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Can Breathing Exercises Really Change Your Health?

Shannon Harvey

A couple of nights ago I found myself witnessing an interesting exchange between a meditation expert and an accountant. The meditation teacher was encouraging us to stop at the beginning of each day to do a simple breathing exercise. But the accountant (my Dad) wanted to know why. “What’s wrong with just launching into the day? Why is taking a few breaths going to be good for me? I breathe all day every day and in my sleep, without needing to think about it.”  

The exchange between my skeptical father and the meditation expert made me recall the interview I did with Dr. Andrew Weil for my film The Connection. Dr. Weil is one of the most popular MD's in the US, having built a huge following for his integrated approach to medicine which looks for ways to help a patient’s own body trigger healing, rather than relying solely on drugs and surgery.  

Dr. Weil told me that if he had to limit his medical advice to just one thing, he’d say to learn how to breathe. That’s a profound statement in the modern world where as a doctor he has so many nutritional, surgical and pharmacological tools at his disposal.   Here’s a section from the extended interview I did with Dr. Weil where he talks about the power of breathing.  

Ever since I’ve been researching the link between the mind and body when it comes to illness I’ve been using mindful breathing exercises throughout my day. I find the practice of taking a few slow, focused, non-judgmental breaths is really useful in taking the sting out of my daily stress, and while I’ve written a fair bit about research looking at meditation, I wanted to see if there’s any clinical research showing the health benefits of conscious breathing specifically.  

In recent years scientists have found that yogic breathing significantly helped people with bronchial asthma, breathing slowly helped reduce blood pressure in people with hypertension and a form of yogic breathing taught to Afghanistan and Iraq veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder resulted in a reduction in symptoms, anxiety, and respiration rate.  

In yet another reminder of the intricate link between our mind and body, I was stunned to come across research looking at the role of breathing on our emotions which found that four key emotional states - joy, anger, fear, and sadness – could be identified by distinct breathing patterns. The scientists took their discovery even further and were able to make people feel these emotions by simply teaching them to breathe in particular patterns.  

But when it comes to the link between breathing and health, the most compelling of all the research I’ve come across this week is being done by scientists at UCLA who recently studied 45 people under a lot of stress as the caregivers for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia.  

They taught one group of people a 12-minute yogic practice, which involves focused breathing and chanting and instructed them to practice every day for eight weeks. A second group was asked to relax in a quiet place with their eyes closed while listening to instrumental music for 12 minutes.  

Not only did the results show that doing the yogic exercises significantly lowered levels of depressive symptoms and greater improvement in mental health and cognitive functioning, but they also had slower cellular aging and important genes involved in inflammation in the body were switched off.  

In case you’ve missed the significance of the study, let me spell it out. These researchers have shown that a 12 minute breathing and chanting exercise performed daily for 8 weeks, resulted in positive health genetic engineering and a slowing down of the aging process.

I realize that not everyone is going to be interested in getting started on yogic breathing and chanting (in case you are, they used Kirtan Kriya Meditation techniques), especially people like my skeptical accountant father, but if you’re convinced by what you’ve read about breathing, then here is a simple exercise I like to use that can get you started.  

  1. Place your thumb on your right nostril and cover it
  2. Inhale slowly through the left nostril
  3. Place your middle finger on your left nostril and cover it, release the thumb
  4. Exhale through the right nostril
  5. Inhale slowly through the right nostril
  6. Place your thumb on the right nostril again, release the middle finger
  7. Exhale through the left nostril
  8. Repeat for a few minutes
      Let me know about your favorite breathing technique in the comments below. I’m sure your tips will help other readers.

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