The Long Exhale: Power of our Breath

The air was cool and thin. Perched at an altitude of 8,000 feet, the tops of the mountain ranges looked like the blue stepping-stones used by giants to skip between India, China, and Pakistan. Virgin forest surrounded our residence, a wild space, and home to many a creature featured in National Geographic documentaries. We were a small group of four students and our teacher staying just outside of Kufri, India for a month-long meditation teacher training. We nestled into an opening on the dry forest floor about a 30-minute hike from our base. Sitting crossed-legged in a circle we had been practicing pranayama, a yogic practice of controlling the breath. 

 Eyes closed, we as sat as still as a Buddha statue yet gently inhaling and exhaling in rhythmic cycles. Slightly startled, we all opened our eyes, for in the distance we could hear something crashing through the serene forest. As it got closer, it was clear that is was a lot of somethings rather than a single person or creature coming our way. Our teacher held up his hand and suggested we move. I disagreed, as did the other students. Where would we go? We could not see what was coming or exactly which direction it was coming from. Our two-hour long focused meditation and pranayama session had created an extremely peaceful atmosphere around us. Reluctantly, our teacher agreed and we stayed seated focusing on a gentle rhythmic breath. 

 As the noise came closer we managed to stay calm-essentially one of the purposes of mediation, to remain centered despite what is happening in the external world around us.  Suddenly they came into view. Monkeys, lots of them and they were making a beeline straight for our little circle! About 20 feet from us they began abruptly moving to the right and left of us, going around us and rejoining about 20 feet the other side of us, without missing a step. We figured there were five or six families of monkeys moving through the forest, big mamas holding babies and even bigger males. All in all, there were about 60 or so primates. We sat in silent awe. 

 Why did 60 primates just move around the outside of us like that? Why did they not trample through the middle of our small circle or approach angrily? The simple answer is through the power of our breath and the calmness we felt and held as individuals and as a group. Let me explain a little about what I mean and how our breath impacts our internal and external worlds. 

 Breath is an essential part of our existence. No breath equals no life. Pretty obvious but what is less obvious is how we breathe and the internal and external changes we can manifest through simply focusing on our breath. Our small group had created such a powerfully palpable yet peaceful energy field around us that even wild creatures without the same language as us could feel it and thus responded in kind. 

 The meditation section of my posts always mentions focusing on your breath and breathing. Pranayama is the yogic practice of regulating the breath. During yoga sequences, different ways of channeling the breath and holding the breath in the body are honed as vital skills to shift, cleanse, and transform both the body and one’s environment. We can take a breath into and from different areas of the body, which create different results on the body: the throat, heart, upper lungs, lower lungs, full lungs, abdomen, or all of the above. We can also hold the breath as part of a conscious breathing practice or close off one nostril at a time both of which create certain dynamics and changes in the body. 

But we do not need to be skilled yogic practitioners to benefit from focusing on and consciously changing our breathing patterns. At any moment during our day, we can draw our attention towards the breath. The shift in focus immediately changes how we breathe, and likely causes us to take a deep exhale as a result calming our entire physical, emotional, and mental systems. 

 When we are calm or chilled out then our breath is typically slower and deeper. The reverse is true when we are stressed or in high anxiety-provoking situations when our breath becomes shorter and faster. Regardless of how we feel, our bodies communicate that out into the world. Think for a second about walking into a room when someone just received bad news, had an argument, or had lost their temper; there is a distinct feeling in the room. You can ‘feel’ something is off. So too, we notice when a room, space, or person has a calmness or lightness about them such as when we walk into a yoga studio, a baby’s nursery, or are sitting in a meditation circle on an Indian forest floor! By consciously focusing on our breath we can change the way our internal organs react to external stress and as a result, change the way the world responds to us. 

 The human body is made up of all sorts of interconnected veins, vessels, organs, and nerves to name just a few. One of those nerves is called the vagus nerve. It is known as the ‘wandering’ nerve (think vagabond) because it is the longest nerve in the human body and as a result touches on most major organs from the head to the abdomen. Because it is intimately interconnected with a lot of other parts of the body it is vital for our total well-being. There has been a lot of research into the importance of a toned vagus nerve for the treatment of anxiety, IBS, PTSD, weight loss, and positive mental health.

 Research shows that the vagus nerve favors a longer exhale to help calm down the parasympathetic nervous system with a breath ratio of 4:8. What does that mean? 

 Simply take a breath in for the count of 4, pause then exhale to the count of 8. 

 This 4:8 ratio is the simplest form I can share. You can use it anywhere and anytime you begin to feel anxious. The more you practice, the more your vagus nerve becomes toned which in turn helps your body recover from stress faster. 

 

Pranayama Exercise:

 Sit comfortably and place both feet on the floor. Bring your attention to your breath. Do not change anything about how you are breathing; just shift your attention to your breath. 

When you are in a comfortable rhythm try breathing in for a count of 4, pause, and then exhale to the count of 8. Repeat this pattern of breathing for 2 minutes. 

 Citations: 

 Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain-Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders. Front Psychiatry. 2018; 9:44. 2018 Mar 13.         https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5859128/

 Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity. Front Human Neuroscience. 2018; 12:397. 2018 Oct 9.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6189422/