New research reveals the science of deep breathing and why it benefits us so very much.
Meditators are well accustomed to the fact that the way we breathe influences the mind. Proper breathing techniques can relax the mind and offer myriad mental and physical health benefits. But just how does breathing influence your mind?
Breathing is the most basic function of the human body. A new-born baby takes its first breath within ten seconds of being born. And we don’t stop breathing until we die. We take more than 23000 breaths per day. And every single one of those breaths has an effect not just on the body but on the mind too. So, it’s a little weird that so many of us breathe incorrectly. Especially given that there are so many important benefits of breathing correctly.
Recent scientific research into deep breathing has revealed how it benefits us. The research shows that shallow breathing can cause myriad health problems, both physical and mental. On the mental health side, shallow breathing can cause stress, anxiety and other problems. On the physical health side, proper breathing can benefit our lungs, balance blood pressure, and improve overall health.
Now, scientists have discovered that there is an optimal breathing rate for health and wellbeing. That breathing rate happens to be six inhalations per minute . This triggers the relaxation response.
You may have heard of the term Breathwork. Healthline says that “Breathwork refers to any type of breathing exercises or techniques… During breathwork you intentionally change your breathing pattern.” This is done for the purpose of receiving those myriad benefits of proper breathing.
Breathwork is very much in vogue today. It has risen in popularity on the curtails of yoga and mindfulness. And like those two practices it has a spiritual background, based largely on Hindu texts.
You might ask what the difference is between breathwork and mindfulness. Breathwork specifically targets breathing, with a particular focus on the mechanics of breathing. Mindfulness, on the other hand, does not have to focus on breathing at all. Although there are mindfulness breathing techniques, there are also many other types of mindfulness exercises, including everything from mindful art to mindful exercise.
Breathwork is essentially about breathing the correct way, by breathing deep into the diaphragm in a conscious way, and slowing the rate at which we breath (which, for most people, is too quickly).
We know from science that deep breathing results in many benefits, both physical and mental. The most commonly discussed benefit of deep breathing is that it stimulates the relaxation response, which helps alleviate the symptoms of stress, anxiety and other problems.
Scientific research into deep breathing has shown that when we breathe at approximately six breaths per minute we stimulate the relaxation response, which calms the mind (arguably quicker than meditation does). This, however, is not the only benefit of deep breathing. The authors of a study published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience  state “Slow breathing techniques act enhancing autonomic, cerebral and psychological flexibility in a scenario of mutual interactions: we found evidence of links between parasympathetic activity, Central Nervous System activities, related to emotional control and psychological well-being in healthy subjects.” The researchers state two possible reasons for these benefits: “One is related to a voluntary regulation of internal bodily states (enteroception), the other is associated to the role of mechanoceptors within the nasal vault in translating slow breathing in a modulation of olfactory bulb activity, which in turn tunes the activity of the entire cortical mantle.”.
Another study conducted by Hassan Jafari at King’s College London found that deep breathing improves our ability to manage pain (incidentally mindfulness also improves pain management). And a third study showed that deep breathing and breathwork quickly balances blood pressure in people with hypertension  .
So what explanation is there from science for these benefits of deep breathing?
Actually, scientists still aren’t one hundred percent show why deep breathing is relaxing.
One hypothesis is that when you breathe deeply there is a mechanical response in the nerves of the chest. As stated by Donald Noble at Emory University, “You can tell [just by actually taking a deep breath] how much it is a mechanical act.” Indeed, when you do take a deep breath you can immediately feel it. It is a pleasant experience from a tactile perspective, it seems to massage the body. That relaxing massaging effect, done repeatedly, creates slow brain waves that create relaxation. If you try shallow breathing, on the other hand, you can actually feel the pressure it creates in the chest. So to a certain degree, certainly the tactile experience of slow breathing is a more pleasurable one than shallow breathing.
Deep breathing also stimulates the baroreceptors, which are mechanoreceptors in the arteries of the heart, which feed the vagus nerve, which is pivotal in exiting the “fight or flight” response. This is why deep breathing relieves anxiety. Anxiety create the fight-or-flight response, but deep breathing stimulates the baroreceptors that feed the vagus nerve that helps us exit the fight or flight response. This also activates the parasympathetic nervous system, leading to relaxation.
What amazes me about breathwork is the fact that there is a very specific rhythm, at about six breaths per minute, which has been proven to be the optimum breathing rate for relaxation. Science has yet to truly explain this, but some argue that it is a basic psychological rhythm.
Six breaths per minute isn’t just optimum for relaxation, it’s also optimum for pain management. This also correlates to yoga because many mantras should specifically done at six recitations per minute.
There are two things to take away from all of this. Firstly, your breathing has a direct relationship on practically every other aspect of your wellbeing, which is why breathwork is currently exploding online. And secondly, the fact that yoga has been right for millennia, because the truths about breathing that science is currently discovering were actually stated in the sacred yoga texts thousands of years ago.
It’s funny how the more we move forward the more we realise that ancient spiritual texts written thousands of years ago were incredibly accurate.