A key part of mindfulness meditation is the breath. By focusing on the breath, we can calm both our minds and bodies. And recent research reveals why breathing has this effect. The study shows that breathing affects noradrenaline—a natural chemical in the brain often referred to as one of the “stress hormones” because when we produce too much, it increases our heart rate and blood pressure, which is part of the body’s normal fight-or-flight response that allows us to react physically in stressful situations (such as running from danger). Conversely, when we produce too little, it affects our ability to be alert and focused.
The Goldilocks proportion, just the right amount, lies somewhere in the middle. If noradrenaline is produced at the right levels, we can think and focus more clearly. The right amount also helps build connections between new cells in the brain, which improves brain health. These two benefits are where breath-oriented practices, such as mindfulness meditation or yoga, are important.
According to Michael Melnychuk, lead author of the study, “Practitioners of yoga have claimed for some 2,500 years that respiration influences the mind. In our study, we looked for a neurophysiological link that could help explain these claims by measuring breathing, reaction time and brain activity in a small area in the brainstem called the locus coeruleus, where noradrenaline is made. Noradrenaline is an all-purpose action system in the brain. When we are stressed, we produce too much noradrenaline and we can’t focus. When we feel sluggish, we produce too little and again, we can’t focus. There is a sweet spot of noradrenaline in which our emotions, thinking and memory are much clearer.”
How does regulating your breath help create the right balance? Melnychuk explains, “… as you breathe in, locus coeruleus activity is increasing slightly, and as you breathe out it decreases. Put simply, this means that our attention is influenced by our breath and that it rises and falls with the cycle of respiration. It is possible that by focusing on and regulating your breathing, you can optimize your attention level and likewise, by focusing on your attention level, your breathing becomes more synchronized.”
We’ve felt it in practice at SIYLI, but we’re grateful for the continued research that explains the physiological and neurological benefits of what we teach.