1. The most effective practice for mental well-being is breathing.
2. Breathing affects both body and mind, and different ways of breathing have different impacts on physiology and mental state.
3. A study by Stanford researchers showed that the so-called cyclic sighing circular technique is particularly effective in improving mood, reducing stress and increasing physical energy.
Today, every phone has apps that help us take care of our mental well-being: those for mindfulness, those for meditation, calming playlists of Tibetan bells and transcendental meditation, dolphin chants, and even the wind from Mars (if you’re wondering if I’ve tried them, yes, I’ve tried them all, including the wind from Mars!). Yet the most effective practice is also the oldest in the world: it is breathing.
Breathing is an existential practice, not in the sense that it is important but in the sense that without breathing one could not live. Its importance, however, goes far beyond just the practical (and vital) aspect so much so that research in recent years has focused primarily on aspects that identify it as one of the most solid links between mind and body. Because breathing is not only a physical matter: it is but it is also much more than that, since it also reverberates in the mind. So breathing well and at the right times can help you tremendously.
Even the ancients knew this
Earlier we were talking about how breathing is the basis of many practices that help improve your mental balance, and if you look closely, the ancients understood this as well, so much so that it is also the basis of philosophical theories and many religious practices, not the least of which is prayer. All activities, in other words, that serve to give balance to the mind while simultaneously acting in a beneficial way on the physical.
What happens when you breathe
You are quick to say “breathe.” There are different ways to do this, and each has different impacts on your body. Rhythm and depth of breathing for example affect blood oxygenation, heart rate and blood pressure.
This means that, for example, with appropriate breathing exercises, hypertensive patients may be able to lower their blood pressure.
And there are also differences between oral and nasal breathing with respect to cognition, attention and learning, so much so that it is now understood that nasal breathing helps activate the brain’s amygdala and hippocampus, while oral breathing does not.
A group of Stanford researchers in the field of psychiatry and behavior conducted a study to evaluate the effectiveness of different breathing techniques in reducing stress, including comparing them with mindfulness meditation practice.
They randomly divided the participants into four groups: one practiced mindfulness meditation with natural breathing (i.e., that which is normally practiced), while the other three groups used different breathing techniques: 1) Cyclic sighing, which emphasizes prolonged exhalations; 2) square breathing, which involves equal durations for inhalation, apnea and exhalation; and 3) cyclic hyperventilation, with longer inhalations and shorter exhalations.
All participants did breathing exercises for five minutes a day for more than a month. The researchers monitored mood, anxiety and physiological reactions such as respiratory rate and that heart rate.
Result? The cyclic sighing technique led to the greatest improvement in mood, reduction in stress and the perception of having a lot of physical energy.
How to practice it
Now you’re going to want so badly to know how to do it, right? After all, if it only takes five minutes of breathing exercises every day to have all these benefits maybe it is worth it. Here’s how to do it!
You must inhale slowly by expanding your lungs, then inhale again to fill them to capacity, also using your mouth to hold air, even though the second inhalation is shorter and of less volume than the first. Afterwards you must exhale slowly, emptying the lungs completely. You have to repeat the pattern for five minutes, preferably inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth.
That’s it. It’s already better, isn’t it?