Close your mouth and breathe in through your nose for a count of four. Notice how your lungs expand, how your abdomen rises, how your diaphragm descends. Take a short pause. Then exhale slowly, also through your nose, feeling the warmth of the air that comes out of your body.
And count again: one, two, three, four. If you breathe following these instructions, consider yourself initiated in pranayama, the ancient breathing technique applied by those who practice yoga imported from the East that the West has made fashionable by appealing to its healthful effects.
Reducing pain and lengthening your life through controlled breathing
Those who argue that controlling breathing helps to be healthy are not misguided, among other things because deep and slow breathing reduces sensitivity to pain [source].
In addition, people with problems such as heartburn and gastroesophageal reflux do quite well if they train their breathing, according to a study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology.
By taking in and releasing air in a controlled way, we stimulate the vagus nerve, the main component of the autonomic nervous system.
And what’s the effect of that?
Well, numerous studies suggest that a high vagal tone reduces the levels of inflammation in the body [source], improves cardiovascular function, reduces blood pressure and helps the proper functioning of the metabolism.
In short, as a study published in the journal ‘Breath’, of the European Respiratory Society, recently concluded, it is not unreasonable to affirm that controlled and slow breathing, at a rate of six to 10 inspirations and exhalations per minute, reduces mortality and lengthens life [source].
Pranayama and its calming effect
Scientists at the Stanford University School of Medicine (USA) recently launched a search for the neuroscientific and molecular basis for the relaxing effect of pranayama breathing. It is jealously guarded by a handful of 175 neurons, deep in the brain stem, which serve as a bridge between breathing and mental states of relaxation, excitement and anxiety.
To be exact, these nerve cells are located in what experts call a respiratory pacemaker. Mark Krasnow and his colleagues say that their range of possibilities is extensive: we breathe in very different ways whether we sleep, get excited, gasp, yawn, sigh, laugh out loud or sob.
The interesting thing is that the neurons identified by Krasnow “spy” on these rhythms and send messages to the cerulean locus, a fundamental center in the response to stress. Depending on the rhythm of the breath, these messages will be calm, alert or even an invitation to enter a state of anxiety.
After all, if there is an organ that is sensitive to the evolution of respiration, it is the brain. To the point that human beings identify a scared face more easily if we observe it when the air enters through the nose than if it is shown to us while we empty our lungs.
Nasal breathing and its effects on memory
It has also been shown that we remember an object better if we see it inhaling air than if it is shown to us during exhalation. The explanation for this surprising phenomenon was found by a team of neurologists from Northwestern University (USA).
By observing the brain in action, the researchers found that there were differences in the activity of the amygdala – the fear center – and the hippocampus – the seat of memory – in the moments of taking in and releasing air.
When we breathe in, we stimulate the neurons of the olfactory cortex, the amygdala and the hippocampus, but not when exhaling. Interestingly, this is only valid when we breathe through the nose.
The conclusion is clear: in dangerous situations, breathing quickly gives us advantages because we spend more time inhaling than if we breathe slowly.
“Our innate response to fear, the one that makes us breathe faster, has a positive impact on brain function and gives us faster response times,” says Christina Xelano, co-author of the study. As Salvador Dalí said, “life is to inhale, breathe and expire”. And now we have scientific guidelines on how to do the latter wisely.