Exercising your breath


An Ohio Wesleyan University professor showed how to reduce stress with breathing exercises during a virtual class on Wednesday.

Emily Hanafin, Professor of Health & Human Kinetics, and a yoga teacher, presented “Simple Practices for Stress Relief.” It was a timely topic, since the COVID-19 pandemic continues into the summer months, causing uncertainty and concern for many.

Hanafin said people can incorporate simple practices into their daily routines for stress relief. “You can change the script,” she said.

The practices included journaling, either first thing in the morning or before going to bed. “Putting pen to paper is a way to get rid of excess energy, and clear mental space,” Hanafin said.

Another practice was to move your body for as much of the day as you can in all the ways it was meant to be moved. “That is what it was designed to do.”

Being of service to others was another practice. Also mentioned was being socially or virtually connected, which two Ohio Wesleyan psychology professors discussed in detail on Monday.

Finally, Hanafin spoke of having a daily breathing practice for balance of the nervous and endocrine systems, or homeostasis.

“Our bodies are incredible,” she said. “We have all these systems processing without us having to pay attention to it. Today we’ll look at the nervous system and endocrine system. When they’re not working together they can get out of whack.”

She said the brain and spine were the nervous system. However, there were also subsystems such as the peripheral, autonomic (automatic, involuntary), sympathetic (inhaling energy, right side of body, male aspect responsible for fight or flight) and parasympathetic (exhaling waste, left side of body, female aspect responsible for rest and digestion) nervous systems always working together.

The vital vagus nerve is activated by exhalation and regulates the heartbeat. Having a high or good vagal tone has beneficial effects such as positive emotions, she said.

The endocrine system is in charge of secreting hormones for various parts of the body, Hanafin said. “A lot goes on in that system. The nervous and endocrine systems must work together.”

Interestingly, the smallest gland, the pituitary gland, is in charge of the other glands.

“We have the ability to regulate our nervous system with our breath,” she said. “These exercises can be done every single day. They don’t take a lot of time. You can do them before going to bed. They’re wonderful for regulating the heart rate, and it lowers blood pressure, and improves digestion. I’m giving you the recipe and you can tweak it.”

Hanafin demonstrated some simple breathing practices based on Katonah Yoga and pranayama (breathing exercises) in Hatha Yoga.

One technique was resonance breathing. You sit at the edge of your chair, with your body’s joints stacked together in 90-degree angles. Then close your eyes, draw your attention to the bottom of your spine. “Take a moment to drop in,” Hanafin said. “Notice external and internal influences, inhale and exhale. When you feel ready open your eyes, jot down anything you notice from your experience. The breath is a bridge from the body to the mind. You can train your breath to have a stabilizing effect on your nervous system.”

If you feel anxious while doing the breathing, let your breath move in an and out at its normal rate. You can also put your hand on your belly to feel it expand and deflate, anything to bring you back to your physical being.

Another exercise was called box breathing, with a couple rounds of holding inhales and exhales for four counts and imagining the sides of a box protecting you. Hanafin said it is normal for people to inhale longer than exhale on their breaths, and she wanted to try to even it out. As you improve try to inhale for four counts, and exhale for six counts, she said.

There was a different style of breath-work called single nostril breathing which Hanafin said would put the brain’s hemispheres into balance. She said the left nostril corresponds with the right side of brain and vice versa. She said to place your right thumb on right nostril for three breaths in and out left nostril and then do the opposite for the other side.

She also did the “breath of the seasons” to give one direction. You inhale down to the base of your spine which represents the spring rising; the hold your breath over head for summer; then exhale to bottom for fall; and lastly hold at the bottom for winter. “For everything there is a season,” she said.

Hanafin also quoted some yoga theory: “Anywhere the breath goes, the mind can follow. Anywhere the mind goes, the breath can access. If you want one thing, you’ve got to do everything.”

She recommended a book called One Simple Thing, and advised “the world is your oyster for finding phenomenal teachers online. Just come in as you are and start doing it for your own well-being. We’ve just scratched the surface.”

Moderator Kira Bailey asked about the long-term aspects of the breathing exercises.

“I feel like I’m in the driver’s seat,” Hanafin said. “We’re intelligently designed by the universe.”

Bailey asked if one needed to be spiritual or religious to practice the breathing.

“Yoga practice is personal and spiritual,” Hanafin said. “It’s also a way to remember you’re connected. Whether or not you’re religious, think of creativity and imagination. When you get in that seat and plug in, you open yourself up to what’s above you, meaning the universe.

“If you don’t follow a particular religion, your imagination is the next best thing.”

Wednesday’s hour-long virtual lecture concluded week seven of a 10-week, free online course called “We’re in This Together: An Interdisciplinary Exploration of the Coronavirus Pandemic.” Taught by 24 Ohio Wesleyan faculty members, the course is open to students and the public alike.

OWU spokespersons said more 1,200 people are participating in the class, and more than 350 people are taking part in a Facebook COVID-19 Class Discussion Group.

For more information about OWU’s “We’re in This Together” course, visit www.owu.edu/COVIDclass.


By Gary Budzak

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Gary Budzak may be reached at 740-413-0906 or on Twitter @GaryBudzak.

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