Mind-Body Connection: Breathing for Relaxation
by Neil Rasmussen, BS, FRCms, LMT
Science used to say that our autonomic nervous system was inherently outside our conscious abilities to influence. Over the last few years this has been proven wrong via studies of mindfulness and breathwork. These skills have absolute potential to regulate our autonomic nervous system (the “fight or flight” and “rest and digest” components) through a spectrum of context. We all have this ability to get into a more parasympathetic (relaxed) state upon conscious choice.
With the following points of focus we train our nervous system to shift into more relaxed states (parasympathetic states). Parasympathetic breathing is a mindfulness technique in which we guide our nervous system by:
Breathing in smoothly through our nose
Using our diaphragm throughout the breathing cycle
Extending (or at least bring more awareness to) the exhalation
Setting mind/intention for our goal
Slowing our breathing rate over time
I recommend practicing each of these individually and over time integrate multiple, and eventually all, simultaneously. It is best to practice this proactively to prepare for future moments of stress. Life is inevitably stressful, but if we wait for the stress to hit it is often too late for our techniques to be effective. If we do this exercise immediately in the morning (even while still lying in bed, perhaps during a snooze cycle) for even just a few minutes we prepare ourselves to access this skill when necessary.
Here is a video with some exercises to get better at this type of breathing:
As shown in the video, we can practice Parasympathetic-stimulation Breathing with specific exercises like belly breathing or lateral expansion breathing. It often helps to use our hands as feedback to monitor how we are mechanically breathing during our practice, but eventually awareness is enough to regulate breath mechanics. This breathing may be done from many different positions such as:
Lying on back with knees bent (or pillow under knees)
Seated; try to be upright in posture without being too rigid
Anywhere else in life
As you become aware of unhealthy stress tendencies and mental habits, this simple exercise will allow better access to balanced biochemistry and psychological resilience day-to-day.
While mindfulness has amazing potential to help us relax, I also want to shine light on the benefits of mindful living through all components of the human experience. By integrating mindful breathing into life we have the potential to influence our:
Heart Rate Variability
Nervous System states
Brain Tissue Structures
If we carry a mindful perspective into more of our day (beyond just when we are stressed or when we are trying to relax) we are also likely to experience life with more ease and balance naturally over time. We can be mindful during high-intensity situations, loving experiences, healing moments, suffering and much more. Learning basic relaxation skills is a great place to start, but as we continue we may learn that here lies a near-infinite depth of self-discovery and connections to be explored.
For Now, start with a simple, mindful, nasal inhalation to your belly and then exhale letting allllllll the air out...pffffffffffff..