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By Ram Rao, Ph.D., Principal Research Scientist for Apollo Health

The advantages of engaging in breathing exercises, also known as “pranayama (in yoga),” have been acknowledged for thousands of years. In recent decades, scientific research appears to affirm what the yoga culture traditionally embraced: intentional breathing or mindful breathing could potentially reverse various health conditions, such as chronic pain, hypertension, stress, and anxiety, and even improve memory.

Yoga-based breathing techniques involve paying constant attention to the breath (mindful breathing) while inhaling and exhaling. Mindful breathing helps to gain mastery over the respiratory process while building a strong connection between the body and brain.  This allows a more healthful state to be experienced and allows the mind to overcome stressful thoughts and maintain calmness. Furthermore, mindful breathing helps maintain a high heart rate variability (HRV). Elevated HRV, characterized by increased variation between heartbeats, is typically tied to optimal health. Individuals with higher HRV often exhibit enhanced cardiovascular fitness and greater stress resilience. One simple method to maintain a high HRV is to practice mindful breathing. A normal breathing rate for an adult at rest is 12 to 20 breaths per minute, and with mindful breathing, this can be reduced to six to eight per minute, which in turn elevates the HRV. Thus, any individual who has a regular practice of mindful breathing can strengthen the body and brain through the power of breath.

Several researchers report that mindful breathing provides immense benefits: a) it may reduce blood pressure in people with hypertension, b) help relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression, c) reduce insomnia, and d) lower stress and improve mental health. Recent research studies now suggest that this simple breathing technique can also help fight dementia. Termed deep, slow breathing, or DSB, involves consciously breathing in and breathing out while altering the time spent inhaling and exhaling.

In a 2023 study, 45 elderly individuals at risk of dementia examined their cognitive abilities before and after a period of DSB. The findings indicated that DSB enhances the capacity of elderly individuals to engage with new cognitive tasks and improves overall cognitive function. The group that underwent DSB prior to cognitive assessments displayed notably superior performance in measures of retention, attention, working memory, and spatial perception compared to those who did not engage in DSB beforehand. Other studies have also reported beneficial structural changes in the brain. MRI investigations unveiled that DSB activates brain regions associated with acquiring new motor skills, including the prefrontal cortex, post-parietal cortex, limbic system, and cerebral motor cortex. These areas are pivotal in processes such as new learning, cognitive processing, emotional regulation, and the formation of short-term memories. This underscores the intimate connection between DSB, memory, and cognitive function.

Mindful Breathing is expanding its reach beyond the realms of yoga studios, extending into corporate retreats and educational settings. The Mayor of New York City recently unveiled a mandate requiring all public schools to incorporate daily mindful breathing sessions for students, emphasizing, “There is a science to breathing.”

Here are two simple instructions on how to perform DSB. While technique 1 is for novices, technique 2 is for people who have prior practice of some form of breathing exercise.

Technique (1): Take a comfortable seated position and ensure an upright posture without slouching or rounding the lower spine. Now, with your mind focused on your lungs and breath, inhale slowly to a count of five. Exhale to a count of five. This completes one cycle of breathing. Repeat this process for a total of five cycles. Perform this routine twice daily, mid-morning and again in the evening.

Technique (2): Take a comfortable seated position and ensure an upright posture without slouching or rounding the lower spine. Place one hand on your belly and place the other hand on your chest. With your mind focused on your lungs and breath, inhale slowly to a count of five as you draw your belly outward. The hand on your belly should move more than the one that’s on your chest. Exhale with the same deliberation, counting to five while gently pulling your belly towards your spine. This completes one cycle of breathing. Repeat this process for a total of five cycles. Perform this routine twice daily, mid-morning and again in the evening.

If you wish to perform DSB in real-time in a studio-like setting, come and attend the yoga class on Wednesdays.

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