A study published last March in Science showed a direct anatomical link between the parts of the brain that control voluntary breathing and the parts that control emotionality. Altering the activity of this connection changed how aroused, alert or calm mice were. “Its an important finding because it shows that there is a causality between the two,” said Andrew D. Huberman, a professor of Neurobiology and Ophthalmology at Stanford University.
In his lab at Stanford, Dr. Huberman is doing research on breathing and how it impacts emotional states. He’s also developing an app with Brian MacKenzie, a strength and conditioning coach in San Mateo Hills, Calif. The goal of the app will be to customize breathwork for people by giving them a simple inhale-and-exhale test and incorporating other data provided by those who sign up for it.
“Breathwork can be thought of as exercise in that, if done correctly, has immediate benefits — physical, emotional and cognitive — but breathwork also has longer-term benefits if you do it regularly,” Dr. Huberman said. “The idea is that people can alter and strengthen the neural pathways that link breathing with emotion regulation centers in the brain, which can help them feel calmer and more alert, or and sleep better, depending on the protocols they use.”
It can also make you a better athlete. Mr. MacKenzie, who is the co-author of three sports-related books including “Unbreakable Runner,” teaches his clients how to use nasal breathing to optimize their athletic performance and be more “metabolically efficient.” Breathing through the nose activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps people remain calm and alert, improves their peripheral vision and encourages them to maintain better posture and mechanics, which results in fewer injuries, Mr. Mackenzie said.
All of these findings are not lost on Equinox, the chain of high-end gyms. Instructors started getting basic training in breathwork about two years ago when the company introduced a class called HeadStrong, which blends a high-intensity workout with so-called mindful movement and concludes with breathing. “I do see breathwork becoming as ubiquitous for recovery as foam rolling or stretching,” said Michael Gervais, Equinox’s senior manager of group fitness talent. He mentioned one study that shows a link between parasympathetic nervous activity, which is activated by breathwork, and recovery status after an intense workout.
Khajak Keledjian, former C.E.O. of Intermix and the founder of Inscape, credits meditation, which he does twice daily, for reducing stress and improving his sleep and energy levels. He’s also noticed that he has an easier time breathing when he goes on challenging hikes. “According to heart-rate standards,” he said, “my endurance and stamina is at the level of an athlete.”
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