Our breathing provides a continuous rhythmic exchange between our lungs and the ocean of air that surrounds us. It is said that humans can live for 40 or more days without food and perhaps as many as 4 without water. However, without oxygen to the brain, we cannot survive more than about 4 minutes.
Given that, it’s the quality of these respiratory movements that determines how pleasurable and beneficial breathing is to our wellbeing. Our rate of respiration shifts with our emotional state: while we might take about 6 slow, deep breaths per minute when we’re relaxed and at rest; breathing becomes fast and shallow with as many as 16 per minute when we’re frightened or anxious. Dr. Andrew Weil1, a pioneer in the field of integrative medicine, believes that breathing is so crucial to the body’s ability to heal and sustain itself that he says, “If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip, it would be simply to learn how to breathe correctly.”
Let’s consider three habits of breathing: clavicular breathing, chest (thoracic) breathing, and belly (abdominal) breathing. Clavicular breathing uses the shoulders and clavicle to move the air, and is automatically called on most often when people feel stressed, panicked or are struggling for breath. Breathing centered in the chest, with chest and lungs expanding, is the most common kind of breathing; however, the expansion is often restricted by muscular tension around the ribs and abdomen, providing less airflow and more rapid respiration. Abdominal breathing usually needs to be learned and done with intention: Purposely empty your lungs of air, then, as you inhale, inflate the abdominal cavity (the belly) in a 3-D way, allowing it to expand without effort. It seems this deep breathing can activate the vagus nerve and result in a relaxation response from the parasympathetic nervous system; allowing the body to heal, repair and restore.
Belly Breathing is one of the 26 Brain Gym activities included in our “Midline Movements” category. We use Belly Breathing as a way to release stress, increase relaxation, and sustain focus of attention.2 We also use Belly Breathing in teaching students how to access vocal strength and expression for reading and phrasing. The slow expansion of the belly provides a pleasant deepening of inhalation and more complete exhalation, as well as a decrease in the frequency of respiration.
In a recent research study3, diaphragmatic breathing was highly correlated with sustained attention, decreased negative affect, and lower cortisol levels. It has also been associated with reduced fatigue and anxiety (Zeidan et al., 2010), and with the ability of children with ADHD to manage symptoms of inattention (Amon and Campbell, 2008). These studies build on many others connecting diaphragmatic breathing with significant and varied physiological benefits, from oxygenation (Bernardi et al., 1998), to reduced blood pressure (Wang et al., 2010), to states of calm and arousal (Krasnow et all, 2017), and more.
1) Andrew Weil, M.D., Breathing: The Master Key to Self Healing, audio CD, Sounds True, 1999.
2) Dennison, Paul E. and Dennison, Gail E. Brain Gym®: Teacher’s Edition, Edu-Kinesthetics, Inc., 2010.
3) The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Xiao Ma, Zi-Qi Yue, Zhu-Qing Gong, Hong Zhang, Nai-Yue Duan, Yu-Tong Shi, Gao-Xia Wei, and You-Fa Li. Front Psychol. 2017; 8: 874. Published online 2017 Jun 6. doi: PMCID: PMC5455070
In the Brain Gym program, since 1986, we’ve included drinking water as one of our key 26 activities. We’re advocates of staying hydrated, as we find that it strengthens so many markers of vitality, attention, and memory. According to the Mayo Clinic(1), “water is your body’s principal chemical component and makes up about 60% of your body weight….Every cell, tissue and organ in your body needs water to work properly.”
Research studies(2) are now finding that states of reduced water intake (dehydration) correlate with fatigue, mood swings, confusion, decreased alertness, increased headaches, weight gain, sleepiness, and more. Some of these effects were found to be reversed in just 20 minutes after drinking some water. In one study(3), half of American children were estimated to be dehydrated, with about one-quarter of them not drinking adequate water on a daily basis.
In Brain Gym: Teacher’s Edition (2010, p.54), we write: “Water is essential to the proper lymphatic function on which nourishment of the cells and removal of waste depends. The average daily water loss for humans through natural body processes (such as urination, respiration, perspiration) is about two and a half quarts (ten glasses). Psychological or environmental stress also depletes the body of water. Scientists have yet to reach consensus regarding the likely need to replace this loss by eating fruits and vegetables, avoiding diuretics and dehydrating food, and drinking a like amount of water. We consider Sipping Water to be an effective way to restore hydration. As with light rain falling on dry ground, water is best absorbed by the body when taken in frequent small amounts.”
