“Looking Under the Psychosomatic Hood of Breathing…”

As a once “proud” owner of the turbo-charged Saab 9-5, I recall the great sigh of relief I’d experience, when — after peeling off at the first hint of “green” at the streetlight — I’d look back at the sluggish acceleration of the suspecting (and unsuspecting) contenders left in the dust of the street race…

Oh, the triumph of the turbo acceleration!

Turbo — the way I understand it — is a mechanical equivalent of a Power Breath. Invented by the Swiss engineer, Alfred Buchi, turbo compresses the ambient air and delivers it to the air intake manifold at higher than normal pressure. This forced air induction is superior to the naturally aspirated engines ultimately increases power and torque.

Turbo — thus! — is a deep breath.

Auto-mechanics aside and shifting gears to psychology and physiology of relaxation…

The Turbo effect of Relaxation — contrary to the oft-heard advice of taking a deep breath — is in the Exhalation, not in the Inhalation phase!

James Austin, M.D., a neuroscientist and Zen practitioner, poses and answers the following key question that any Aspirant of Relaxation ought to know: “What happens during breathing out?”

“Breathing out quiets down the activity of many nerve cells. Expiration slows the firing of nerve cells in the amygdala….Such slowings, taking place in the limbic system and elsewhere, may contribute to the basic calming effect.” (p. 461-462).

Austin further explains this relationship between psyche and soma: as lungs expand (after you inhale), stretch receptors tighten up and signal the brain stem via vagus nerves to shut off the inhalation — this initiates the exhalation phase which is driven by the elastic recoil of the chest and abdomen.

Austin elaborates: in addition to this hard-wired feedback mechanism, there is another factor that dampens inspiration — the proprioceptive feedback from the lower abdomen muscles that we are typically not consciously aware of. This feedback from the lower abdomen muscles also ascends up the peripheral nervous system to down-regulate the medulla and to turn off the inhalation phase.

“Note what happens in zazen,” writes Austin, “The meditator trains bare conscious attention to focus on these faint up-and-down breathing movements in the lower abdomen, the tanden” (p. 93).

Austin sums up: “chanting and other breathing techniques prolong exhalation” and “in this manner such practices may further increase the inhibitory tone of the vagus nerves,” (p. 94) which correlates with the experience of relaxation.

Inspiration activates — expiration relaxes. Take a deep breath and your pupils will dilate. Exhale — and your pupils will slightly constrict. Fear — according to Austin — lengthens the phase of inspiration. Relaxation — on the other hand — is accompanied by more time spent in breathing out.

So, to turbo-charge your excitement — inhale. To turbo-charge your relaxation — exhale (and chant). Or hum…

Austin reports that “well trained meditators dampen their breathing” to as low as 4-6 breath cycles per minute by lengthening the reducing the overall volume of air they breathe, lengthening exhalation phase and increasing the extent of abdominal breathing (p. 94-95), with the overall time in inspiration falling down to a mere 25% of the overall breath cycle. Contrast this with the fact that normally we spend about 43% of the breath cycle in the inspiration phase (p. 95).

What’s even more remarkable is that these “longer expirations had evolved naturally during zazen” without any apparent conscious training effort from zazen practitioners.

In addition to breathing out of tanden (lower abdomen), breathing through the nose appears to also play a role in facilitating relaxation. Austin writes: “The flow of air along the nasal passages also influences the brain, because air flow stimulates nasal nerve endings. These stimuli go on to induce a rhythmical 40 CPS (cycles per second) activity in the olfactory bulb, which is the higher extension of the central nervous system overlying the nasal passages. When slow meditating breathing reduces the volume of air flow, it also reduces the discharges of nerve cells in the bulb. In summary, then, whenever we breathe more quietly and prolong the phase of exhalation, we are probably quieting the firing activity of many nerve cells, bon in the medulla and above ” (p. 95).

The above ” above” is of particular interest — this notion that merely by prolonging our exhalation and breathing quietly through the nose we can down-regulate the activity in the “higher extension” of the central nervous system suggests that abdominal breathing, through the nose, with prolonged exhalation phase is a kind of Break Pedal that serves as a Relaxation Turbo…

Ready. Set. Exhale!



Breathing Corner