Breathwork is now in so many forms being recognised as an antidote to many of the modern psychological, emotional and physical ailments. There are literally hundreds of different breathing strategies and techniques, each offering a slightly different entry point into the vast world of breath control.
This emergence of breathwork, which dates back to the ancient pranayama yoga practice, is much needed – especially as we appear to be drowning in stress, fear and confusion. Pranayama is a Sanskrit word that loosely translates to ‘control of breath’. ‘Prana’ means breath or life force and ‘ayama’ means to control. So, you can think of it as a set of practices to control the ‘prana’ within your body through breathing techniques. SOMA breath applies many of the ancient yogic principles but uses brain entrainment music designed to influence brainwave activity, thereby maximising the power of breathing in relation to mind and body.
There is no one method that reigns supreme. It’s a question of finding, through experimentation and experience, what works best for you. So, try this and see if it’s a good fit…
The science behind SOMA breath
How does breathing differently have all of these great benefits? It can seem strange that we have so much potential in changing the way we breathe. Below, we’ll give you a quick introduction to the science of breathing and SOMA Breath.
When you breathe in, you inhale oxygen (O₂) (and other molecules and gases), when you breathe out, you exhale (CO₂) (and other molecules and gases). That’s respiration. When you breathe in, your heart rate goes up a bit. When you breathe out, your heart rate goes down a bit (Lehrer, 2007). This is the basic principle of respiration, but it is also important for metabolism. When you breathe in O₂, it binds to red blood cells from your lungs. Those blood cells transport the O₂ to tissue and organ cells thanks to the pumping action of your heart. The oxygen is needed by the mitochondria in the cells of your body as a means of energy, like a fire (“Cellular Respiration”, n. d.). Imagine you have a fire burning inside of you that produces all the energy you need to live.
Too little oxygen, and a fire cannot burn at all. Just like in our bodies: too little oxygen and we can’t survive. Too much oxygen, and the fire will burn too much, potentially cause some damage. If our body has too much oxygen, it causes something called oxidative stress. Oxidative stress happens when there is an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in our body. It can lead to cell and tissue damage. So it is clear that we need the right balance of oxygen; not too much and not too little.
O₂ + Glucose ⇨ ATP (energy) + CO₂+ H₂O
The oxygen you inhale is carried around your body by red blood cells and it combines with glucose in the mitochondria of your cells, which produces adenosine triphosphate (ATP) energy, carbon dioxide (CO₂), and water (H₂O). When you exhale, you breathe out the carbon dioxide and water. The ATP provides energy to your body, so it can function normally.
The autonomic nervous system is made up of the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. It regulates bodily functions like pupil dilation, heart rate, and saliva production. Inhalation stimulates your sympathetic nervous system, exhalation stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. By changing the way you breathe you can make one of them more dominant than the other in that moment depending on what you want (Russo et al., 2017).
Rapid breathing and taking in more oxygen than normal energises your body. It will also cause contraction in the body as you breathe out carbon dioxide at a faster rate, stimulating the sympathetic nervous system. Slowing down your breathing and extending your exhale to be longer than your inhale will have a relaxing effect on the body. It causes an increase in carbon dioxide levels and also stimulates the production of nitric oxide, which dilates blood vessels (vasodilation). Vasodilation reduces blood pressure and increases blood flow (Russo et al., 2017).
How Your Body Rusts
We’re not trained or taught how to breathe when we’re young. Over the years we experience stress, challenges, chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system, and so on, so we don’t breathe consciously. Instead, we tend to breathe under control of the reptilian brain, which means our breathing can become erratic, fast, slow, or it can just pause without conscious control. That leads to incoherent heart rhythms, which leads to incoherent functions in the body.
When you expose metal to air for long periods of time, the oxygen in the atmosphere reacts with the metal through a process called oxidation that causes it to rust. The same rusting occurs in the body that can lead to inflammation and cell damage. This is why it is beneficial to consciously control the amount of oxygen that goes into the body.
Too much oxygen as a result of over-breathing leads to oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is like a rusting of your arteries and veins because the oxygen is unable to release itself from your red blood cells. It leads to inflammation, plaque, and corroding. If you exercise too much or do too much physically strenuous work, that can also cause oxidative stress. In fact, just being stressed out in general can cause oxidative stress because our breathing is erratic and inefficient.
Too much oxygen and inefficient oxygen use leads to oxidative stress, which leads to free radicals attacking your system. This leads to protein and DNA injury, tissue damage, inflammation, and cell death. Autoimmune conditions, neurodegenerative diseases, and cancer can occur as a result of oxidative stress (Bashir et al., 1993; Uttara et al., 2009; Reuter et al., 2010; Asmat et al., 2016). Similarly, if you do not use oxygen efficiently, you can experience low moods, depression, low energy, and no motivation (Black et al., 2015).
By a process known as the Bohr effect, an increase in carbon dioxide results in a decrease of blood pH (more acidic), which makes the haemoglobin proteins release their oxygen. When the haemoglobin releases oxygen, it goes to the tissue cells of your body, to the mitochondria, to create ATP energy. You need a certain concentration of carbon dioxide in your body for this to happen.
When you are stressed or anxious, you over-breathe (hyperventilate). This causes you to have too little carbon dioxide in your body, so the haemoglobin is not prompted to release oxygen sufficiently. That means there is not enough oxygen going to our cells where it is needed to create ATP energy – which keeps us alive and functioning!
So disease can also be the result of over breathing or hyperventilation that happens when you are stressed or anxious which causes you to have too little carbon dioxide and too much oxygen bound to haemoglobin and not enough going into the cells where it is needed to create energy.
One of the aims of SOMA Breath is to help you create the optimum balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide for your body, so that you can experience a consistent flow of energy, increased productivity, better and more regulated moods, and be more resistant to stress. It can also help you stay physically healthy, and reduce your chances of getting diseases associated with excessive or a lack of oxygen.
Yoga may have been developed to help you become super efficient at burning oxygen, giving you the right amount of carbon dioxide in your body, so that you can survive with less oxygen, creating less oxidative stress on the body, promoting longer, disease free lives.
Asmat, U., Abad, K., & Ismail, K. (2016). Diabetes mellitus and oxidative stress—a concise review. Saudi Pharmaceutical Journal, 24(5), 547-553.
Bashir, S., Harris, G., Denman, M. A., Blake, D. R., & Winyard, P. G. (1993). Oxidative DNA damage and cellular sensitivity to oxidative stress in human autoimmune diseases. Annals of the rheumatic diseases, 52(9), 659-666.
Black, C. N., Bot, M., Scheffer, P. G., Cuijpers, P., & Penninx, B. W. (2015). Is depression associated with increased oxidative stress? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 51, 164-175.
Cellular Respiration. Retrieved from https://www.khanacademy.org/science/biology/cellular-respiration-and-fermentation
Lehrer, P. M. (2007). Biofeedback training to increase heart rate variability. Principles and practice of stress management, 3, 227-248.
Reuter, S., Gupta, S. C., Chaturvedi, M. M., & Aggarwal, B. B. (2010). Oxidative stress, inflammation, and cancer: how are they linked?. Free radical biology and medicine, 49(11), 1603-1616.
Russo, M. A., Santarelli, D. M., & O’Rourke, D. (2017). The physiological effects of slow breathing in the healthy human. Breathe, 13(4), 298-309.
Uttara, B., Singh, A. V., Zamboni, P., & Mahajan, R. T. (2009). Oxidative stress and neurodegenerative diseases: a review of upstream and downstream antioxidant therapeutic options. Current neuropharmacology, 7(1), 65-74.