The Green Room is a new blog series from the research community at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. It’s both a response to the impact of Covid 19 on the arts, and a way of starting new conversations about the future. Each week colleagues will share their personal reflections, insights, challenges and hopes as we begin to map out our next steps together.
A kind, deep breath
This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, and the focus for 2020 is kindness. I am dedicating this writing to the most powerful tool we have to be kind to ourselves: the breath. Considering the breath for its health and wellbeing properties””at a time when the Coronavirus, a respiratory disease, is ravaging the world””has never been more crucial. So, as a companion to the Breathe and Sleep workshop I ran on Monday 18 May, I am collecting here some thoughts on breath. The breath features in many spiritual traditions and cosmologies, as well as science, both in the theoretical and practical realms. It also appears in many works of art, plays, performances and music pieces but I will not go into these here, as my focus is to explore the qualities of the breath and how you can apply them to cultivate your physical and mental wellbeing. Respiratory art and philosophy is the subject of a longer piece I am writing for a journal so watch out for future updates.
Image 1: Exercising full lung capacity in one of my lockdown walks
To breathe is to be alive, it is a key system in the human body; a privileged one, for it is both automatic and can be influenced consciously, enabling access to other systems, notably the nervous system. However, it is very hard to remain awake for one breath, one full inhalation and one full exhalation. For most of us, this full breath takes 4 seconds to complete. Resonance, what happens when many of our functions (our heart rate, heart rate variability, blood pressure and brainwave) come into a coherent frequency, is triggered with a breath of between 10 and 12 seconds. This is the kinds of breathing we get into when we meditate. In our normal life we breathe too fast and, thus, we suffer diseases of haste.
The breath has a profound effect on the nervous system, which is comprised of:
- Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS): flight, fight, freeze, usually linked to inhalation
- Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS0: rest, digest, befriend, linked to exhalation
We need both systems to operate in the world but our ways of living mean that we are established in the SNS to the detriment of the PNS. We don’t rest well and, more crucially, we don’t heal. The SNS is survivalist and, as such, does not prioritise immunity. To strengthen this and to heal, we need to know how to activate the PNS.
In his book Aware: the Science and Practice of Presence, Daniel Siegel helps us visualise our brain by using our own hands to see how it works. You can see him explain it in this TED talk. You can also do it with me:
- Raise a hand and trace your forearm up to the wrist. These are your spinal chord and the brain stem.
- Just above the wrist, on the palm of the hand, is the reptilian brain, the oldest part of this organ, responsible for our life support system.
- Fold the thumb as if you were signalling the number 4, to represent the mammalian or limbic brain (containing the amygdala, hypothalamus and the hippocampus, among other areas). This is the sight of strong emotions: flight, fight, freeze, flop, drop, shut down.
- Fold the four fingers to cover the thumb, with your nails into the palm: this is the cerebral cortex, the newest part of our brain, our thinking cap. Here is cognition, consciousness, and complex emotions such as empathy, kindness, compassion, reflection, resilience and body control.
- The prefrontal cortex is represented by the nails of your middle and ring fingers and here are the most advanced brain functions: attention focus, anticipation of consequences, management of emotional reactions and impulses, planning and coordinating complex behaviour, and decision making.
Image 2: Dan Siegel’s hand model of the brain
Sometimes, when we become overwhelmed, we ”˜flip our lip’ as Siegel expresses. Visually, this means that the four fingers raise and we become disconnected, with the mammalian brain taking over and us being ruled by the strong emotions characteristic of the SNS. Even though the brain does not do this literally, a disconnect does happen. Then, we need to calm and steady ourselves whilst in the middle of a storm. The breath is one of the main conduits towards reconnecting us to our full functions. In order to do so we need to halve our speed. Breath responds to a listening that is non-judgemental, non-grasping and equanimous, it acts in response to kindness.
Apart from my role as Athenaeum Research Fellow at RCS, I am a yogic breath teacher (a practice called pranayama). There are three requirements to the practice of breath:
- The practitioner needs to take a comfortable steady seat, one that invites the breath.
- As much as possible, have a calm, focused mind. Before practice, take a moment to observe your breath, paying attention to its qualities and patterns and inviting it to slow down.
- Most importantly, breath practices should only be done under the guidance of a teacher, as the breath is subtle and when done incorrectly, it tends to trigger the SNS.
Image 3: A rare photo of me in pranayama practice
I am, of course, offering myself to help you, should you wish to embark on a breath practice. And it means that I am limited as to what I can offer you, through this writing. We can make a start on practice, though, by attuning ourselves to resonance breathing. In time, this will activate the PNS, as well as strengthen our respiratory system with enhanced lung capacity and invigorate our immune response. Just to breathe, as an action, does not bring about kindness towards ourselves. Awareness is needed. A deep, slow breath is enough to help us discern. It is linked to so many processes inside us that it instantly provides a sense of being aware, healthier and more alive.