your breath for 7 seconds. Then exhale through your mouth for 8 seconds. Repeat this one three times.
3. Control Pause (CP) Technique
This technique is used to measure your control pause interval. Start by normal breathing through your nose then after you have exhaled normally pinch your nose. Then measure you time until you feel the need to breath again. A good score is one above 30 seconds. A score below 15 seconds would indicate respiratory issues anxiety and stress. When practiced your interval can be improved upon. My CP is currently 25 seconds so I need improvement.
4. Mouth Taping
This involves purchasing some surgical tape and taping over your mouth prior to sleep. This forces you to breath through your nose and learn nasal breathing. After a while your body does become conditioned to it and you no longer use the tape. Breathing through your nose induces a relaxed state before and during sleep.
5. Alternate Nose Breathing
This one find its roots in early Hinduism when it was used to invoke Kundalini a divine energy located at the base of the spine. This is an important concept in Tantric practice.
To do this close your right nostril and breath out through your left nostril. Then breath in through your left nostril and press it closed and breath out through your right nostril. Then breath in through your right nostril and then pinch your right and breath out through your left. Im sure you get the idea. This is believed to be a potent stress reducing tactic.
These are just a few of the common breath work techniques. If you wish to delve deeper into the practice of breath work there are a couple of books which explain this fully. They are
Normal Breathing- The Key To Vital Health by Artour Rakhimor and
The Power Of Your Breath by Anders Olsson.
The above methods are know ways of reducing cortisol and shifting your heart rate variability from a sympathetic state into a parasympathetic state. These methods can be practiced prior to eating. This enables your body to get into a parasympathetic state which allows your body to digest food easier. Also this can be practiced prior to sleep in order to reduce cortisol and place your body in a parasympathetic state. These methods also work well when meditating.
Well I hope this has given you an insight into breath work