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On Breathing

I once shared an office with someone who periodically held her breath for long periods when she was working on something stressful. She had no idea.

It was maddening. Mostly because I knew she was a mirror of me at my most stressed.

Have you ever caught yourself holding your breath?

I'm better at catching myself then I used to be. I use my trusty mantra:

"When I breathe in, I breathe in peace. When I breathe out, I breathe out love."

We have all been breathing since we came into this world. You'd think we'd instinctively breathe in the optimum rhythm for any situation. But, when we feel nervous, the sympathetic stress response kicks in and the breath quickens. It's the ancient fight or flight response.

When I started practicing yogic breathing many years ago. I was amazed to discover how a longer exhale helped me to calm myself. Having suffered for years with anxiety, I find solace in pranayama or breath practices. They help me get to sleep, calm me so can I focus and can energize me when I feel tired. I use them everyday and continue to be surprised that they work!

I first heard about James Nestor's book Breath, The New Science of a Lost Art in his interview with NPR's Terry Gross. Nestor's curiosity about the breath has taken him all over the world where he has studied the breathing practices of diverse cultures, religious devotees, deep sea divers who dive without oxygen and pulmonologists who treat people with breathing challenges, among others.

Most interesting to me was his discovery of the optimum breath pattern for managing stress. The point at which breath becomes prayer.

5.5 breaths a minute

Nestor discover those who followed this slow breathing pattern, increased their blood flow to the brain and the systems in their bodies entered a state of coherence, the point at which the functions of heart, circulation, and nervous system are coordinated to peak efficiency.

Nestor found "when Buddhist monks chant their most popular mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum, each spoken phrase lasts six seconds, with six seconds to inhale before the chant starts again."

"The traditional chant of Om, the “sacred sound of the universe” used in Jainism and other traditions, takes six seconds to sing, with a pause of about six seconds to inhale."

"The sa ta na ma chant, one of the best-known techniques in Kundalini yoga, also takes six seconds to vocalize, followed by six seconds to inhale."

"Japanese, African, Hawaiian, Native American, Buddhist, Taoist, Christian—these cultures and religions all had somehow developed the same prayer techniques, requiring the same breathing patterns. And they all likely benefited from the same calming effect."

In a 2001 study researchers at the University of Pavia in Italy asked participants to recite a Buddhist mantra as well as the original Latin version of the rosary, the Catholic prayer cycle of the Ave Maria. The scientists measure blood flow, heart rate, and nervous system feedback. The found the average breaths per cycle was around 5.5 breaths a minute.

"Whenever they followed this slow breathing pattern, blood flow to the brain increased and the systems in the body entered a state of coherence, when the functions of heart, circulation, and nervous system are coordinated to peak efficiency."

Pavia researchers wrote "We believe that the rosary may have partly evolved because it synchronized with the inherent cardiovascular (Mayer) rhythms, and thus gave a feeling of wellbeing, and perhaps an increased responsiveness to the religious message,”

"Prayer heals, especially when it’s practiced at 5.5 breaths a minute."

Other tests have been performed using the slow breathing technique to restore the lungs of 9/11 survivors. In two months, patients had significant improvements.

This 5.5 breaths per minute rate is also called “resonant breathing” or Coherent Breathing. Researchers found that is offered the same benefits as meditation for people who didn’t want to meditate.

If you catch yourself holding your breath, try a simple breath of peace and joy practice. Click HERE to practice with me.

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