Inhale and exhale. Whether you are in a yoga class or getting ready to deliver a baby, you will hear, “Take a deep breath in and then exhale.” Breathing is an involuntary reflex that our body does over and over again each day. Breath supplies our body with oxygen, and without it we would not have life. So why do we need to be told to breathe in order to relax? Shouldn’t our bodies just take care of this for us?
Dr. Herbert Benson, founding trustee of the American Institute of Stress, coined the phrase Relaxation Response. The Relaxation Response is a state in the body where the physical and emotional responses to stress are altered, such as reducing blood pressure, heart rate and muscle tension. The Relaxation Response can be elicited through a variety of forms of stress management, but the one that is readily available to everyone, regardless of age, gender, or social status is deep breathing.1
Relaxation through deep breathing does not mean panting while watching television. It requires an awareness and focus placed on the breath coming into and out of the body. For individuals experiencing cognitive decline or Alzheimer’s disease, this process is especially important and beneficial. Deep breathing not only stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, creating a sense of calm, but also increases the oxygen supply to the brain.
The important thing about relaxation breathing is it can happen anywhere. You do not need a special class or even special equipment or music. Don’t get me wrong, there are some amazing exercise programs and meditations that you can practice to elicit this breathing technique, but just because you are doing yoga doesn’t mean the relaxation response is guaranteed. I remember the first yoga class I attended as a graduate student. I was stressed and knew that yoga was not only good for my body, but also good for my stress. However, I approached the class like I was in a step aerobics class, focused on perfecting the movements and not on my breath. As the class progressed, I realized the people around me were taking in such deep breaths with some movements that they almost seemed to hum and roar in comparison to the silence of the room. That was the moment I realized I was not practicing what I knew to be true, that the relaxation response is elicited through breath. As soon as I focused less attention on my competitive nature to perfect the poses and placed it on the breaths connected to the movements I was amazed at the change that happened in my body.
I encourage you to give your body the gift of breath every day. Take a break during your day to close your eyes and fill your lungs with oxygen. Then hold it for a few seconds, and then exhale the air fully from your body. Continue to do this pattern, feeling the oxygen coming into your body, creating warmth and energy.
The next time a coworker, family member, or stranger causes you some stress, try to take a breath break to fill your lungs with air and cleanse the stress from your soul.
Written by Marci L. Hardy, PhD
- The American Institute of Stress. http://www.stress.org. Accessed January 11, 2017.