Journalist James Nestor, author of an essay entitled "The art of breathing", states that, for the health of the body and mind, how we breathe is even more important than what we eat and how much we move. Without detracting from a varied and balanced diet, rich in anti-inflammatory and antioxidant substances, and an active lifestyle, clearly breathing and even more the way we breathe can make a real difference. After all, we perform about 25,000 breaths a day, so it is reasonable to expect a great impact on health from the breath. And above all, from the way we exhale. In fact, it is certainly simpler and more direct to focus on inhalation, since, as it has been taught since the early years of school, it is through this process that we introduce oxygen into the body. However, as thousands of years of wisdom in the form of pranayamas, or yoga breathing techniques, and recent scientific research have been able to demonstrate, the exhalation also plays a pivotal role. But let's understand better, deepening the advantages of slow, deep and conscious breathing and the difference between inhalation and exhalation.
Benefits of good breathing
Fast, shallow breaths, how often we find ourselves breathing this way during the day, when we are under stress, for example, or when we get angry or when we are in a rush. Instead, there are many benefits of slower and deeper breathing. First of all, a breathing of this type improves gas exchange in the lungs, so that more oxygen can reach the cells that can thus produce energy and the risk of dyspnea and also of cellular degeneration, which, in the presence of oxygen, find a less favorable environment, is reduced (Bernardi et al, Lancet, 1998 - Sletta et al, PLoS One, 2017). Not only that, non-superficial and slower breathing helps to lower cortisol levels, and therefore stress, and improves mood, also counteracting anger, tension and depression (Perciavalle et al, Neurol Sci, 2017 - Busch et al, Pain Med, 2012).
The duration of the breath, the difference between inhalation and exhalation
We therefore understood that deep breathing is beneficial. But the time dedicated to the two phases of breathing, namely inhalation and exhalation, is also equally important. In particular, studies have observed that, during deep breathing, the greatest benefits are observed when the exhalation lasts longer, about twice, than the inhalation. What emerged was that deep breathing in which exhalation lasts twice as inhalation is able to more effectively increase the feeling of relaxation, to improve mood and reduce anxiety and stress (Diest et al, Appl Psychophysiol Biofeedback, 2014). The explanation for this is that breathing of this type increases the variability of the heart rate in the high frequency region. To understand this observation it is necessary to specify that the heartbeat is not always the same, like a metronome, but varies, adapting to external stimuli. Indeed, the more it varies and adapts, the better it is for our body. The high frequency region is connected to the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, associated with feelings of calm and relaxation, while the low frequency region prevails in times of stress (Bae et al, Psychophysiology, 2021).
Pranayama and breathing techniques
The simplest and most immediate way to benefit from the strength of the breath, especially when we feel stressed at work, is to simply try to lengthen the exhalation. Inhale for a count of 4, exhale for a count of 6, and hold your breath with empty lungs for a count of 4. The pranayama of alternating nostril breathing is also very useful. Plug the right nostril with the thumb of your right hand and inhale from the left for 4 seconds. Close the left nostril with the other fingers and exhale from the right nostril for 8 seconds. Inhale for 4 seconds still from the right nostril, then plug this nostril and exhale for 8 seconds from the left nostril, and so on. As you become more confident it is possible to increase the times, inhaling for 5 seconds and exhaling for 10, then inhaling for 6 seconds and inhaling for 12 (Yoga, Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center).