Breathing like this Can Save Lives.

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ej Breathing

These are exciting times for mindfulness practitioners of all disciplines.

Whether you are a yogi, a meditation diehard or regularly practice tai chi or qigong, it is now well documented in the scientific literature that mindfulness practices change your brain in ways that eventually change your thoughts and your behavior.

Any mindfulness-based practice requires a careful focus of attention on the present moment and this focus of attention has been shown to stimulate new patterns of neural firing to create new synaptic linkages. [1]

I’m a huge fan of yoga and meditation and will sing their praises loud and proud. In fact I secretly sneak at least a 10-minute “meditation” on to the end of all my classes at the local power yoga studio because I know how powerful the benefits are. And guided meditation—a form of meditation that is more amenable to trauma survivors suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and chronic stress—is the closing activity to every session of the yogaHOPE TIMBo program. [2]

But for the women that we typically work with at yogaHOPE, something more immediate and just as effective is needed. In some cases it is crucial—possibly life saving. This thing—or tool—is one of the most crucial components of the TIMBo (Trauma Sensitive Mind Body) Program that yogaHOPE brings to women in prison, substance abuse treatment centers and Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

It’s accessible immediately, works in seconds, creates changes in the brain and is also something that you were born knowing how to do.

It is breath.

Abdominal or diaphragm breathing takes seconds to do, works immediately, and prepares the brain for successful learning and remembering of new responses to old triggers—a crucial piece of learning for addicts, trauma survivors and other individuals engaging in health risk behavior.

Here’s how it works:

In order for the diaphragm to move up and down during a breath, the brain needs to send signals to the diaphragm using the neurotransmitter acetylcholine (which plays a crucial role in learning and memory).[3]

With the release of this neurotransmitter the vagus nerve is stimulated and engages the parasympathetic nervous system—otherwise known as the rest and digest nervous system. The switch to the parasympathetic nervous system immediately calms the internal sensations of the body. In addition to the physiological urgency (stress response) diminishing, the system can now regulate stress hormones and neurotransmitters like cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine with more mood regulating and feel-good hormones and neurotransmitters like serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine.

And perhaps the most incredible thing about stimulating the vagus nerve via diaphram breathing is that this releases a supply of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF)—a molecule which has been described as Miracle Grow for the brain. [4] BDNF not only produces a supply of new neurons from which to form new synaptic connections (new learned responses to stress), but it fortifies and strengthens existing ones. It begins to reverse the results of chronic stress—which kills new nerve cells and shrinks back the dendrites of existing ones—making new synaptic linkages very difficult to establish.

With this breath induced cocktail of BDNF and acetylcholine, our neurons are more likely to create new connections utilizing a more regulated balance of mood regulating (inhibitory) neurotransmitters and feel good hormones, thus the brain is better able to remember and repeat the behavior in the face of future triggers.

Yoga, meditation and other mindfulness practices work to enhance and seal in the learning that the breath puts in motion and through attention and awareness of the present moment and inner sensations of the body, new patterns of thinking and behavior begin to emerge.

But for the woman who is reaching for the needle because her life feels too distressing, a breath may be all she can manage to muster—and one breath can lead to five breaths, and in 30 seconds to a minute she can make a different choice. For a women who is about to strike her small child in response to a stress trigger—one, two or three deep diaphragm breaths can help her stop the cycle of abuse. And as one inmate described to us at the female correctional facility in Framingham, Massachusetts:

I felt my blood boil and I felt the urge to reach across the table and grab her by the throat. But I remembered the breath that we learned in our TIMBo group and I did that. One breath led to ten or fifteen and I felt my body calming down. I went back to my room and did some yoga poses and after that I really wanted to apologize to her. I have never in my life apologized to anyone for anything—even when I knew I was wrong. But I really wanted to and so I did. And now we are friends.

Behold the power of the breath.

[1] Siegel, Daniel J. Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. Reprint. Bantam, 2010.
[2] Naparstek, Belleruth. Invisible Heroes: Survivors of Trauma and How They Heal. Bantam, 2005.
[3] Hasselmo, Michael E. “The Role of Acetylcholine in Learning and Memory.” NIH Public Access 6, no. 16 (September 29, 2006): 710–715.
[4] Ratey, John J. Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. 1st ed. Little, Brown and Company, 2008.

Ed: Lynn Hasselberger

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About Suzanne Jones

Sue Jones, Founder and Executive Director of yogaHope has practiced yoga for over 15 years and is a leading voice in the subject of mind body practices for self regulation and personal empowerment. For the last six years Sue has trained, inspired and lead hundreds of volunteer yoga teachers who have donated their time in substance abuse rehabilitation centers, domestic abuse safe houses and homeless shelters for women. She dedicates much of her time to researching the effects of yoga and mindfulness practices on survivors of trauma and those suffering from traumatic stress response. Sue’s life and work have been profiled in Yoga Journal, The New York Times, Shape Magazine, Body + Soul Magazine, Martha Stewart Whole Living Magazine and on CNN Headline News.


12 Responses to “Breathing like this Can Save Lives.”

  1. Gabriela says:

    Thanks for the article. After 4 years of wonderful, delicious yoga (asanas), I recently discovered meditation. I started with pranayama and then moved to guided meditation (breath awareness + internal visualization). I'm still new to this practice but head-over-heels in love with it. I must say, though, I find it hard to find online resources ( I did find a couple of Bridget Kramer Woods' on youtube-her voice and guidance are so supporting). Do you have any suggestions or recommendations for best meditation videos/websites/podcasts? It would be so helpful for those of us that are still at the beginning of their meditation practice and looking for guidance. There are many out there but I find some of them just too "weird"…

  2. Sue says:

    Hi Gabriela,
    You might want to make a recording of your own voice reading. I would recommend 30 to 45 seconds between phrases and some wordless music as background.


  3. phil says:

    Anything that stops you from going for someone’s throat is worthwhile and beautiful. What a triumph!

  4. Gabriela says:

    Thanks, Kerri and Sue. Kerri, I liked the few Tara Brach podcasts that I listened to and now you inspire me to look for more. I just found one on youtube called "Sacred Pause", I'm looking forward to getting home and listen to it. I will also check her website, thank you.
    Sue, I wish I was so inspired as to make my own recordings. Problem is, being at the beginning of my meditation practice, I feel I need more guidance at first. Otherwise, how should I know what to say? An experienced teacher's guidance would help a beginner understand exactly what meditation is and how it works, and help him/her learn how to look within.

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  8. Katy says:

    One of the most helpful & important articles E.J has ever published…… imho !

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