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Bellows Breathing

"Breathing control gives man strength, vitality, inspiration, and magic powers."

– Zhuangzi.

Bhastrika is the ancient Sanskrit word for bellows. As bellows fan the flames of a fire, ‘Bellows Breathing’ is a yogic practice that literally energises you, both physically and psychologically. It wakes you up and gets you feeling warm and ready for anything.

The exercise involves very rapid breathing through the nose using only the diaphragm to expand the chest.

As you know from previous articles, diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the Vagus nerve. This stimulation activates the parasympathetic nervous system and inhibits the fight-flight sympathetic nervous system. We see a down-regulation of adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol. Blood pressure and heart rate are reduced, and after the rapid breathing exercises finishes there is a slowing of the respiratory rate and a deep seated feeling of calm descends[1].

Along with this relaxation response, stress and anxiety are reduced. This effect has been proven. Four weeks of daily bellows breathing significantly reduces levels of anxiety and negative mood. These changes appear to be associated with the modulation of activity and connectivity in the brain areas involved in emotion processing, attention, and awareness[2].

Bellows breathing has also been shown to have an effect on weight loss. The cortisol which is produced during our fight-flight response affects the gastro intestinal system, slowing it down (this system is not essential to running away and so it is side-lined.) The down-regulation of cortisol achieved by bellows breathing removes this obstacle and our digestion improves. The breathing practice stimulates the pineal gland and so helps improve the metabolism[3]. In addition, the act of bellows breathing stretches and uses the abdominal muscles. Multiple studies have shown decreases in Body Mass Index (BMI) after eight to twelve weeks of Bellows practice[4] [5].

In addition, bellows breathing improves our general lung function. One study showed that daily bellows breathing had a greater effect on lung function tests than regular physical activity[6].

So when you need a pick-me-up try bellows breathing.

There is however, one important note of caution. As described above, bellows breathing is very rapid. When we breathe very quickly or hyperventilate we blow out carbon dioxide and the level of this in our blood decreases. This may seem beneficial, but in fact carbon dioxide in our blood is what drives our need to breathe. When we hyperventilate we will reduce this drive and it can feel difficult to take a breath. Some of you may have experienced this during a panic attack and it is the reason why we encourage people who are panicking to blow into a paper bag (this concentrates the carbon dioxide and encourages us to breathe).

For bellows breathing then, to avoid hyperventilating it is important to keep the exercise to short bursts and build up gradually.

Try This:

· Find a quiet comfortable spot

· Breathe only through your nose

· Use the diaphragm alone to expand the lung (your belly should pump in and out – like a bellows)

· Keep the inhalation and exhalation the same length and short at a rate of 3 breaths per second

· This will generate a sniffing noise

· Do this for a count of 30-60 breaths and then take a big deep breath in and out

· After a short break (to avoid hyperventilation) repeat the cycle.

· Feel the warmth in your body and enjoy the feeling of wellbeing it invokes.

Regular bellows breathing boosts our mood, encourages weight loss and down regulates stress hormones. Weave this practice into your daily routine and reap the benefits.

For more on breathing see Chapter Ten of ‘How to Rise’

[1] Veerabhadrappa SG, Baljoshi VS, Khanapure S, et al. Effect of yogic bellows on cardiovascular autonomic reactivity. J Cardiovasc Dis Res. 2011;2(4):223-227. doi:10.4103/0975-3583.89806 [2] Novaes MM, Palhano-Fontes F, Onias H, Andrade KC, Lobão-Soares B, Arruda-Sanchez T, Kozasa EH, Santaella DF and de Araujo DB (2020) Effects of Yoga Respiratory Practice (Bhastrika pranayama) on Anxiety, Affect, and Brain Functional Connectivity and Activity: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Front. Psychiatry 11:467 [3] Singh RB, Wilczynska-Kwiatek A, Fedacko J, Pella D, De Meester F. Pranayama: the power of breath. Int J Disabil Hum Dev 2009;8:141-153 [4] Patil SV, Gaikwad PB, Jadhav ST et al. Effect of pranayama on body mass index in young medical students. Int J Res Rev. 2016; 3(2):24-27 [5] Rani, Anitha. “Effect of Bhastrika Pranayama on Abdominal Obesity in Men & Women: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” (2018) [6] Budhi RB, Payghan S, Deepeshwar S. Changes in Lung Function Measures Following Bhastrika Pranayama (Bellows Breath) and Running in Healthy Individuals. Int J Yoga. 2019;12(3):233-239

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