Friday, August 21, 2009

Sometimes, all I need is the air that I breathe

If you are a baby-boomer, you may recall the Hollies song, “The Air that I Breathe.” Cool tune, in my opinion. If you have read any books by Thich Nhat Hanh you have read that he focuses on breathing techniques. When I first started reading his works , I almost became irritated about his constant emphasis on learning to breathe. However, Let me tell you something. I have been practicing breathing techniques regularly for over 2 years, now. I have learned that you can control heart rate, skin resistance, and blood pressure using breathing techniques.

I'll give you a specific example of how I use breathing techniques to control my blood pressure. I had read about a product called RespeRate. It sells for less than $300 USD. I read as much about it as I could to determine how it works. It monitors your respiration rate, does a calculation, then guides you into changing your breathing to get your respiration rate below 12 respirations per minute. Typically, most of us (including me) are very shallow breathers. The other goal of the RespeRate is to get you to breathe deeper. The company claims that if you use the machine 15 minutes each day for 30 days, you can lower your blood pressure as much as 20 points on the systolic and diastolic measurements.

I set about to determine my optimal breathing patterns to decrease my respiration to something less than 12 respirations per minute, and to increase the depth of my respiration to supply more oxygen to the heart. As I describe this process, keep in mind that we are all metabolically unique. We all have different operational requirements in our biology. What works for me may not work for you. You must determine your own optimal respiration rate and depth.

First, learn to count off seconds. I have found that if I count “one-thousand-and-one” that will get me very close to one second in time. If I count:
I will have counted off 4 seconds.

Start at trying 12 respirations per minute. A complete respiration includes an inhale and an exhale. To get 12 respirations per minute, I divide 60/12 which is 5. I need to do a complete respiration every 5 seconds. Keep in mind that you must exhale as much volume as you inhale. So I would need to inhale for 2.5 seconds and exhale 2.5 seconds (5/2).

OK, start the inhale as you count “one-thousand-and-one one-thousand-and-two one-thousand” Then start the exhale as you count one-thousand-and-one one-thousand-and-two one-thousand.” Then start the cycle over.

Twelve respirations per minute will probably be too shallow and you will soon feel like you are out of breath. You may even start yawning or even burping.

After a bit of experimenting, I found that 6 respirations per minute was optimal. That means I count off 4 seconds on a deep, steady inhale, hold 1 second, exhale 4 seconds, hold 1 second and repeat the cycle. Holding the breath for a second may be necessary to allow your lungs time to absorb the oxygen from the air and exchange it with the carbon dioxide. That rate allowed me to breathe comfortably, deeply and efficiently. At 6 respirations per minute, I do not yawn, I do not feel like I am out of breath. It is totally comfortable and sustainable.

How effective was it? Well, my blood pressure without medication has a baseline of 168/98. I have had times when my blood pressure, without medication shoots up to 210/110. At that pressure, the capillaries in my eyeballs literally start popping. It is not pretty. Using the breathing technique at 6 respirations per second, I can lower my blood pressure to the baseline in less than 10 minutes.

Obviously, I have to be on blood pressure medications. The meds have brought my pressure down to about 158/93. (For some reason, my diastolic pressure doesn't change much under medication. My doctor is somewhat distressed over that phenomenon. There are times when my blood pressure may jump to around 190/101. In less than 5 minutes, using the breathing at 6 respirations per minute, I can bring my pressure as low as 158/89. That is a drop of 32 points on the systolic measurement.

There can be any number of reasons for this decrease in blood pressure. Here are a few things that come to my mind. First, counting of seconds causes my mind to focus – it gets rid of “monkey mind.” It could be that whatever emotion or thought that causes the pressure to go up, is preempted by the counting. Without the stress source, the blood pressure naturally drops.

Perhaps, the deeper breathing allows the lungs to absorb more oxygen, giving the heart more oxygen, reducing the need to pump so vigorously to get enough oxygen to the rest of the body.

After years of practice, I easily achieve one of the altered states of mind with the breathing techniques. Perhaps, with that relaxed state, the heart doesn't have to work so hard, and the blood pressure drops.

Back to Thich Nhat Hanh and his emphasis on breathing techniques: he is spot on. Controlling breathing in various patterns, achieves different results in your body statistics; Things like heart rate, skin resistance, mind states, and even awareness, change.

I have found a training device that is excellent if one is interested in learning breathing techniques for what ever reason. Checkout Wild Divine's hardware and software packages. I have used both the Journey to the Wild Divine and the Wisdom Quest packages. All of their packages work on the same premise, but the “Journey” and the “Quest” wrap the exercises and techniques in a story that requires you to learn and achieve proficiency in various breathing techniques. The sensors measure heart rate and skin resistance then calculate the degree of success in controlling these measurements. The program provides constant biofeedback to help you achieve the goals. The fact that breathing techniques influence “something” that changes skin resistance and heart rate, is interesting, and it can obviously be used to do good things like lower blood pressure, and change moods and attitudes.

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