Breathing for Brain Health

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When it comes to good health, how you breathe may not be the first thing that comes to mind. 

Practicing deep breathing exercises is one of the best ways to calm an excited nervous system or help us prepare for a great night’s sleep. It’s also an excellent brain fitness workout. We’re all concerned about working out our bodies but working out our brains is something we should also incorporate into our daily routine.

Why Breathing Exercises Help

We live in a constantly moving and changing world. Sometimes we need to take a few minutes out of our busy day to reset our bodies and brains to continue to perform at our best. We all handle stress differently. Some people are better equipped to roll with the punches of daily stress. Others have more difficulty navigating stressful situations. Having a tool in your toolbox to handle stress, such as breathing techniques, can be a great way to eradicate the effects of stress on our bodies and brains.

While there are hundreds of breathing exercises you could do, Dr. Porter recommends two as his favorites.  Read on to hear what they are, what they work for, how to practice them and how to incorporate different types of breathing exercises to acheive different goals.  

4-7-8 Breathing

Rhythmic slow breathing is a great choice to achieve stress relief and deep relaxation and prepare your body for sleep. One such exercise is the 4-7-8 exercise. The 4-7-8 breathing method stimulates the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain to the abdomen. The vagus nerve is responsible for our fight or flight reflex. It activates the relaxation response when we need to calm down. This type of deep, calm breathing encourages more oxygen to our cells, lowers our heart rate, and helps regulate blood pressure. Mastering a breathing technique you can draw upon when stress hits enables you to achieve a sense of calm by simply breathing properly.  

This breathing technique is pretty easy once you know the steps. It can be done anywhere, whenever you need to calm yourself. Doing this breathing exercise with a straight back is best, so your lungs can expand correctly.

Steps for 4-7-8 breathing:
  • Start by exhaling deeply. Allow tension to move from your body. Relax your body in whatever position you’re in.
  • Press your tongue to the back of your front top teeth and close your mouth.  
  • Breathe in through your nose to the mental count of four.  
  • Hold that breath for the mental count of seven.
  • With your mouth shut and tongue still in position, exhale as slowly as you can to the mental count of eight.
  • Repeat for four cycles.

If you don’t normally breathe deeply, you may feel a little lightheaded when you start doing an exercise such as this. This will ease as you become used to bringing more oxygen into your body.  

Breath of Fire Exercise

Deep rhythmic breathing can encourage relaxation, but you can also stimulate your cells with a different type of breathing. One example is the “Breath of Fire” breathing technique. This is a rapid rhythmic breathing exercise designed to help you wake the body up and reset for the day.

Some of the benefits of practicing the Breath of Fire breathing technique include:

  • Stress relief. This type of breathing helps you feel calmer by calming the sympathetic nervous system. 
  • Exercises your respiratory system. This technique also helps exercise the muscles in your diaphragm, the muscle responsible for assisting your lungs in filling with air. This also helps clear any mucus in your airway, allowing your lungs to absorb more oxygen.
  • Increased concentration. A study published on the National Institutes of Health website found that breathing exercises such as Breath of Fire can enhance memory, attention, concentration, and problem-solving skills. 
  • Increases mindfulness. One of the attributes of mindfulness is attention to a particular area, activity, or object. If you’re focused on your breathing, your mindfulness automatically increases.

The Breath of Fire technique is a form of pranayama and is a standard part of Kundalini yoga. The difference between this technique and a relaxation breathing technique such as the 4-7-8 breathing is in this technique, you are focusing on being more forceful, and the effects on the body are much different. 

While relaxation techniques slow the body and calm the nervous system, the Breath of Fire is designed to wake you up and bring you energy.

The inhale and exhale should not vary in length, and the pattern of your breathing is more important than focusing on breathing slowly, as in 4-7-8 breathing. As you increase your practice, you’ll find that you can practice this technique from 30 seconds to 10 minutes, depending on your needs.  

Steps for Breath of Fire Technique:
  • Start in a seated position. Many people prefer sitting cross-legged Find a position that is comfortable for you.
  • Place your hands on your knees, palms up. Or alternatively, place a hand over your diaphragm to feel the movement.
  • Inhale deeply through your nose, feeling your diaphragm expand.
  • Without pausing or holding that breath, breathe out forcefully through your nose, contracting your abdominal muscles.  
  • Be sure to keep the inhale and exhale equal in length.  
  • Repeat, continuing the rhythm, inhaling passively, and exhaling with force.
  • As you become more comfortable, speed up the pace of the inhalation and exhalation. 
  • Exhale with power.  
  • To start, repeat for 30 seconds building up to more extended periods as you become more comfortable.

Due to the nature of this breathing exercise, it should be used cautiously and avoided by certain groups of people. If you are pregnant, have a respiratory issue, a heart condition, or spinal problems, this is not the breathing exercise for you. Again, you may experience dizziness or lightheadedness. If so, listen to your body and stop if you feel discomfort. 

The Breath of Fire is designed to release stress and help increase mindfulness and energy. While you’re focused on breathing, the rest of the world can melt away, instilling calm and relaxation in its place.  

Making Time to Breathe

Making time to practice these or other breathing exercises can benefit your health and stress levels. 

You don’t have to spend hours a day practicing. Simply take a few minutes in the morning and evening to oxygenate the body and brain and become mindful of how you’re breathing. Try starting with just five minutes daily and increase the time as it suits your schedule. Happy Breathing!

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