Breathing has more to offer than oxygen

Using the breathing practices of "Pranayama" and to improve your overall health and well-being.

March 13, 2017 - Author: Holly Tiret, and Samantha Radecki, GVSU MPH Intern

Do you suffer from symptoms of anxiety or depression? You are not alone. The National Association of Mental Illness (NAMI) reports 16 million Americans live with depression and 42 million people live with anxiety. Symptoms of anxiety can include a constant sense of worry or state of fear, racing thoughts, heart pounding (symptoms that do not go away or get worse over time). Symptoms of depression (which last two weeks or more), include persistent sadness, loss of interest in hobbies or activities, hopelessness and sleep disruption, to name a few. These disorders can lead to a great deal of personal distress and are a major public health concern in the United States.

More and more research is suggesting an effective method for easing symptoms of anxiety and depression can be the mindful use of an instrument that we already have within us – our breath, and more specifically, intentional and controlled breathing techniques. Some positive health benefits include reducing heart rate and blood pressure, by increasing parasympathetic nerve activity (automatic processes like digestion, respiration and heart rate), and decreasing sympathetic nervous system activity (automatic ‘fight or flight’). A variety of breathing practices have been proven to help people relax, manage stress, control psychological states, and control autonomic function.

Though this may be your first time learning about energetic breathing exercises to improve health, these techniques are not new. They have been practiced for thousands of years by yoga practitioners and make up the vast concept of pranayama. Pranayama, in Sanskrit (an ancient Indian language), literally means the control of prana. Prana refers to all forms of energy in the universe. Life force is one part of this energy. Life force in an individual is symbolized by breathing. Pranayama is generally considered to mean regulated breathing.

There are multiple forms of pranayama but the core of the practice is deep, slow, and intentional breathing that in itself has a calming effect on the mind and helps an individual relax and de-stress. One specific technique that researchers found to have substantial benefits is called Alternate Nostril Breathing or “Nadi Shodhana.”

Alternate nostril breathing exercise step-by-step
  • Take one slow deep breath in and out.
  • Sit in a comfortable position and close your right nostril with your thumb.
  • Inhale through your left nostril, then close that nostril and exhale through the right.
  • Repeat the process, this time inhaling through the right nostril and exhaling through the left.
  • Repeat the entire cycle three to five times.

Intentional breathing exercise such as Alternate Nostril Breathing are one way to help people manage stress and anxiety. Michigan State University Extension offers two educational series that can be beneficial as well. RELAX: Alternatives to Anger  helps people deal with strong emotions, and learn coping skills for dealing with anger and managing stress. Stress Less with Mindfulness gives an overview on various techniques of mindfulness that help people manage stress. For more information, please visit our website at www.msue.msu.edu.

Tags: food & health, msu extension, nutrition

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