by Dr. Jack Schaefer DACM LAc
The benefits from a regular practice of breathing exercises cannot be understated. Most people, even those who have a regular practice do not understand what is happening to their body. Breathing exercises can be a very powerful way of creating a relaxation in one's body, decreasing stress responses, lowering blood pressure, and controlling pain to name just a few.
To understand how breathing exercises can benefit your body you must first understand how they work. To begin with breathing is one of the only physiological functions that is both conscious and unconscious. Simply this, we can control our breath when we want to, otherwise it trudges on without our knowledge.
Breathing is controlled by the voluntary and involuntary nervous systems and muscles. Because of that connection between the two systems breathing becomes a method that we can use to effect the involuntary nervous system. This is important because imbalances between the voluntary and involuntary nervous systems can cause many health and emotional problems. A very good example of this type of imbalance can be high blood pressure.
Basically an overactive sympathetic tone, the fight or flight portion of the involuntary nervous system can be blamed for a plethora of health related problems. When someone is experiencing this the body moves blood to its interior, slows down digestion, and prepares the body for action. This situation is good for us when necessary, it keeps blood moving into the brain and helps keep us alive. The parasympathetic nervous system does the opposite. It moves blood to the skin, relaxes the body, promotes digestion, etc.
In a normal situations of health these two systems work in balance. It appears that in today's world many of us are showing a dominance of the sympathetic nervous system. As mentioned before this situation of imbalance can cause problems. It is hard to be sure why we are in this situation, but we are. It is most likely a result of many different aspects of the modern lifestyle. The results can be poor digestion, cold hands and feet, high blood pressure, irregular heart beats. In fact, currently in Japan this autonomic nervous system imbalance is a hospital diagnosis.
Currently in the west health care practitioners are usually trying to treat this situation by blocking the nervous system imbalance, or masking and counteracting the symptoms. The result is often a strong rebound effect. Nose sprays are a great example. If you have ever used one habitually you have probably experienced a significant worsening of the symptoms when you stopped the medication.
Breath work can help reestablish a balance and tone in the nervous system. Simply this, by doing a regular practice of breathing the body is able to normalize its nervous system imbalances thus resulting in better health. The results of breathing, while slower to get than medications, are longer lasting and free of toxicity and side effects.
Since Breathing is both conscious and unconscious it is a bridge between the conscious and unconscious minds as well. It also becomes a connection of the mind and body, breathing can harmonize this connection. Breath practices can therefore be powerful tools in the management of emotional problems. At our clinic, Mountain West Wellness acupuncture, in Boulder Colorado we frequently teach our patients breathing exercises as a way of helping them to manage their health concerns and get faster results in treatment. They can work for you too.