As a yoga teacher and massage therapist I'm well aware of the importance of the breath and it's effects on the body. However, a recent NPR story about the effects of the breath amazed even me. Research has begun to show that the breath might actually affect the expression of our genes.
While the research hasn't shown that cancer can be prevented or cured by breathing, the implications are startling. How well we breath could determine what illnesses we suffer from as we age.
It's already well known that the breath affects hypertension and that those who regularly practice diaphragmatic or three-part breathing have lower blood-pressure. Other illnesses such as asthma, anxiety, depression and heart disease have also been shown to improve with breathing techniques. What's more, is that since many illnesses are stress related and breathing helps combat stress, it stands to reason that breathing could possibly help stave off some illnesses.
The story also said that the breath is the body's natural stress reducer. The breath directly impacts the vagus nerve which is the on/off switch for stress. When we practice diaphragmatic breath we send a signal to the nervous system to turn off the stress response. Yes, it's that simple.
The bad news is that we don't naturally breath using our diaphrams, especially during times of stress and tension. It has to be learned and practiced.
Most people are chest-breathers meaning that the breath comes from the chest and not the diaphragm. Since the lungs don't move on their own they need the diaphragm to help pull air in. If you're not using your diaphragm you aren't getting much oxygen in and your body begins to feel deprived. Tiredness can result.
As the holiday season is upon us and many of us are moving at a frantic pace trying to get all the shopping, baking etc done with all the other usual tasks we have on our plate, it's a good idea to stop and breath for a moment. Chances are if you've been rushing about, you've been breathing shallowly in your chest. These means that your body will remain in fight or flight mode until you tell it otherwise. This will make your frantic pace seem all the more frantic.You might remember to take a deep breath here and there but it takes more than a couple to truly calm the nervous system down.
A Christmas song on the radio I've been hearing lately sings about needing "a silent night. A break from all the chaos and the noise." It reminds me that we sometimes need more than just a moment to breathe but a quiet evening. It can be hard during this season but worth the effort. I'm planning to give myself an entire week off this Christmas so the studio will be closed from Dec. 22-Jan. 1 with class resuming Jan. 2.
Don't forget to breathe and don't forget to create space for the breath this holiday season. I wish you a merry Christmas and a happy, healthy New Year full of many calming breaths.