During a community yoga class that I took many years ago, the instructor described a typical morning scenario that included rushing to get ready for work and the kids off to school. He suggested that our breathing in this situation was likely to be quick and shallow, or that we may even be holding our breath. The resulting tension could affect the rest of our day, negatively impacting our interactions with others.
I have remembered his observation many times over the years, and it always reminds me to stop and breathe deeply, if only for a few moments. This has been especially helpful during the current period of increased stress on our bodies and minds.
READ THE STORY IN THIS MONTH’S ISSUE
While eliminating all stress is impossible, and maybe not entirely desirable, it is possible to elicit the opposite of the stress response—the relaxation response. Developed as a technique in the 1970s by Harvard cardiologist Dr. Herbert Benson, this term describes a restorative state of rest that can buffer the body and mind against stress.
The relaxation response can be fostered through a variety of activities including yoga, meditation and progressive muscle relaxation. Paying attention to breath was found to be an important component of all these activities. Better yet, the act of diaphragmatic breathing itself has been found to elicit the relaxation response, due in part to stimulation of the body’s vagus nerve.
In a 2019 Scientific American article, Psychiatrist Christopher André wrote, “When the vagus nerve is stimulated, calmness pervades the body: the heart rate slows and becomes regular; blood pressure decreases; muscles relax. When the vagus nerve informs the brain of these changes, it too, relaxes, increasing feelings of peacefulness.”
To read more about the importance of mindful breathing, check out the recent bestseller Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, by science journalist James Nestor. It’s available in print, digital or audio formats. I also recommend Breathe: Simple Breathing Techniques for a Calmer, Happier Life by yoga teacher Jean Hall. Find these titles and more at cadl.org/catalog.
Cheryl Lindemann is a collection development specialist at Capital Area District Libraries, and a co-host of the Reader’s Roundtable Podcast.