Because breathing is something we all do every day day in and day out without even giving it a second thought it has become an unconscious process most of us take for granted. But in certain cultures and for those adherents engaged in specific spiritual and religious practices breathing is a central focus of spiritual enlightenment and physical mental and emotional cleansing.
For instance yogis have for ages used the power of breath to transform consciousness. Altered states of awareness and profound healing are said to be possible with just using the breath. These practitioners have found by changing the rate ratio volume and flow of the respiratory cycle there can be experiential and perceptual shifts in consciousness spiritual awareness cognition and self-identity.
For those whose goals are less ethereal and more physically oriented breath therapy or therapeutic breathing can make a significant impact on one's health. The basic idea behind breathing therapy is the idea that most people do not breathe the way they should. By practicing conscious breathing techniques an individual can increase the amount of oxygen that flows to the brain. When this occurs the brain starts to function at a higher level and many of the problems that it previously experienced are no longer an issue.
The cerebrospinal fluid or CSF is a nutritive bath that surrounds the central nervous system (CNS). Not only does it act as a cushion for the brain to help protect it from injury but it also transports metabolic wastes away from the CNS thus helping to maintain a homeostatic environment. Its uninterrupted uniform and rhythmic flow is essential to CNS health. Therapies that have been shown to beneficially affect CSF flow include enhanced breathing techniques.
According to research yogic breathing has been shown to contribute to a physiologic response characterized by the presence of decreased oxygen consumption decreased heart rate and decreased blood pressure as well as increased theta wave amplitude in EEG recordings increased parasympathetic activity accompanied by the experience of alertness and reinvigoration.
Enhanced breathing techniques should as one would imagine increase levels of oxygen to the brain. This may be a mechanism of action as its use was shown to improve cognitive measurements including spatial memory in school aged children and in diabetics.
Again logically enhanced breathing would appear to benefit lung function and indeed those suffering from asthma and COPD find their symptoms improved by using this therapeutic procedure. In the case of COPD breathing helps modulate sympathetic over-activation while asthmatic patients were shown to be less reliant on corticosteroidal medications.
Tai chi is an ancient form of slow rhythmic deliberate movements perfected by the Chinese which emphasizes conscious breathing. When used in patients with chronic heart failure improvements in mood exercise capacity and quality of life were experienced.
In another study enhanced breathing training was also shown to improve autonomic cardiac regulation and reduce chemoreflex sensitivity in these same types of patients. When used with biofeedback the therapeutic tool had the potential to improve cardiac mortality and morbidity in HF patients.
While we clinicians often focus on therapies grounded in western science the use of non-western healing modalities that include such things as yoga Ayurveda acupuncture and breath therapy continue to be shown as productive adjunctive as well as primary therapies for the clinician's consideration.
Michael Fuhrman D.C.