Breathing for a better immune system

Over many years as a Yoga teacher, I’m often surprised by how little we know about our breathing and how closely connected it is to the way our brains and bodies function.

When our bodies respond to danger and stress through the ‘fight or flight response’, the release of adrenaline triggers changes in our bodies which speed up the heart rate and breathing. This sudden burst of adrenaline gives our bodies increased abilities and heightens sensory perception. However, it’s not a pleasant state to be in – we feel stressed, frightened and anxious – some people can ‘freeze’ under these circumstances, like a rabbit caught in the headlights.

Deep breathing is also vital to the correct functioning of our lymphatic system, which in turn has a powerful effect on our immunity. As your body moves from the inhalation to the exhalation, the diaphragm acts like a pump to move fluid in the lymph system back into the blood through the heart. Stress tightens all our muscles, including the diaphragm, and so it inhibits the natural flow of lymph around the body.

Studies have shown that we humans can encourage our bodies to release chemicals and brain signals that make our muscles and organs slow down, relax our muscles and increase blood flow to the brain, the opposite of ‘fight or flight’.  And we know that meditation and breathing can bring down our stress levels, release tension and so help all kinds of health problems that are caused or exacerbated by chronic stress.

What’s so marvelous about this, apart from the fact that it’s incredibly simple, is that it has the effect of changing the way we look at our problems and at the situations causing us the stress in the first place.

In order to learn this, you need to find a quiet place and time to focus on your breathing. The best time to practice is first thing in the morning for ten to twenty minutes. By practicing just once or twice a day you can learn to access relaxation and a more peaceful state of mind, which in turn reduces the heart rate so you will feel more relaxed and comfortable in potentially stressful situations.

  1. Sit quietly in a comfortable position. Close your eyes.
  2. Allow your body to relax, soften your muscles, starting with your feet and progressing up to your head.
  3. Relax your tongue. Take it away from the roof of your mouth. Your thoughts become quieter and you are more aware of your breathing. Breathe through your nose: mouth closed, jaw relaxed.
  4. Let the breathing become slow, soft and steady. Each time you breathe out, say the word “one”* silently to yourself.
  5. Continue for 5 minutes, eventually building up to 15 with practice**. When you finish, sit quietly for several minutes, at first with your eyes closed and later with your eyes opened. Do not stand up for a few minutes.
  6. Try to ignore your thoughts – they will come and go – you can see them as clouds across a sky, not attaching to them, just letting them drift away. Return to repeating “one”* with each exhalation.
  7. Practice the technique once or twice daily, on an empty stomach. (Digestion interferes with the process.) Soon, the response will come with little effort and you won’t feel quite so sleepy!

*Choose any soothing, mellifluous sounding word, preferably with no meaning or association, in order to avoid stimulation of unnecessary thoughts. I often use “Soooo” for the inhalation and “Haaaa” for the exhalation.

** If you use a phone alarm, choose a soothing sound to ‘wake up’ to.

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