Controlled breathing techniques are a promising antidote to everything from anxiety to PTSD; here’s how to incorporate them into your life.
At a moment when the pressure to live the perfect, productive, and Instagram-beautiful lifestyle is causing more anxiety than ever, there seems to exist at least the promise of an antidote: mindfulness. Lena Dunham practices it; Karlie Kloss swears by it; Oprah leads 21-day challenges teaching meditation techniques including breathing. Sleepless professionals facing burnout are embracing this ancient weapon against stress and depression as fervently as The Beatles and Mia Farrow spread the word of the healing magic of Transcendental Meditation in the late 1960s—maybe the last time that the world felt as topsy-turvy.
And yet, until recently, the essential element that can help us achieve Zen has played a supporting role in the way meditation is taught and practiced. “Breathing is the bridge between yoga and meditation—yoga that strengthens our body and meditation, which strengthens our mind,” meditation teacher and life coach Rajshree Patel said recently at the light-filled New York outpost of the spiritual organization The Art of Living. Patel has for 30 years been teaching Sudarshan Kriya, a series of breathing techniques that’s among the many ancient and new methods being embraced at yoga studios and meditation centers as exercise in their own right. “Twenty years ago, doing yoga sounded like sleeping on a bed of nails, and five or so years ago, meditation was still obscure,” Patel continued. “Now, focusing on breathing is finally starting to seem less foreign. It’s an essential tool and in fact the quickest, simplest way to enhance our health.” And a new generation of classes, apps, and even wearable tech devices are putting the practice front and center, making it easier to incorporate than ever.
In scientific terms, a controlled breathing practice cuts into stress hormones, dances with our nervous system, and regulates the oxygen, CO2, and pH levels in our blood. It has therapy potential against depression, anxiety, and PTSD. In sidewalk terms, breathing lets us get a grip. “A very interesting fact about the breath is how closely it is linked with our emotions. This is actually revolutionary,” psychologist and research scientist Emma Seppälä told a TEDx audience earlier this year, quoting research from the psychologist Pierre Philippot, who determined that specific breaths correspond with specific emotions—summoning anger induces a short and shallow breath, while slowing down the breath can directly reduce anxiety.
Seppälä, author of the book The Happiness Track and the science director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, has looked into the effects of Sudarshan Kriya and other yogic breathing techniques on Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. According to the research, Sudarshan Kriya’s engagement of the parasympathetic nervous system can rebalance brain chemistry. “If you deepen your breath, if you slow your breath, and in particular if you lengthen your exhales, your heart rate decreases, your blood pressure decreases, and you’re tapping into your parasympathetic nervous system,” Seppälä explained. This is “the opposite of ‘fight or flight’—the ‘rest and digest’ nervous system.”
And while simply following the old slogan “just breathe” may not quite cut it, taking the time to learn and adopt targeted techniques can yield lifelong benefits. “The fact that we can use the breath to impact the state of our minds means that we have a tool at all times, no matter what we’re facing, to calm down,” Seppälä assured her TED audience. “We just need to tap into it.”