Who knew that something that comes so naturally can be used to help so many things such as your heart, brain, digestive system, immune system, and even improve your posture! I just came across an old episode of Morning Edition on NPR from 2010, in which a Harvard researcher, Herbert Benson, had research showing that breathing could affect gene expression.
The article he was referring to is titled “Relaxation Response Induces Temporal Transcriptome Changes in Energy Metabolism, Insulin Secretion and Inflammatory Pathways”. Now, I would never claim to understand anything about genome research and transcriptional profiling, but I found it an interesting read. My only knowledge on this subject probably comes from watching Law and Order and from living through the O.J. trial. (if you are not old enough to have ever seen a pay phone, there once was this famous football player…..oh never mind, look it up; I think there was a documentary about it at SXSW).
The article explains that the “relaxation response” (RR) is a state that is the exact opposite of our “fight-or-flight” response. This state can be achieved in a number of ways: focusing on breathing, a word, phrase, sound, repetitive prayer or movement and disregarding everyday thoughts. This technique is a part of many different mind-body approaches such as meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, progressive relaxation, and biofeedback. In this study, the researchers worked with both experienced relaxation practitioners and novice practitioners before and after receiving 8 weeks of relaxation training. The researchers looked at changes in genomic expression during a single session of RR. The specifics of the data collection and statistical analysis are beyond my pay grade, so fast-forward to the discussion. The researchers found changes in gene expression with both the experienced and the trained novices after a single RR session. The genes involved are those responsible for processes in the body that affect how our body produces energy and how our cells age.
What was the intervention that the researchers used to cause this effect? The longterm practitioners reported regular practice of some sort of RR-inducing technique including several forms of meditation, Yoga, or repetitive prayer; so they just kept doing what they usually do. The novices had a weekly session where they were guided through an RR-inducing sequence: diaphragmatic breathing, body scan, mantra repetition, and mindfulness meditation. They also received a 20-minute audio CD that guided them through this same sequence once a day at home.
1. Lie on your back on rug or blanket on the floor in “dead man’s pose” with your legs straight and slightly apart, arms at your side but not touching your body, palms up and eyes closed
2. Bring your attention to your breathing. Take note of the depth of your breath, if you are breathing more into the chest or your abdomen.
3. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. Breathe through your nose. Spend a minute or two breathing into your abdomen and letting your chest follow the movement of your abdomen.
As you continue the diaphragmatic breathing, systematically scan your body for tension. Start at the top of your head and move down from there, relaxing your face, your jaw, your throat, and your neck. Then progress to shoulders, arms, hands, chest, stomach, back, hips, legs and feet. You can imagine that your body is like a wick and every inhale draws a warm liquid (or cold liquid if it is mid-August in Austin) in through the top of your head. Every exhale pulls the liquid further down your body, breath-by-breath relaxing each part of your body and imagining each part feeling saturated and heavy.
Mantra is a syllable, word or name that is repeated many times as you free your mind of thoughts. You can choose any word that has meaning for you “peace”, “love”, “calm”, or whatever holds meaning for you. Once you are settled into a quiet state, you chant the mantra aloud (but not so loud that it strains your voice). Focus on your word as you rhythmically speak it in a relaxed manner. You can then shift from chanting aloud to whispering it, relaxing even deeper.
Sitting or lying quietly with eyes closed. Listen to the sounds around you. Give equal attention to each of them, no one sound being more significant than the other. Do not analyze or focus on any one sound.
1. say to yourself, “I am aware of all the sounds that surround me”
2. start this practice in a quieter location, but progress to louder, more crowded locations
3. once you are practiced at being aware of the sounds around you without focusing your attention on any one sound, then progress to allowing your thoughts to surface and listen to them without forcing them, analyzing them, or judging them. Observe them objectively without being influenced by them. Say to yourself, “I am aware of my thoughts, my perceptions of my environment and my body and my feelings. In this moment and this place I am experiencing these things. I have my own life and I am experiencing it right now”.
4. You can experience these thoughts from a relaxed, alert, impartial position.
Twenty minutes a day and within 8 weeks, we can all make a positive impact on our brains and our bodies!
Are you dealing with pain or injury?
Learning these techniques are also an important aspect of teaching your brain not to "catastrophize" your pain experience and worsen your pain. Check out this book, The Opioid-Free Pain Relief Kit: 10 Simple Steps to Ease Your Pain by Beth Darnall, PhD. Order here on Amazon.
Bhasin MK, Dusek JA, Chang B-H, Joseph MG, Denninger JW, et al. (2013) Relaxation Response Induces Temporal Transcriptome Changes in Energy Metabolism, Insulin Secretion and Inflammatory Pathways. PLoS ONE 8(5): e62817. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0062817
Davis M, McKay M, Eshelman E (1982) The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.