Breath AS Medicine In Brain Health Webinar @ Aspen Brain Institute



Ed Harrold is the Master of Breath. On Monday, May 11, 2020, he generously shared with our virtual EXPERT SERIES audience the importance of transforming the automatic and unconscious process of breathing to a deliberate conscious series of choices which will inform myriad aspects of our health and well-being. Harrold’s intentional breathing and awareness exercises improve health, wellbeing, brain function and performance. 

Key Takeaways: 

  • Life is breath. Breathing is the first and last thing we humans do.

  • We can bring awareness, mindfulness and control to the activity of breathing.

  • Harrold invited us to consider various dimensions of breath: length, depth, rate, and rhythm.

  • We have choices about the dimensions of our breath. Our choices affect physiologic function and well-being, much as our physiology affects our breath. We can practice to effect the optimal balance between “feeling” and “being”.

  • The time of COVID presents us all with great anxiety. The vicious unconscious cycle of anxiety affects breath, which then generates even greater anxiety, and must be interrupted by awareness, consciousness, and choice. 

  • Choosing to take slower, deeper nasal breaths sends signals to the brain that relax and calm both body and mind. Physiologic impact of such altered breathing includes lowering of blood pressure; slowing of heart rate; relaxation of muscles; and increased blood flow to the brain. 

  • Harrold emphasized the importance of the diaphragm, a dome-shaped muscle at the base of our lungs. When we inhale, our diaphragm contracts and moves downward. This creates more space in our chest cavity, allowing our lungs to expand. When we exhale, the opposite happens — our diaphragm relaxes and moves upward in the chest cavity. Fully engaging the diaphragm allows us to take deep, refreshing breaths with optimal oxygen exchange - that is, the beneficial trade of incoming oxygen for outgoing carbon dioxide. 

  • When we are anxious, we unconsciously assume more shallow mouth breathing. Mindfulness, intention, and practice can undo this propensity. We can turn off our “animal brain” with its fight or flight plans by slowing the breath down - essentially tricking the brain into thinking we are safe. 

  • Diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, the tenth of twelve pairs of cranial nerves. The vagal nerve is our longest cranial nerve and supplies the heart, lungs, upper digestive tract, and other organs of the chest and abdomen.

  • The vagal nerve is primarily parasympathetic in function, facilitating calmness, relaxation, and digestion. Other vagal effects include communication with the gut and microbiome; decrease of inflammation; lowering of heart rate and blood pressure; and management of stress, anxiety, and fear. 

  • And we can absolutely control vagal nerve function by attending consciously to our breath.

Harrold’s powerful, overarching message: when we control our physiology, we can better control our psychology. When we better control our psychology, we better control our health, resilience, and general sense of well-being. Understanding our breath allows us greater mastery of our lives.

Thank you Ed Harrold for your generous and informative contribution. 

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