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Meditative breathing techniques can help you destress during life's more hectic moments. Let's explore the science of breathing during a how-to session with Dr. Melissa Young, a functional medicine specialist.

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Breathwork for Beginners

Podcast Transcript

John Horton: Hi, and welcome to the Health Essentials Podcast. I'm John Horton, your stressed out host. Yeah, that's right. Stressed out. Lately, life's been a little beyond fitting snugly in a 24 hour day. That's just a reality sometimes when you have two kids, three grandkids, a needy dog, house projects, and a Jeep with a check engine light that just will not turn off. So what am I going to do? Well, for starters, I'm going to take a deep breath. Certain breathing techniques can melt stress when life seems to be moving a bit too fast. Today we're going to talk with Dr. Melissa Young, a functional medicine specialist at Cleveland Clinic about how you can use breath work to bring some calm to a chaotic world. So inhale and let it out as we search out some relaxation.

Dr. Young, thanks so much for joining us here today.

Melissa Young: Oh, I'm so happy to be here. Thank you.

John Horton: I got to tell you, every time I talk with you, it's always just a fascinating discussion. I mean, you bring so much energy to the idea of finding natural ways to heal. How did you get into holistic medicine?

Melissa Young: Oh, so I like to think about my family of origin was kind of cosmic, and I'll keep it short, but my mother did reiki, my father did transcendental meditation. We had a homeopath in the family. My grandmother was a registered nurse. I didn't realize till later in life, it really influenced me about looking at health from all perspectives and looking at health from a level of healing, not just treating a symptom.

John Horton: That's fabulous. I love the idea of coming from a cosmic background too. So let's get into our topic today. We're talking about breath work meditation. So what is it?

Melissa Young: So I think we can put those two terms together and we can separate them. So there's many different techniques for helping to calm the body and the mind. So we can use breath as an interface between the body and the mind. We can use meditation today when we do a little bit of a experiential piece, I want to separate those out. We'll do one or two actual true individual breath techniques, and then one that combines both. But we're using these techniques to find a way to calm the system of our body, our mind, because our minds tend to be very active and that can lead to activation of the body for long periods of time that is not optimal for our health.

John Horton: Yeah. Tell us a little, do you feel like people have a misunderstanding of what meditation is?

Melissa Young: I do, and I work with my patients every day on this because I ask them, do you have any experience with meditation? And the most common response is, "Oh yeah, I tried that. I can't do it. I'm bad at it. I can't clear my mind." And I think that's a really huge misconception. We won't actually make our mind stop thinking. The mind is active. And it is interesting as you're new to meditation, especially in breath work, you'll become aware of actually how active your mind is, our inner voice. So our job and part of learning these techniques is, really, when you become aware your mind is wandering and it can wander even when you're talking to yourself and you go off and is just coming back to either the breath or you can actually use a word or phrase that you repeat silently to yourself.

You sort of come back to that. And it's the act of coming back to those anchors, we call them, helps to retrain the nervous system and the grooves in our brain and nervous system create new patterns. But it isn't about silencing the mind. That actually won't happen.

John Horton: See, this is why I love talking to you. It's always fascinating. So when I was researching for this, I saw the phrase, the science of breathing. So talk about how that can help us live a little better.

Melissa Young: Absolutely. And we think about East Indian medicine. So Ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine, this goes back thousands of years and most of these traditions actually have breath techniques that they've been using to calm the body and the mind. And the breath is the interface between the body and the mind. So we have the autonomic nervous system. There's two arms of that. There's the sympathetic fight or flight nervous system that we're all pretty familiar with, but the opposite arm of that is the parasympathetic nervous system. And it's the rest and digest. It's the one that helps us calm the body. And most people aren't aware that we actually need to be in a relaxed state for digestion to occur and to occur properly. And I think that's one of the reasons we might see so much irritable bowel as one example. But there's those two arms of the nervous system.

And we need both, don't get me wrong. We need sympathetic nervous system to be aware of danger in our environment. But in today's society, we're in fight or flight more often than not. And that's leading to a lot of disease, both dis-ease in the body, but disease processes, it's leading to hypertension and chronic fatigue, digestive issues. We see increase in blood pressure, heart rate, we see people have insomnia. So it's why these sorts of techniques are so important to incorporate into everyday life, to calm that sensations of stress because if we're running from the saber-tooth tiger 24/7, that's not a healthy thing. It could be quick like the zebra running away from the tiger, and then you shake it off and you go back to a relaxed state.

John Horton: This is a fabulous way to explain it. And I assume too, that once you can relieve some of that stress, that there are other benefits that you get, such as joy and things like that, that it just opens you up for.

Melissa Young: Absolutely. So it helps us with focus and energy so that we have a better quality of life and there's space for joy and space for fun. If we're constantly in a state of stress and tension, it's very hard to find those important qualities in life. So absolutely.

