I’ve spent this last weekend catching up on some reading, and in particular reviewing some old staples.
I wanted a little bit of a refresher on the Relaxation Response, and the science behind Coherent Breathing.
When I first read The Relaxation Response back in 2017 my reaction was why the heck (all right, it was a stronger word) didn’t someone teach us this at school. The book was published in 1975 when I was a mere 8, and it would have been a useful life skill to have know about the Relaxation Response before my 50s!
Benson is a cardiologist and was prompted to study the effects of relaxation on blood pressure, along with why some of the early western yogis practising Transcendental Meditation in the late 60s/early 70s seemed to have a better control of their blood pressure and related cardiovascular variables. Benson’s interest came from an awareness of the negative effects of high blood pressure on cardiovascular health but at the same time the adverse side effects of the then conventional treatments.
From his research Benson distilled the variables behind what he called the Relaxation Response –
- Come into a quiet environment
- Have a mental device for your focus – a sound, a word or phrase to repeat, or a fixed gaze. He also suggests “Attention to the normal rhythm of breathing is useful and enhances the repetition of the sound or the word”
- Adopt a passive attitude – trying not to follow distracting thoughts, but not worrying about them “Distracting thoughts will occur. Do not worry about them. When these thoughts do present themselves and you become aware of them simply return to the repetition”
- Adopt a comfortable position
He later distilled the essentials to 2 and 3 – focus and a passive attitude. You may notice the similar passive attitude when I guide you into relaxation – “the mind will wander, when you notice it come back to the breath, don’t be critical of yourself for the wandering mind”
I wanted to re-check Benson’s advice on frequency and duration – it seems to be once or twice daily, ten to twenty minutes, not within two hours of eating as digestion needs energy and interferes with relaxation.
Benson’s approach of using a mental device such as sound, word, phrase or gaze leans heavily on his study of Transcendental Meditation but other meditative approaches, including meditation on the breath, or breath awareness, are equally viable – enter Coherent Breathing.
Anyone who has been in one of my classes in recent years will have met Coherent Breathing – also known as Resonant Breathing – the practice of breathing for a period of time at 5 breaths per minute, using a chime to help pace the breath. Stephen Elliot has been a pioneer in understanding the effects of this practice, and The New Science of the Breath is his seminal work on the topic.
I’ll be honest, the physiology is hard to follow even having studied this to a high level in my Yoga Therapy training. However simplifying things when we practice with an even inhale and exhale at around 5 to 6 breaths a minute, the nervous system and cardiovascular system work together in a very settled way which improves the functioning of our nervous system, i.e. inducing Coherence in our internal environment. To expand on this further, when we inhale we stimulate our Sympathetic Nervous System and when we exhale we stimulate our Parasympathetic Nervous System – the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic branches of our nervous system are Flight/Fight and Rest/Digest respectively – and we can measure this, and hence the robustness of our nervous system, by Heart Rate Variability (HRV), how much the heart rate varies with each inhale and exhale. At 5 breaths a minute HRV is enhanced – above or below this HRV becomes unsettled, hence 5 breaths per minute, give or take, is optimum. Additionally research suggests improved Baroreflex sensitivity at 5 bpm – Baroreceptors monitor changes in blood pressure in the body. Our brain and body in turn react to the settled landscape at 5 breaths per minute, and improvements are seen downstream in areas like reduced blood pressure, improved blood oxygenation, improved stress response and improved mental well-being.
All well and good, but we live in a stressed and stimulated world – yes? Why not practice slower breathing and extended exhales to stimulate our parasympathetic nervous system and eradicate stress? Well, there is a time and a place for everything – if we are acutely stressed – in neurological terms our sympathetic nervous system is dominant – then slow breathing and extended exhale will certainly bring this down and introduce a counter sympathetic effect. However long term we benefit from autonomic flexibility – a strong vagal tone (another article) which in turn means the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems can cut in and out as needed – too much parasympathetic is as problematic as too much sympathetic.
Bringing it Together
Coherent Breathing – a steady 5 breaths per minute with equal inhale and exhale – will promote balance and flexibility (autonomic flexibility) in our nervous system. At the same time the Coherent Breathing practice fulfils the key criteria of Benson’s Relaxation Response – focus and a passive attitude. So a structured Coherent Breathing practice of, say, 10 to 20 minutes a day using a chime can help us both promote a healthy nervous system and relax.
if you are very stressed or anxious, then settle first with a extended exhale practice, say inhale 7 exhale 11 (or 5 / 8 – let the out breath be about 1.5 times the in breath). Likewise if you are sluggish then an invigorating yoga breathing practice, eg Kapalbahti may help stimulate the the sympathetic nervous system (again, another article).
Link to the chimes on YouTube or for better quality search for Respire 1 on iTunes or Google Play and buy the track “two bells”.
I’ve recorded an introduction to the practice, a guided session, and some chime tracks: