Having trouble completing tasks? Are you tired of interruptions in your day making you less productive? Breathing & Meditation on their own or during your yoga practice could be just the answer.
During yoga pranayama exercises people practice controlling the breath, or prana, to induce a state of calm and focus. Paying attention to breathing and slowing down respiration is a core component of many mindfulness practices. Recent studies suggest the practice has multiple benefits—it induces an overall sense of well-being while reducing anxiety and improved sleep. But what exactly is going on in the brain during meditation? Imaging studies of humans have shown brain regions involved in mind-wandering, attention and emotion are involved in various stages of mindfulness practice. A new mouse study, published Thursday in Science, shows that neurons in the brain-stem may also mediate the link between breathing and inducing a state of meditative calm.
Your body and mind automatically breathe in order to provide air to your lungs and keep yourself alive. But what if I told you a simple awareness of your breath could change the emotional signals that breath delivers? The basis for a new study dates back to 1991, when a group of neuroscientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, (U.C.L.A.) discovered the pre-Bötzinger complex, an area containing neurons that fired rhythmically in time with each breath. “Quite different from the cardiac pacemaker, the breathing pacemaker has a whole variety of different rhythms—for example, a yawn or a sigh or a gasp,” says study co-author Mark Krasnow, a biochemistry professor at Stanford University. Rather than simply providing air to your lungs, these types of breaths are also associated with social and emotional signals.
Krasnow’s team genetically engineered mice to remove a specific subset of neurons that contains two genes: cadherin 9 (Cdh9), a gene that is expressed in the pre-Bötzinger complex, and developing brain homeobox protein 1 (Dbx1), which prior studies had demonstrated are necessary for respiration—without it, mice weren’t able to breathe. When the team removed these Cdh9/Dbx1 neurons from mice this time around, the animals still breathed normally with one slight difference: breaths came more slowly than in normal mice. The rodents were also unusually calm—they spent less time exploring their surroundings and more time sitting still.
Evidence from human research also suggests meditation and respiration are closely connected. If we are able to combine the timing of our breath (slowing it down) and monitor and recognize our breath as a calming agent, we may be able to clear our minds, sit still, focus, sleep better and spend time on the things that matter most in our lives. In a recent study, Antoine Lutz, a scientist who studies the neurobiology of meditation at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research, and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin–Madison discovered long-term meditators develop slower breathing patterns than those who did not practice on a regular basis. The slower breathing may “activate this ascending pathway less,” says Lutz.“ And that “it may be a signature of a different level of stress.”
According to Lutz, the findings from latest Science paper raise the possibility that “any form of practice—from yoga, pranayama to meditation—that is actively manipulating respiration might be using this pathway to regulate some aspects of arousal.” Understanding how the brain controls breathing could also help develop new therapeutic targets to treat conditions such as anxiety, panic disorders and arousal-related sleep disorders.
You can find breathing and meditation classes at all 5 Hot 8 Yoga studios. We have everything from Invigor8 Meditation (weekday mornings at all studios & held spaces in Pasadena & Sherman oaks weekday afternoons), Breathing Meditation (Friday nights in Beverly Hills), Foundations 2: Meditation & Philosophy (Saturdays or Sundays depending on your studio, and workshops throughout the year. Visit our website to see a more detailed schedule and reserve your spot!