“Emotional excitement affects the rate of breathing; as does equal, deliberate regulation of breathing check emotional excitement. As the very object of yoga is to control and still the mind, the yogi first learns pranayama to master the breath. This will enable him to control the senses and so reach the stage of pratyahara.” – B.K.S. Iyengar
There are several psychological mechanisms that affect our breathing before we even realize it. Our personal perspective of the world, the information we internalize from our senses, our emotional reactions, and memories of past experiences can all potentially affect the way we breathe. These emotionally charged changes in our natural respiratory rhythm often occur outside of our awareness, leaving us completely blind to what’s actually happening in our body. By examining these subtle imbalances affecting our breath through conscious breathing, we can learn how to systematically resolve them to restore balance within the body and mind.
Rolf Sovik, President and Spiritual Director of the Himalayan Institute and a clinical psychologist, believes there are three influences that affect our breathing and when we become aware of these influences, we are able to gain control not only of our breath, but also control over our emotional responses. He explains this is possible because of our Phrenic Nerve – an information superhighway in the body that connects our diaphragm (main muscle used in breathing) directly to our brainstem. When we control the breath, we control the messages being sent back and forth along this nerve. With this control, we are better able to focus the mind and find balance. Let’s dig deeper into this theory.
The first of these three influence is the ‘Automatic / Involuntary’ influence. This is our natural breathing rhythm; what we do all day, every day. This rhythm fluctuates according to our metabolic need (resting, exercising, etc). Messages from our medulla oblongata create this natural respiratory rhythm and it occurs naturally without any effort on our part. The second influence is ‘Voluntary’ control over the rhythm. Nerve impulses from the brainstem to the diaphragm allow us to start, stop, and modify our breath when we want. This includes things like speaking, singing, holding our breath, blowing, sucking, etc. It’s important to realize the fact that breathing can be consciously controlled; giving us the opportunity to replace unhealthy breathing habits with new, healthy ones through mindful breathing.
The third influence is the ‘Non-Voluntary’ influence. Messages from the limbic system (the part of our brain that controls our instinct, mood, emotions & drive) are sent along the phrenic nerve to the diaphragm. Our unconscious emotional response mechanisms therefore have a constant influence on our natural respiratory rhythm. It is possible to remove this connection between our automatic breath rhythm and our emotional response through the practice of conscious breathing. When we use mindful intention to control our breath, we are sending messages from the diaphragm along the phrenic nerve to the brain, allowing the balanced, steady rhythm of the breath to have a soothing, healing affect on the mind.
So, how does conscious breathing change our lives? On the surface level, becoming more aware of your breath and how it changes when emotions arise gives you the opportunity to mindfully disconnect from the emotionally charged shift and return back to your natural breathing rhythm. This control allows you to stay calm in the present moment, keeping you in a state of mental clarity and focus. On a greater level, conscious breathing allows us to heal our hearts and souls through meditation. When we meditate, we are left alone in silence with our breath and our thoughts. In practice, we are encouraged to embrace & accept distractions and to just return back to the breath whenever the mind begins to wander. Often times these wandering thoughts cause some unwanted emotions to arise and this in turn has that same automatic, subconscious affect on our natural respiratory rhythm. When we are breathing consciously - actively looking for these emotionally charged shifts- we are able to recognize what thoughts trigger these changes. When we become aware of this, we are once again encouraged to embrace & accept these emotions and just return back to our breath. Once you allow the emotion to be, you satisfy it’s desire to exist by giving it the attention it is seeking. Once this desire to exist is fulfilled, it naturally disappears as we reconnect with the breath. The steady, soothing rhythm of the breath calms negative emotions and gives a sense of peace, closure, and relief. When we release our negative emotions, we open ourselves up to receive the positive things in life. With less negativity, we are able to live life with a brighter, more positive perspective – thus offering us peace and happiness in every moment.