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It's the Breath, Stupid!

What if you could improve your decision-making performance with just the power of your breath?

Seasoned yoga practitioners are aware of the strong link between the mind and the breath. If the breath is fast, erratic, and anxious the mind is also fast, erratic, and anxious. The more we practice mindful breathing, the more we cultivate breath awareness. The more we attend to the breath, the more control of our minds we gain. But how exactly our breath and mind are linked? With the brain being the key mind maker, it's fascinating how vital brain functions are influenced by yogic breathing practices!

This article published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology explores two simple breathing techniques and their impact on decision-making performance. In the randomized clinical trial, the gold standard of biomedical research, participants were asked to either practice slow-paced breathing exercises (experiment group) or watch a neutral video (control group) for two minutes. After each intervention, scientists measured participants’ heart rate variability (HRV, not the same as heart rate!) and their decision-making performance. Then, the experiment and the control groups switched. This experimental design allows each participant to measure up against themself, thereby each participant serves as its own control. Scientists wanted to see if HRV and decision-making performance were impacted differently by breathing practicing as compared to video watching.

The two breathing techniques that participants engaged in were slow-paced equal breath and skewed breathing. These two are simple to learn and don’t take much time to practice (take 10 minutes to learn and practice it for yourself in our Lab 5!) These breathing techniques are truly powerful when it comes to calming down. When we breathe like this, we ignite parasympathetic response: the calming half of our nervous system. How does our breath talk to our nervous system, you ask? Through the Vagus Nerve! Turns out that HRV, one of the measures the scientists used, is the readout of the Vagus Nerve activity. In contrast with heart rate, high HRV is a good thing. High HRV is a marker of wellbeing and contentment, whereas reduced HRV is found in both anxiety and depression.

In the article, HRV significantly increased after practicing either of the two breathing techniques for... two minutes! That’s right, just two minutes of the breathing exercises improved not only self-reported subjective measures of well-being and perceived stress, but also caused a significant numeric change of an objective, measurable physiological parameter - HRV. How does this impact our day-to-day lives? Because HRV increase is the result of the parasympathetic activation, breathing techniques causing such an increase will help balance out the immune system, tame inflammation and exaggerated stress response, and promote good sleep. Brain function may be another parameter influenced by HRV-increasing breathing.

Therefore next step for the scientists was to investigate if participants’ brain function changed in response to two minutes of slow-paced breathing. Scientists asked the participants to perform a challenging decision-making task. One group was doing the stressful test after two minutes of skewed breathing, another - after two minutes of neutral video watching. Folks in the breathing group gave 47% more correct answers compared to the participants in the video watching group. We know that decision-making performance is negatively affected by stress. Therefore, such difference in decision-making performance between the two groups could be caused by the different stress levels experienced by the participants. Indeed, participants in the breathing group reported that their stress increased by about 30% because of the task. Participants in the video group, however, felt their stress increased by 130% once presented with the task.

Takeaway: just two minutes of slow-paced breathing, such as equal breath or skewed breathing, activated calming nervous system so effectively that it resulted in reduced perceived stress and enhanced decision-making performance. Because these breathing techniques are easy to learn and demand little time to practice, they are e a sustainable stress-releasing therapy free from side-effects. Join us for practice to learn and cultivate healthy breathing - each single class at Atha brings focus to the breath!

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