The inspiration of respiration

Doctors, yoga fans proclaim virtues of conscious breathing

By Erin Middlewood, Columbian special projects reporter



Breathing for relaxation

• Sit quietly in a comfortable position with your eyes closed.

• Become aware of your breathing. Breathe in slowly and steadily from your belly.

• Each time you exhale, say the word “one” silently or out loud.

• Continue this for 10 to 20 minutes. As thoughts enter your mind, let them drift away.

Source: Kaiser Permanente

It’s the most basic human function, yet we hardly ever think about it.

“We take for granted that we are going to breathe in and then out, and if we don’t breathe in we die,” said Dana Layon, a Vancouver yoga instructor and author.

Conscious breathing, which Eastern religions have emphasized for millennia, now is gaining recognition in the West as a way to relieve stress, lower blood pressure, and give practitioners a sense of inner peace.

“Eastern traditions have known about this for thousands of years,” said Claudia Finkelstein, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle. “Through Western science’s ability to measure the effects, it has been legitimized.”

Deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for the body’s function at rest, and deactivates the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the fight-or-flight response.

The fight-or-flight response made great sense in the days when humans were confronted by predators, but now it kicks in round-the-clock for less deadly threats.

“Our current stresses aren’t often bears in the woods. It’s more like your boss,” Finkelstein said. “Our same sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive, and it results in adverse health effects.”

Dr. Mike Lin of the Kaiser Permanente-Salmon Creek clinic north of Vancouver sees patients with these stress-related problems frequently. Patients complain of fatigue, difficulty sleeping, anxiety or that they just don’t feel well. Instead of writing a prescription for a pill, Lin often offers a handout on abdominal breathing along with a quick lesson.

“I tell people to practice it every day, maybe 10 to 20 minutes,” Lin said. “You want to be good at it, so if you are in a stressful situation you can relax.”

Layon, the yoga instructor, even teaches deep breathing to children. She tells them to breathe in to the count of five and out for five. She teaches adults to breathe in for 7 counts and out for 10. Above all, she instructs students to breathe through their noses.

“The mouth wasn’t made to breathe but to eat — or as my yoga teacher said, to kiss,” Layon said. “What happens is we mouth-breathe a lot and hold our breath without realizing it. We only take in about a third of our lung capacity. Then the rest of the systems of the body don’t work as well because we’re not giving it enough oxygen. When we nose-breathe, we fully use our lung capacity it ignites all the other systems of the body.”

One company has developed a device to teach users to breathe slowly and deeply.

The Israeli company InterCure in 2000 obtained FDA approval for a device called Resperate that lowers blood pressure without medication, and has been selling it over-the-counter since 2003.

Resperate is a little box with earphones and a sensor. The sensor rests on the abdomen to monitor breathing. The earphones pipe music and customized prompts to help the user slow breathing.

Ten clinical trials have shown that people who regularly use the device have lower blood pressure.

“It’s often considered as alternative medicine, but we base it on medical science,” said Tom Kirwan, Resperate’s director of consumer marketing. “The key to Resperate is as it brings you down to less than 10 breaths per minute, it’s effortless.”

$300 coach

About 200,000 people use Resperate, which sells for about $300. Yvonne Fowler, 66, of Vancouver is one of them. She spotted an advertisement in an airline magazine a couple of years ago and decided it was something she wanted to try, even though she doesn’t suffer from hypertension.

“I see a lot of problems with patients because they don’t have good lung capacity,” said Fowler, a licensed practical nurse.

She sits down with the device three times a day for 10 minutes each. Even when she’s not using the device, it helps her, she said.

“During the day if I’m not breathing properly I hear the music coming to me, and I correct my breathing,” Fowler said. “It’s easier for me to take a deep breath. It’s easier for me to walk and breathe at the same time.”

The external prompts take the thinking and counting out of deep breathing exercises, and are the key to Resperate’s success at lowering blood pressure, Kirwan said.

But others say you don’t need a machine to reap the benefits of breath.

“You certainly do not need anything more than a quiet place to sit,” said Finkelstein, who teaches relaxation techniques to high-strung medical students. When things get crazy at work, she disappears into the bathroom for five deep breaths. “You press your own reset buttons with a few deep breaths in a quiet place,” she said.

Practicing deep breathing every day is simple, but not the sort of quick fix Americans tend to seek, Finkelstein said. The effects, however, can be profound.

“If we all stopped and took a deep breath once a day,” she said, “the world would be a nicer place.”