Postlude to Rhythmic Breathing

Another addition to a post; after thoughts based upon valuable feedback from students.  The choice of “postlude” connects this post to the last through the evocation of rhythm – postlude “the final part of a piece of music”.

One comment:

Did you watch the programme with Nadia (the masterchef girl) dealing with her anxiety etc. – she realized , in  conversation with a therapist that the deep breathing …… was very unhelpful to  her and in fact made her worse ….

This was interesting since Nadiya Hussain’s  reaction seemed counter to much advice but the therapist identified 2 elements to his client’s anxiety – panic disorder and post-traumatic stress.  The deep breathing was a reminder of a terrible event during her school days.  A complex situation which the programme makers attempted to depict.

A useful nudge to consider how complex issues, such as anxiety, cannot be quickly covered through You Tube clips or blogs such as this one.   We often look for shortcuts; “quick fixes” but the BBC programme clearly illustrated that this is unrealistic.  I had doubts about linking Alan Watkin’s TED talk for this reason.  TED talks are interesting but performance can outweigh content at times.

An article on the science of slow deep breathing that I read when preparing the Rhythmic breathing blog, may provide more substance for some readers.

In this article the normal variation that occurs during each breathing cycle – respiratory sinus arrhythmia – and which indicates a healthy heart, is explained very well by Dr Matthew McKinnon.  He draws a comparison between our 2 nervous systems (Sympathetic and Parasympathetic) with a Gas/Brake mechanism that speeds up and slows down various functions of the body.  Heart rate increases during inhalations and decreases with exhalations.  The cycle is complex but heart rate is largely adjusted by the “brake” through the vagus nerve.  Inhalations draw blood from the heart to the lungs.  Since the body strives for homeostasis (equilibrium), the heart compensates by increasing heart rate and pushing blood to the body – the “Brake” is eased off to allow for this. When you exhale, blood returns to your body from your lungs and the heart slows back down as the “Brake” is applied.

In slow deep breathing, there is an increase in “Brake” activity.  Dr Matthew Mckinnon describes this as a “..biological brake..” which is much needed in a “…state of petroleum- fueled anxiety…”:

…. In fact, high PSNS/”Brake” tone has been associated with trait happiness, resilience in the face of stress, and childhood cognitive performance…..

You can follow the links that he makes in the article.  As the BBC programme on Nadiya and Anxiety shows, the association mentioned above is not clear cut.  This cartoon for example, presents a comparison between two “types” and whilst it is immediate, it is literally and idiomatically, black and white:

Image result for cartoon of gas and brake

Childhood trauma (traumas in Nadiya’s case) clearly inhibit the PSNS/Brake function.  When I watched Nadiya’s panic rising with deep breathing I visualized the Brake and Gas being applied at the same time – the wheels spinning.

In out yoga practice our work is cut out in our attempt to reduce tension; to find greater comfort in our bodies and in ourselves. To feel comfortable with ourselves. We try to turn the focus away from a structural/ mechanistic model in which muscles and shape dominate,  towards creating a space in which we listen to the nervous system.  We emphasize the “letting go” quality of the outbreathe in our yoga practice. This is one important reason why we use the outbreathe in our extension patterns, whilst some approaches move towards extension with the inhale.  The exhalation relaxes the diaphragm and reduces  it’s pull  on the spine and ribs.  The the spine lengthens with greater ease as the “foot is taken off the gas” and the heart rate slows down.  The inhalation whilst in extension can then be passive – in a “happy and easy way”  (Awakening The Spine p. 174.  Vanda Scaravelli)

Vanda Scaravelli wrote that “…Breathing is the essence of yoga..”  and she gave images to help us reduce tension in our breathing.


…a tree spreading it’s branches outwards and upwards at the same time…

….the outflowing breath   ….. a large wave….


“…mist spreading in a tree-filled valley…..

….a door pushed gently by the wind…..

….a slow motion film….

…the way the peal of an organ gradually swells to fill the church with sound….”

Vanda’s words help to tie up the ends of this post.  The evocation of rhythm brings me to another comment following the last blog.  One reader found the Breath Control Project clip very wierd and balked at the “plastic bags” and “big red rubber gloves!”  My interest lay in the subtitle of the piece – Our Precious Breath  – and the fact that we take it for granted most of the time.

In a Q & A on Radio London, Caroline Wright, the artistic director said:

…..There is an unseen rhythm to all our lives, as breathing punctuates the air around us exchanging oxygen for carbon dioxide. We live by this metronome, often being unaware of its existence until we are affected by situations such as illness, atypical circumstances or environmental contexts….

There are many ways by which we can appreciate our breathing, of course – yoga being one of them.

Finally, response to my concerns about the heart-centred focus advocated by Alan Watkins in his second TED Talk  (You can remind yourself of the link between messages to the brain from the heart and vagus nerve).  Readers with personal knowledge thought this would be fine as long as those with post-operative issues  relating to the diaphragm, started slowly and carefully.

See some of you next week.

2 thoughts on “Postlude to Rhythmic Breathing

  1. Most useful comment from a medical professional. “Deep breathing can cause panic if practised too fast. Essentially, it becomes a form of hyperventilation, therefore Co2 in the blood drops and can cause palpitations, panic etc. In some people there is a fine line between slow and fast breathing. So it is the rate of breathing as well as the depth which is important….”


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