John Horton: And as far as breath work, this is something, I assume, is for anybody to try. I mean all ages, just anyone?

Melissa Young: Definitely, of all ages. Doesn't matter what medical conditions you have. When I was talking about my dad and he did transcendental meditation for decades, I had my first walking mantra, my first experience with meditation at age four and there's some incorporation of breath in that in terms of this repetition of a word or sound with mantra meditation. But yes, absolutely, it spans all ages, all populations.

And it's finding, I think, a technique that resonates with you. There's so many, which is exciting, trying different ones. What works for you? And I think that you can do different techniques at different times. So there's some that are a little bit more complex that you might want to be sitting at home to do something like the 4-7-8 breath, which I love and I learned in my integrative fellowship with Andy Weil. But just diaphragmatic breathing, box breathing, you can do just about anywhere.

John Horton: Well, as you mentioned, there are so many different techniques, so we can't go over all of them here today. But you've said that you could walk us through a few just simple, basic techniques that we can use. So let's go with it.

Melissa Young: Absolutely. So I think that at least to start, it's great to just sit in a quiet place if you can. Legs and arms uncrossed if possible. And if people are comfortable, they can close their eyes or have a sort of downward gaze to get rid of some of the distractions, but that's not essential. And then I like to start people with a hand on their chest and a hand on their belly and taking a few slow breaths, but wanting to notice as you do that, is your chest rising or is your belly rising? We want our belly to be rising. When we take that deep breath, that's a diaphragmatic, pragmatic breath.

John Horton: So pull it deep in there, all the way down.

Melissa Young: All the way down, slow and easy. And then that's inhaling through the nose and then often exhaling through the mouth. And for this, just allowing your mind to see and feel your belly rising and falling with the breath. So this is a perfect place to start for people. They can do this lying down or sitting, especially if you're very new to breath work, just the belly rising and falling gently at your pace.

John Horton: It feels fabulous.

Melissa Young: Yeah and that's where we start because most people are chest breathers. You're not getting the movement of your diaphragm, you're not getting the air movement and the oxygenation that we want. And so this really helps focusing on the rise and fall of the belly. Then I love box breathing. I'm also very visual. So in your mind you can visualize a square and you start at the bottom left of the square. So then as you go up the square in your mind, we breathe in for a count of four. So one, two, three, four. We hold for four breaths as you go across the top of the square. Two three, four, and then breathe out as you go down the right hand side of the square for a count of four. Three, four. And then hold again the bottom of the square for a count of four. Perfect.

John Horton: Well, what does that do? Because it's an interesting technique. It just, it slows you down so much. What does that do for you? What is the benefit?

Melissa Young: So I think its several things. It helps bring us into our bodies away from the distractions of not only the world, but our thinking mind that slowing of the breath will help slow our pulse rate, decrease our blood pressure, and bring us more into that state of calm. So it's one of those things whether we're doing the belly breathing and focusing on the sensation of the breath in and out of the belly, or we focus on that sort of square breathing, it's all about a focus getting away from the chatter in our brain and then the breath helps slow our physiology and get us out of that stress response.

John Horton: How long should you do that? I'd imagine it's the sort of thing where you can spend a decent amount of time, or if you just need a quick refresh, a minute or two could help out a lot.

Melissa Young: Both of those are incredibly powerful. So if you're in a stressful meeting, no one needs to know you're doing a little bit of slow breathing and you could just do a minute of that or two or three rounds of what we did together. And even that, and I do this all the time, calms you, allows you to focus better. But I think it should become a part of our everyday practice and we can do it for five or 10 minutes. I think the yogis are doing it 15 or 20 minutes a day. It's good to start slowly in the beginning, if you're not used to this type of breathing and all the wonderful oxygenation, I think that we're improving. You can feel a little dizzy, a little lightheaded. So if that happens, you just stop. Three or four rounds is great, but over time, the more you practice on a regular basis, you're retraining your nervous system, and it actually goes into that relaxation spot response much more easily, much more quickly.

John Horton: Fabulous. Dr. Young, I have to tell you, every time we talk, I always leave our conversations and I feel just so much better.

Melissa Young: Well, thank you. And I think the joy of this too is it doesn't cost anything. It's available to you 24/7, and you can access it at any time.

John Horton: I think that sums it up perfectly. So thank you so much for joining us today, and can't wait to have you back.

Melissa Young: Thank you so much.

John Horton: Bye-bye. As we all know, stress can be a regular visitor in our lives. The key, though, is finding ways to get through it. So take a deep breath and start the process. Until next time, be well.

Speaker 3: Thank you for listening to Health Essentials, brought to you by Cleveland Clinic and Cleveland Clinic Children's. To make sure you never miss an episode, subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, or visit Clevelandclinic.org/HEpodcast. This podcast is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician.

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