when pictures fail me…
Newsflash! The average American is in stress-mode breathing (15-20 breaths per minute) nearly all the time–while a calm, centered person takes about six breaths per minute.
Why? Any notion of serenity we try and achieve is being constantly derailed by all sorts of distractions, and therefore the “fight or flight” response has become the default setting for our nervous systems, making us breathe much faster.
Luckily, Dr. Richard Brown, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University, has developed a program of breath techniques, designed to help people with dire stress in depressed areas of the world, as well as for 9/11 responders such as firefighters and police officers, EMS workers, and health care providers.
YogaCityNYC’s Sharon Watts sat down with Dr. Brown to learn more about what this breathing work is all about.
SW: How did you get started?
RB: I began doing yoga when I was 9–watching Richard Hittleman’s “Yoga For Health” on TV in the early 1960s. An interest in martial arts and zen meditation followed, and by the time I was practicing medicine I switched to Aikido, in order to protect my hands. Breath was a part of the core practice.
SW: The techniques described in your book The Healing Power of the Breath (co-authored by Patricia L. Gerbarg, M.D.) come from a wide range of spiritual disciplines. How do they coexist with modern medical technology?
RB: A thousand years ago, religion was the main paradigm for understanding things. Now science fills that role. I’ve traveled the world extensively and have learned a lot from different spiritual teachers. Since 1999 I’ve been involved with workshops and medical studies that have validated the meditation techniques of yogis, Zen Buddhists, Chinese qigong practitioners, and even Russian Orthodox Christian monks. All natural movement, breathing, and meditation goes back to the essence of how the foundation of our nervous system works.
SW: You’ve adapted these sophisticated breathing techniques into a simple approach for anyone to benefit from. How does one begin?
RB: Starting in a comfortable position, either seated or lying down, inhale through the nose slowly and consciously, filling the belly, then exhale for the same amount of counts in the same way. Ideally, 4-6 breaths per minute, but I encourage people to do what they can at the beginning. Ten minutes, both morning and night, is a good way to begin the practice. This is the Coherent Breathing part of the technique, which eventually includes Resistance Breathing and Breath Moving.
SW: It sounds so simple. I suppose the hardest part is always the first step: setting ten minutes aside to breathe consciously. Are there instant results, as incentive for Type A New Yorkers?
RB: Breathing is the number one most effective method of washing away stress. You feel something within 5-10 minutes. Of course, accumulated stress lives in layers, so better, deeper, and more long-lasting results will manifest after 3-9 months of conscious breathing.
SW: Your programs have been implemented all over the world. How did that come about and who have you helped?
RB: Initially I was asked to speak at the UN, in India and other places with an epidemic of stress and depression, where the medical systems cannot cope. That led to research projects for 9/11 responders who were exposed to all kinds of deadly toxins, as well as people with severe treatment-resistant anxiety disorders such as sexual PTSD, war veterans, hurricane and tsunami survivors, and immigrants from Central and South America who are victims of torture. And of course, healthy people who want to improve their yoga and whatever spiritual/religious practice they have.
SW: You refer to this as a path to self-healing. From a medical point of view, besides transporting oxygen and carbon dioxide through the blood stream, how else does the breath contribute to our health and well-being?
RB: The nervous system has a chance to repair by balancing the “fight or flight” response with the follow-up “rest and digest.” The nature of stress is to be self-centered. When we are balanced, we are better able to love and empathize, feeling connected to and not separate from others. The brain functions better too, aiding our sense of humor and creativity.
SW: So this really is about self-care, and taking responsibility for our own health.
RB: Absolutely. Using breath practice will turn on the body’s natural healing capacities, thus reducing dependence on medication. And it is imperative that we make simple breath practices available in schools. We are in an epidemic of stressed-out kids between 10-12 years old, turning to drugs, drinking, and suicide as coping techniques. We all need to empower ourselves by taking care of ourselves, and not rely entirely on the federal or state government. Breath work also helps to instill personal ethics into one’s life. Living with integrity and bliss is possible in this world.