Physician and researcher of pulmonary medicine, Michael J. Stephen, M.D., has seen the mental and physical health benefits of controlled breathing firsthand in his own life as well as with patients with lung diseases like COPD and asthma.
In his upcoming book Breath Taking: The Power, Fragility, and Future of Our Extraordinary Lungs, Stephen chronicles, as he puts it to mbg, “how we control the breath, and how the breath controls us.”
From a physical perspective, Stephen says that slower, deeper breaths into the belly are beneficial because they engage the diaphragm and help the body take in more oxygen.
Belly breathing, a cornerstone of many breathwork techniques, helps with something called ventilation-perfusion matching. “Once the air goes in,” he explains, “we have to have the blood in the right place to pick up that oxygen. Down at the diaphragm because of gravity, blood flow is much better. If we’re not using the diaphragm, we’re not getting air down to where the perfusion (ie. circulation of blood) is best.”
Mentally, taking deeper breaths stimulates the vagus nerve, which has a calming effect: “It sends signals back to the brain for calming, like, ‘OK, all as well as the world. This person is taking slow, deep, easy breaths,'” Stephen says.
Breathwork delivers these benefits in a relatively short amount of time. The key is consistency. Stephens recommends starting with a minute of slow, controlled breathing every day and building up from there, “If you could work up to three to five minutes a day,” he says, “I think that’s the sweet spot where you will notice very dramatic changes.”
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