The breath and the nervous system

Recently I have been doing a little anatomy and physiology teaching for yoga teachers in training. The one question that always comes up is how does the breath calm the nervous system.

Firstly, yoga teaches us to breathe with intention, to be present and focused on the simple flow of an inhale and exhale bringing mindfulness into play. We therefore calm ourselves down, our mind quietens, we become less reactive and more focused. But there is a physiological response to this internal shift.

Vagus Nerve.jpg

This is a picture of the vagus nerve, (vagus meaning wondering in latin). These two branches of sensory nerve cell bodies wonder down to the gut and connects the brain stem to the body.

The functions contribute to both sympathetic nervous system (SNS, fight or flight) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS, rest and digest). The vagus nerve is the communication platform between the brain and the gut, the diaphragm muscles and provides some level of control for our heart rate viability (beat to beat intervals) by releasing a transmitter substance (ACh) and reducing the production of stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline).

The SNS facilitates a slight increase to our heart rate during an inhalation. Whereas during an exhalation, the PNS stimulates the vagus nerve to secrete ACh.

So if we breathe with intention, learning to use our primary respiratory muscles (the diaphragm) by deepening our inhale and lengthening our exhale, we are not only slowing down our breath, we are stimulating our bodies to take a more restorative response, reducing the heart rate and increasing digestion.

By controlling the time we are in the SNS, we are also reducing the amount of stress hormones released (cortisol and adrenaline), both of which are contributors to inflammatory diseases such as arthritis, diabetes and coronary heart disease.

The Navy uses breath work to ensure a calm and focused mind before entering the waters. The USA Defence Dept are now teaching Army Veterans who suffer with PTSD simple yogic breathing techniques and as a study from Stamford research department has shown, it has offered huge relief for a large proportion of sufferers. Women in labour are taught to breathe. In fact, the breath is deeply embedded into the english language as a method to calm, who hasn’t heard the term ‘take a deep breath’?

Breathing isn’t rocket science, it is something that we do up to 24,000 times a day, it is also the only system in our body which we can and have the ability to control. And just 5 minutes a day to tap into our breath can have huge benefits on our mental, emotional and physical wellbeing.

Belly breathing

Belly breathing is easy to do and very relaxing. Try this basic exercise

Sit or lie flat in a comfortable position.

Put one hand on your belly just below your ribs and the other hand on your chest.

Take a deep breath in through your nose, and let your belly push your hand out. Your chest should not move.

Breathe out through pursed lips as if you were whistling. Feel the hand on your belly go in, and use it to push all the air out.

Do this breathing 3 to 10 times. Take your time with each breath.

Notice how you feel at the end of the exercise.

The gardening effect

One morning not so long ago on my way into work, I was stopped in the surgery foyer by a lady who offered me some free elderflower juice and a slice of delicious berry cake. As I worked my way through my breakfast, the lady told me about the ingredients of her offerings, grown on the very same premises of my work. I recall wondering how I never knew a garden existed here. Turns out it is part of Lambeth’s GP food co-operative, an innovative co-operative of patients, doctors, nurses and people living in Lambeth (especially ones with long term health conditions) who have created a food growing network. The scheme has built gardens in 11 GP surgeries and other sites where patients learn how to grow food in a safe and secure environment.

The physical effects of gardening are being well documented. According to The Kings Fund, being active in Green Spaces has been linked to reducing levels of obesity by increasing physical activity and reducing long-term conditions such as heart disease, cancer and musculoskeletal conditions. Furthermore, it is linked to self-reported levels of both physical and mental health, reducing levels of anxiety and isolation through the inclusion of communities, companionships, identity and a sense of belonging, not to mention the satisfaction of creating a garden and growing your own food.

As the medical profession slowly wakes up to providing alternative ideas and advice on improving health, local communities are already cultivating their crops. The Green Gym runs every week at Broadwater Farm Community Centre, where you can volunteer in the garden and take some produce home. Living Under One Sun is a community based allotment project near Tottenham Hale and focuses on food growing and healthy eating projects and there are many more in the pipeline. Tending to a garden or a small pot on our window can seem overwhelming but it can take as little as a few minutes a day and here is the thing. In nurturing the plants and the environment we live in, we get back so much more and bring balance back to our mental and physical self.

If anyone needs me, il be in the garden.

Yoga: A key for tackling anxiety?


“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom” Viktor Frankl

Anxiety is a term that is widely used to describe changes in behaviors and ways of thinking. Although anxiety symptoms are very individual, they typically refer to increased worry, agitation, apprehension and difficulty in concentrating; this activates an imbalance of our autonomic nervous system. Anxiety releases adrenalin and often results in psychosomatic interactions such as an increase in tiredness, heart rate, blood pressure, shortness of breath leading to panic attacks, insomnia, muscle tension and changes to appetite/digestive system.

