Working with the Integrative Medicine (IM) team at the MedStar Institute for Innovation (MI2) through experiential learning, observation, and research, I have grown in my understanding of IM modalities. A commonality I have recognized across those modalities is breath.
When a needle hits a sensitive point during an acupuncture appointment, I am instructed to take a deep breath as the pain dissipates. Guided hypnotherapy and meditations before, during, and after surgery instruct me to follow my breath. Qi Gong, yoga, biofeedback, and osteopathic manipulation all incorporate breath.
Even still, the thought of focusing on our breath, as we do during meditation, can be daunting. Many think meditation means clearing everything from their mind and sitting in silence without thoughts arising. In fact, meditation is about strengthening your mind by recognizing thoughts and distractions, then bringing your focus back to your breath, your body, or a single point. Meditation is exercise for the brain; a strong mind can do wonders for your health, productivity, and relationships.
Evidence-based breathwork and meditation
The book “Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers” got me hooked on understanding stress and how to relieve it. It presented digestible information on the biological effects of stress while explaining our stress mechanism. We have evolved to use our ‘fight or flight mode’ (our sympathetic nervous system) to protect ourselves, but this must be offset with the ‘rest and digest mode’ (our parasympathetic system). The IM Crash Course we attended during the first few weeks of the 2017-18 Health for America (HFA) at MedStar Health fellowship reinforced what I had read and continued to pique my interest in meditation as connected to biofeedback, hypnosis, and the physiology of stress.
Several studies show that breathwork, as a component of meditation or yoga, may be beneficial in preventing and treating cardiovascular diseases, pulmonary disease, autonomic nervous system imbalances, irritable bowel syndrome, stroke, and psychological disorders. However, because the research often combines breathwork with other practices, more research is needed to understand the effects of breath by itself.
We all need to learn how to breathe
Our environment is constantly stimulating us, with a range of things competing for our time and attention. We balance commuting, working, and maintaining relationships while trying to eat healthy and exercise. But think about it, when was the last time you stopped to just breathe?
As a registered yoga instructor, I teach a 15-minute chair yoga sequence starting and ending with a breath-focused meditation during our Fresh and Savory Culinary and Lifestyle Medicine Program at MedStar Lafayette Center. These 15 minutes help ground the group as they get settled from their busy day. (The image to the right captures a sample class I led for MedStar colleagues.)
As I ended the first pilot of chair yoga, the energy in the room changed. Such “energy” may sound intangible, but if you have ever noticed tension in a room, for example a high-stress work meeting with an important deadline approaching, you understand stressful “energy.” After the session, a Fresh and Savory team member mentioned that all the participants looked as if they were amazed with learning to breathe again. Some of our participants felt energized by these meditation practices and spread them to their family, friends, and coworkers.
Try it yourself
Here are some quick breathing exercises to try yourself:
Belly Breathing: lace both hands on your belly, close your eyes or find a fixed point on the wall in front of you. On your inhale, feel your belly rise and on your exhale, feel it fall. Continue to take deep, long breaths for at least 1 minute.
4,6,8 Breathing: Match the length of your inhales to your the length of your exhales. For a count of 4 breathe in, then for a count of 4 breathe out. Repeat for 6 counts, then for 8 counts.
Note: It is important to remember, that IM “combines modern medicine with established approaches from other healing traditions, informed by evidence…” Therefore, IM should be a treatment in conjunction with the traditional care of your doctor.