Biologist Carla Hannaford, in her book Smart Moves: Why Learning Is Not All In Your Head, explains that “Our bodily systems are electrical. Ultimately, it is the electrical transmissions within the nervous system that make us sensing, learning, thinking, acting organisms. Water, the universal solvent, is essential for these electrical transmissions and for maintaining the electrical potential within our bodies. (2010, p.151)”
The Mayo Clinic comments on water needs by saying: “You’ve probably heard the advice, ‘Drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day.’ That’s easy to remember, and it’s a reasonable goal. Most healthy people can stay hydrated by drinking water and other fluids whenever they feel thirsty. For some people, fewer than eight glasses a day might be enough. But other people might need more.(1)”
In addition, the American Optometric Association reminds us in an article on “Dry Eye” to blink and to drink plenty of water when we’re reading or working at the computer, as staring can be dehydrating to the eyes.
Finally, here’s a link to a terrific video with Thomas Myers, author of AnatomyTrains: Myofascial Meridians for Manual and Movement Therapists, on why even small movements—shifts in body positioning—can help us better utilize the water that we drink.
1. Mayo Clinic article “Water: How much should you drink every day?”
2. Effects of changes in water intake on mood of high and low drinkers, Natalie Pross, 2014. For additional research articles on hydration, go to Hydration for Health.
3. Prevalence of Inadequate Hydration among US Children and Disparities by Gender and Race/Ethnicity: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2009-2012,” Erica L. Kenney, Michael W. Long, Angie L. Cradock, Steven L. Gortmaker, American Journal of Public Health, online June 11, 2015, doi:10.2105/AJPH.
In a 2007 research study published in the Journal of the American Optometric Association, visual skills and visual acuity were measured for 461 California high school students (average age 15.4) who were identified as having poor reading skills. Among the students, 80% were found to be weak or inadequate in one or more of the following visual abilities:
- accessing singleness of vision ranges at near point (binocular fusion)
- coordinating turning of the eyes inward to focus on an object (convergence at near point)
- focusing on stimuli at various distances and in different sequences in a given time period (accommodation)
In contrast, only 17% had deficient visual acuity—20/40 or worse in one eye—the standard model of deficiency for school vision screenings.1
1David Grisham, OD, MS, Maureen Powers, PhD, Phillip Riles, MA. Visual skills of poor readers in high school. Optometry – Journal of the American Optometric Association: Volume 78, Issue 10 , Pages 542-549, October 2007. © 2007 American Optometric Association. Published by Elsevier Inc.
In a 2008 study, researchers Powers, Grisham, and Riles used the Developmental Eye Movement Test to measure the saccadic tracking skills of 684 ninth-grade students identified as having poor reading abilities.
Horizontal (saccadic) times were typical of grade 3 students; the average number of errors on the horizontal test was typical of grade 2 students. Both genders performed similarly. Retests showed slightly improved horizontal times and fewer errors, yet the grade-level equivalents remained dramatically low. Fewer than 10% of the students scored above the 50th percentile for eighth grade, suggesting that poor readers in high school might be at high risk for poor saccadic tracking.
Volume 79, Issue 5 , Pages 228-234, May 2008 American Optometric Association. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
~ The Energy Yawn ~
Neuroscientist and therapist Mark Waldman, co-author with Andrew Newberg, MD, of How God Changes Your Brain, says that, in culling research on the brain, he found that yawning is one of the top five things we can do to exercise the brain. In fact, yawning about 10 times has been seen to be as effective as doing 10 to 15 minutes of relaxation exercises.
According to the research cited in the book, yawning increases blood flow and oxygen in key areas of the brain. Yawning has been shown to calm an overly active frontal lobe, release busy thoughts, heighten consciousness and relaxation, generate the sensorimotor rhythm or “coherent state” that happens when the mind is both relaxed and alert at the same time, and build intimacy with those around us.
Further, the act of yawning is said to stimulate alertness and concentration; optimize brain activity and metabolism; improve cognitive function; increase memory recall; enhance consciousness, introspection, and athletic skills; lower stress; improve voluntary muscle control; fine-tune one’s sense of time; increase empathy and social awareness; enhance pleasure and sensuality; and relax every part of the body. Who knew?!
So get your yawn on with The Energy Yawn, an activity that we’ve been doing with our students in Edu-K for more than 30 years! Make a yawning sound and begin to open wide (pretend to yawn a few times) as you gently massage or stroke away any tight facial areas near your jaw, just below your cheeks by your back molars. Continue until you induce a few real yawns and tears come to your eyes. Make some long, deep exhalation sounds.
For a lovely story and illustrations of animals doing the Brain Gym activities, check out Into Great Forest: A Brain Gym® Journey, by Shelley Petch.