With simple breathing practices, you can quickly transform your physiological and psychological state. How we breathe is directly related to our nervous system’s function. If we are breathing high in our chests, shallow and rapid, it cues the sympathetic nervous system and creates a state of stress. When we practice controlled breathing exercises, such as ‘belly breathing,’ we can engage our parasympathetic nervous system, leading to decreased arousal and a calmer state. Take your time trying different breathing exercises to see which ones come the most naturally to you. While the aim is to control our breathing, we don’t want to use too much force. Remember to listen to your body and allow it to guide you. 

Simple Tools for Healthy Living

Dr. De Souza-Kenney talks about the relationship between stress and our health. We all have access to simple practices that can lower our stress levels and improve our biology, such as breathing exercises and adjusting our posture.

three Easy Breathing Practices

Dr. Garrett describes three simple breathing patterns that can calm the nervous system.

Mindfulness-Based Practices

Dr. Dias explains some of the neuroscience behind mindfulness practices such as loving-kindness meditation. He also discusses the way in which belly breathing can engage the vagus nerve to help activate our parasympathetic nervous system, helping us to relax. 

Learning to Bring Attention to the Body

Dr. Farb talks about the importance of forming new habits by introducing new actions (eg. checking in with our bodies) to break up old habits. This takes time and practice, but building up our awareness from the ‘inside-out’ is a safe route that is available to us at all times. Conversely, we can build awareness from the ‘outside-in,’ which means engaging in experiences that heighten our bodily sensations (eg. trying something new, thrill-seeking, or substance use). This approach is riskier, but can increase bodily awareness when not misused.

Selected resources for learning more

Read an important call for change by Nigerian novelist and poet, , published in The Guardian in 2020: ” ‘I can’t breathe’: why George Floyd’s words reverberate around the world.”

Read an Outside Magazine story by environment and social-justice writer, Amy Irvine, ” We Can No Longer Take Breathing for Granted“: “Between a global pandemic, protests against police brutality, and unprecedented environmental rollbacks, a lifelong asthmatic reflects on how 2020 is the year we must come to terms with the tenuous nature of this simple act—and why ensuring our fragile future begins with protecting our air.”

What’s in a breath? The simple science of breathing and mental wellness, by Bryony Porteous-Sebouhian, published on 27 January 2022 in Mental Health Today, provides a short description of several simple breathing practices and their benefits.

Listen to the BBC Audio Documentary, ” The lost art of breathing“: “After recovering from pneumonia for the third time, journalist James Nestor took decisive action to improve his lungs. He questioned why so many humans – and only humans – have to contend with stuffy noses, snoring, asthma, allergies, sinusitis and sleep apnoea, to name but a few. James hears remarkable stories of others who have changed their lives through the power of breath. His deep dive into the unconscious and oft-ignored act of human respiration offers us all a way to breathe easier. With contributions from Dr Richard Brown, who worked with 9/11 survivors; Dr Margaret Chesney, professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco on screen apnoea; Mandar Apte and Rosa Lagunas on Sudarshan Kriya Yoga; Chuck McGee III on the Wim Hof Method; Dr Andrew Hubermann, professor of neurobiology at Stanford University on the brain-body relationship and Dr Kevin Boyd, paediatric dentist, on the changes to the human skull.”

Dr Andrew Huberman on the Feel Better Live More podcast: ” The One Daily Practice Everyone Should Do, Training Your Brain and Reducing Anxiety“: “We begin this conversation discussing why exposure to morning light is key to optimum human functioning. Our visual system is about more than just seeing. The light that enters our eyes, even in blind people, gives knowledge to the nervous system. Getting the right light, at the right time, sets the clock in all of your body’s cells, which in turn will affect many different functions in the body. It stimulates the cortisol you need for energy and focus. And it has positive effects on everything from sleep, energy and immunity to appetite, mood and so much more. We also discuss what exactly is going on in the brain when we feel fearful and how something as simple as getting outside and looking at the horizon can completely change our physiology and powerfully inhibit anxiety.Finally, we talk about the role that technology is having on our attention and Andrew shares a variety of simple exercises that we can all do to train our brains to improve our focus, health and performance.”

Learning to breathe: Louis Jackson, TEDxStanford: “Louis Jackson walks the audience through a series of breathing exercises to demonstrate insufficient and proper breathing and the benefits of yoga.”

Huberman Lab Podcast #54 (Jan 10, 2022): Dr. Jack Feldman: Breathing for Mental & Physical Health & Performance: “This episode my guest is Dr. Jack Feldman, Distinguished Professor of Neurobiology at University of California, Los Angeles and a pioneering world expert in the science of respiration (breathing). We discuss how and why humans breathe the way we do, the function of the diaphragm and how it serves to increase oxygenation of the brain and body. We discuss how breathing influences mental state, fear, memory, reaction time, and more. And we discuss specific breathing protocols such as box-breathing, cyclic hyperventilation (similar to Wim Hof breathing), nasal versus mouth breathing, unilateral breathing, and how these each effect the brain and body. We discuss physiological sighs, peptides expressed by specific neurons controlling breathing, and magnesium compounds that can improve cognitive ability and how they work. This conversation serves as a sort of “Master Class” on the science of breathing and breathing related tools for health and performance.”

Buddhism and Breath Summit, 2021, presented by University of Toronto & Jivaka Project: The Buddhism and Breath Summit is an online resource exploring Buddhist practices of working with the breath and/or bodily “winds.” Thirteen scholars and practitioners address how Buddhist presentations of breath, “wind” or “life force” (prāṇa in Sanskrit, qi in Chinese, rlung in Tibetan, or lom in Thai, for example) have influenced contemplative, philosophical, and medical theories and practices in Buddhist traditions. The B&B Summit includes a pre-recorded conversation between the panelists as well as video presentations and supplementary educational resources, all publicly and freely available.

A short five-session playlist on Qigong Regulatory Movements with Donna Oliver, Instructor, Tai Chi and Meditation Centre, with Windvane creator Dr. Frances Garrett, was recorded in 2020, sponsored by the University of Toronto’s Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation Centre for Buddhist Studies.

An introduction to Hara Breathing Therapy, the warm-up movements for which are based on Qigong practice, with Instructor (T’agyol) Daniel Adler R.Ac, together with Windvane creator Dr. Frances Garrett, was recorded in 2020, sponsored by the University of Toronto’s Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation Centre for Buddhist Studies.