Whats happening and how we feel about it changes our heart’s beat and our breathes’ rhythm.
In reverse our physiology responds to different breathing frequencies. Like a magic formula for producing specific internal states just by breathing faster or slower. Our stress status then colours our mental and emotional experience. Breathing is one way to reset the system and its not so much a button as a dial.
The links are bidirectional, standing between breathe and mind is the autonomic nervous system.
To understand how breathing exercises work one essential view is to look at the frequency of breathing. The length of a single inhale and exhale can be timed and the number of breaths per minute gives a frequency. Those frequencies are the markings on the dial.
Breath too fast and we go into sympathetic output. But breath too slow and we shock ourselves into what Stephen Porges found, the reptilian old vagal system.
In between fast and slow there is an ideal length of breath which puts us into a perfect stress free state where the mammalian vagal system extends to our mood. It’s calm, warm and secure, emotionally available and mentally refreshed. Spoiler alert! Its happens when breathing around 5 – 6 breaths per minute for 10 minutes.
In my last blog on Natural Breathing I mentioned how our involuntary uncontrolled breath changes with our metabolic state. It responds quickly to our energy requirements. When we are using more energy while exercising we need to breath more to keep up with our bodies demand for oxygen. And obviously when we are really relaxed our breath frequency becomes smaller and approaches an ideal minimum. Yet for many people the inner psycho-emotional play of the mind keeps us at a constantly elevated level and so the breath does not slow down optimally.
In this blog Ill touch on the big picture of different breath frequencies and focus in on the one mentioned above which gives a balanced effect. Its called equal breathing a.k.a. samma vrtti, coherent breathing or resonant breathing and even..…even breathing.
Our resting rate of breathing could be anywhere from 5 – 20 breathes per minute. Because the breath rate is responding to internal energy use it is a mirror of our stress levels. It’s very healthy to have a low frequency like 5 – 7 breaths per minute as a natural standard.
Someone who has a higher breath frequency like 10 or above usually has a rapid and shallow breath style. The problem with overbreathing Ill describe in another post where I discuss hyperventilation. Hyperventilation causes oxygen supply to diminish its as dire a health deficit as sleep deprivation or malnutrition.
Breathing rapidly for a short period can be a great exercise for stimulation and it can produce a nice afterglow if combined with breath holding. But I wouldnt recommend it as a core practice.
You might wonder why I dont suggest that very slow breathing should produce a bigger and faster change to reduce stress? The answer is complicated. Going too far into parasympathetic territory is an acquired taste which can give the wrong effects to the uninitiated. Maybe you can already hold your breath for 5 minutes or have years of pranayama under your belt, then OK. But its a different kind of magic.
We can think of the economy of ideal breathing just like a kind of socially egalitarian environmentally benevolent model of finance. The ideal is to take only what is needed and to have a minimum of requirements.
Now a few people are really struggling to make ends meet underbreathing with some chronic disease causing metabolic difficiency. Many more people overbreath and hyperventilate. As though they earn a lot of low value currency and spend it all. The ideal is too draw enough energy to take care of all needs, not too much and not too little. Then the parasympatheitc system can get about its business of storing energy and restoring health.
I’m happy to say that there is a valid and well documented relationship between breathing and metabolism. Its been often said that the length of life can be measured in the number of breaths and there solid physiological evidence to back up this ancient wisdom.
The best breath rate is slow with medium depth when we are at rest.
Changing our breath rapidly alters our metabolic or energetic state. This happens automatically without our awareness and is managed by the autonomic nervous system.
The amazing potential of breathing is real because by changing our breathing we can change our stress state. The changes last as well, by exercising we retrain our norms.
To put it simply when we breath slowly we move to a parasympathetic state and when we breath fast we shift to a sympathetic state. The parasympathetic state is when we feel safe and when we are saving energy and healing, in fact the immune system is suppressed by the hormones of the sympathetic state.
The best way to start altering the breath is to slow down the frequency keeping the length of the inhale and exhale equal. This is known in pranayama as Sama Vritti or equal breathing.
I mentioned above that the frequency of the breath changes the stress level in a general average way. Well its also true that every inhalation elevates sympathetic activity and every exhale moves us to parasympathetic.
Equal length breathing is the most balanced way to gradually decrease stress and become relaxed and calm.
The speed of the heart beat responds to inhalation by speeding up and it slows down with every exhalation. This pattern is maximised when we are already relaxed but can be lost when we are stressed. The change in heart rate can be felt by taking the pulse while breathing slowly and smoothly. Its called Respiratory Sinus Arrythmia this alternating frequency and its a very good thing. Dr Stephen Porges has done amazing work examining how the Heart rate is variable and that more variability happens when we are in a parasympathetic state.
So the ideal form of breathing is equal breathing. With an equal length inhale and exhale. Most people will be able to do this comfortably with a 5 second count. Breath in for 5 seconds and breath out for 5 seconds, dont hold the breath and dont breath forcefully. Do this for 5 or 10 minutes and then relax with natural breathing for a few minutes.
To make the most of this practice do it in a relaxed and gentle way. Feel the air moving in the nose and let it flow. Dont be too tight with the breathing or with the way you watch your breathing. Less judgement and more flow.
Now its a very curious thing that the Heart Rate variability has a unique maximum for everyone at a certain frequency. Scientists have observed Yogi’s when they enter their most relaxed states and found that they breathe in a slow rythmic way with a specific frequency regardless of the techn ique of meditation used. Check out the work of Elmer Green who conducted these studies in the 1970’s.
This ideal frequency of breaths per minute happens for everyone and is between 4 and 7 breaths per minute.
Breathing in and out at 5 seconds per phase makes a 10 second breath which produces a 6 breath per minute frequency. If you dont have anyone to help you to measure heart rate variability then this is a good starting place.
If you happen to have large lungs and are super fit you might find that 6 seconds feels a little better than 5 seconds. Whats more important is to keep the count the same and breath with this frequency for 5 – 20 minutes.
This exercise can be done standing sitting or lying down. Its ideal to relax the body and have the eyes closed while breathing through the nose. If you are a Yogi you can of course use whichever asana and mudras you like. I love teaching breathing and would use many different technique to really get the best results, but it works well with this simple example.
In Yoga this is called Samma Vrtti or equal breathing and it has recently been validated scientifically and rebranded as Coherent breathing or resonant breathing.
Breathe equally and the pattern of breathing is mirrored by the heart rate responding to changes in Autonomic Control. The autonomic is like a relay station between heart and breath. The Autonomic then extends it grace tthe way our mind is working.
Something else very interesting happens. Our diaphragm which is a large muscle of breathing has a second function. It moves blood away from the lungs when we inhale and towards the lungs when we exhale. During Equal breathing the diaphragm starts to pump blood in phase with the heart rate changes.
All of these different systems, the respiratory, the cardiovascular, the autonomic fall into rhythm when we breath equally.
Id suggest that this is the first pranayama for anyone to learn. Anyone can do this practice and receive healing. But its just the beginning of a very complex system when we also use very slow breathing, rapid breathing and breath holding to give power and resilience.
If you like what your reading I go into lots of physiological detail when I run Breathing Corses and Teacher Training. The techniques are simple but multi layered and coloured with lots of detail. I share the secrets of how to blend different techniques and how to teach this safely to get the best results.