“In stressful times, we typically breathe too rapidly. This leads to a buildup of oxygen in the bloodstream and a corresponding decrease in the relative amount of carbon dioxide, which in turn upsets the ideal acid-alkaline balance— the pH level—of the blood. This condition, known as respiratory alkalosis, can result in muscle twitching, nausea, irritability, lightheadedness, confusion, and anxiety. In contrast, slowing the breath raises the carbon dioxide level in the blood, which nudges the pH level back to a less alkaline state. As the blood’s pH changes, the parasympathetic nervous system calms us in a variety of ways, including telling the vagus nerve to secrete acetylcholine, a substance that lowers the heart rate. “ — Richard Rosen, yoga instructor
Why does breathing help?
Breathing can have psychological effects as well. “It was once suggested to me that, as an antidote to crying, I put my head in a paper bag. As it happens, there is a sound physiological reason, something to do with oxygen, for doing exactly that, but the psychological effect alone is incalculable: It is difficult in the extreme to continue fancying oneself Cathy in Wuthering Heights with one’s head in a Food Fair bag.” — Slouching Toward Bethlehem, by Joan Didion.
The following is the generic technique taught at the Benson-Henry Institute in Boston:[su_list icon=”icon: circle” icon_color=”#0c1975″]
- Pick a focus word, short phrase, or prayer that is firmly rooted in your belief system, such as “one,” “peace,” “The Lord is my shepherd,” “Hail Mary full of grace,” or “shalom.”
- Sit quietly in a comfortable position.
- Close your eyes.
- Relax your muscles, progressing from your feet to your calves, thighs, abdomen, shoulders, head and neck.
- Breathe slowly and naturally, and as you do, say your focus word, sound, phrase, or prayer silently to yourself as you exhale.
- Assume a passive attitude. Don’t worry about how well you are doing. When other thoughts come to mind, simply say to yourself, “Oh well,” and gently return to your repetition.
- Continue for ten to twenty minutes.
- Do not stand immediately. Continue sitting quietly for a minute or so, allowing other thoughts to return. The open your eyes and sit for another minute before rising.
- Practice the techniques once or twice daily. Good times to do so are before breakfast and before dinner.
Meditation, Relaxation, and Breathing
Originally published in InforMS Spring 2009