In 2013, the Mental Health Foundation reported 8.2 million cases of anxiety in the UK alone. Although there is an increasing number of alternative therapies being used such as counseling, psychotherapy and so on, pharmaceutical intervention still appears to be the most common choice, with a shocking 64.7 million items of anti-depressants issued by NHS pharmacies in just 12 months. Of course there is a place for pharmaceutical intervention but should this be the first and/or only choice? And can the number of people suffering with anxiety be reduced? Ironically the main side effects to the most common antidepressants are the very same as anxiety symptoms, perhaps this is one of the reasons why so many continue to rely on anti-depressants for many years.

Medical practitioners advise patients to find ways to relax, often referring to watching television and going to the gym, methods that actually increase hyperactivity by stimulation. Stillness and just being has become lost and often labeled as lazy, stagnant or boring in a society that pushes for continuous productivity. But doing nothing is actually highly active and has profound psychological and physiological mechanisms for emotional regulation through the nervous system.

The sympathetic nervous system (SNS, fight or flight) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS, rest and digest) both work together in an antagonistic way for balance. As anxiety is essentially stress, this will activate the sympathetic nervous system releasing adrenalin, leaving the body on high alert to either fight or flee. The blood pressure will rise, heart rate increases, muscles become restricted and breath becomes shallow. Being stressed physically creates more stress mentally, triggering the SNS, leading to a vicious circle of fight or flight mode. Donna Farhi’s breathing book talks about how over time the changes from persistent anxiety become something that is felt to be normal, often resulting in acute and chronic health conditions.

The parasympathetic nervous system works opposite to that discussed, it is responsible for stimulation of ‘rest and digest’ and activates when the body and mind is at rest. The most fundamentally important role of this part of the nervous system is the control of the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve connects the brain to everything in the body, influencing the production of enzymes and essential regulation of hormones. It conserves energy by slowing the heart rate down, relaxing muscles to enable optimum breathing and assist the normal functions of digestion, metabolism and more. The more this nervous system is engaged, the more it can be activated on demand to reduce and manage stress, therefore enabling equilibrium in the mind, body and breath.

The yoga sutras of Patanjuli suggest that if we calm our mind we calm our bodies and vice-versa, creating unity in everything. However we view the world and ourselves as human beings. Just as a machine needs to be connected to all of its parts in order to function, we too should consider being connected to all of our selves as an intrinsic way for health and well-being. The ancient practice of yoga is becoming increasingly popular and therefore more varieties on offer; However, the core of yoga still remains connection to the mind, body and breath (and for some, the spirit and soul). It can be through this practice that we learn how to produce the relaxation response.

Yoga enables us to pay attention to the present moment, therefore giving space to become more aware of our thoughts and feelings and where we may store these in our physical bodies. Instead of being overwhelmed by them, we’re better able to manage them. As the central part of yoga is meditation, the aim of this practice is to quieten the mind, done through a practice of conscious breathing techniques and synchronizing movements with these breaths followed by rest/meditation.

“We do not use the bodies to get into the poses but rather use the poses to get into our bodies” unknown

In Bo Forbes book titled Yoga for emotional balance, she highlights that unlike medication and psychotherapy, yoga actually addresses the mind, body and breath at the same time, suggesting a more holistic and integrated method to find balance.

There are many studies looking at yoga as a preventative to anxiety. One school in America offers it as part of the children’s curriculum and the outcomes have been astonishing. It has reduced the number of children being diagnosed with ADHD; improved concentration, reduced eating disorders of both obesity and anorexia and overall led to higher exam results. Another study offered yoga to prisoners, again the results were outstanding, reducing the number of in prison assaults and re-offending rates. In the UK, yoga was offered during pregnancy in a trial, which showed just one single class of yoga was found to reduce self-reported anxiety by one third and stress hormones by 14%. These studies suggest that yoga has huge positive benefits on people’s responses to external factors such as stress and anxiety.

Key organisations offer yoga as part of health and well-being programs for their staff, this includes NHS trusts and many corporate companies. Yoga is also offered as a therapeutic alternative in some areas of healthcare, including chronic pain management and palliative care. It is well established in voluntary sectors, especially mental health charities. However, there stills seems to be a

lack of utilisation of this (sometimes) cheap and highly effective practice within main stream mental health services, primary healthcare care and within the education sector, not only as a treatment but also as a recipe to promote good health and well-being.

Our bodies are intricate and complex structures, and the experiences we live through them are equally layered and complicated. Western medicine need to increase their awareness of this, rather than seeing the body as a collection of separate systems, see it as a whole, something the East has always stood by.

Considering yoga as a therapeutic, holistic and integrated model that focuses on reconnecting our bodies with our minds and our breath could just be the key to tackle the ever increasing epidemic of anxiety that our future faces. To just sit, quieten our mind and check in surely can be beneficial for our overall well-being and increase some inner peace, perhaps even resulting in outer peace, something the world needs more than ever.