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How to use the Breath-Brain Connection to Focus

Did you know that the systems of your body are in a dynamic flux of an equilibrium, meaning each cell, tissue, organ and system of your body is opening and closing in the same way your breath rises and falls, your heart squeezes then releases, even your pupils dilate and then contstrict.

After 20-something years using Western herbalism, nutrition and yoga, I can wholeheartedly agree with the Eastern perspective that balancing the opposites, embracing the dynamic tension of polarity and regulating our inner metabolic processes is the key to residing in a state of good-enough harmony (Thank you Winnicot for the omniplicable phrase "good enough").

In this article I talk about the physiology behind the findings discussed in my previous post, and share how these practices are being integrated here in the clinic by participans of The Burnout & Trauma-Care Clinic.

Somatic practitioners, I invite you to apply these pendulation techniques (Pendulation was first applied to trauma by Peter Levine. Similarly, the wave-like quality of shifting awareness. To distinguish, pendulation here is between Cortex and Hindbrain) with credit to SN Goenka and his bringing of Vipassana Meditation to the West, and to BKS Iyengar and his bringing precision to embodied practice.

The Physiology of Pupil Dilation

Pupil dilation is also a known response of the Sympathetic branch of the nervous system. An open pupil (dilated) is a "fight or flight" response so we can see threats coming left of field.

A closed pupil (constricted) is a "rest and digest" response. That's when circulation returns to our organs to maximise nutrient absorption. 

Here's how women respond to a man who interests them, by the way.

Our pupils dilate to take you in.

Interestingly, recent research shows the size of the pupil changes EVEN during a single breath.

Figure 2. shows the pupil is most constricted just after the trough ie at the point the exhale becomes an inhale.

What does this mean for our productivity?

Given that breath can be brought under voluntary control, deliberate respiration provides a direct and immediate mechanism for influencing attention.

By regulating the flow of breath according to our need for focus (exhale) versus ease (inhale), we can direct our attentional states in relation to our emotions.

This means we can regulate the breath according to our need for attention and productivity. Too wound up and we can exhale ourselves down. Too sleepy or distracted and we can breath ourselves up to speed. Subtle, yet significant. Nuanced, but necessary. Practice is the key, and there is no time like the present to start.

Authors conclude

"Overall, therefore, we interpret our results as indicative of a subtle but continual underlying oscillation of attention between bottom-up sub-cortical (possibly chemosensitive- and/or arousal-driven) attention and top-down goal-directed processes."

"This strongly implies a continual, perhaps subtle, underlying attentional oscillation concurrent with respiration, and places the ancient idea of a relationship of the breath and the mind in a modern empirical context."....and that future research "determine if any therapeutic value can be derived from controlling or attenuating the respiratory-locked attentional oscillation in clinical attentional populations such as traumatic brain injury or ADHD in a targeted, controlled and measurable way."

"Application of breath-focused practices to changes in brain plasticity and neurogenesis might also be a fruitful field of study, as both synaptic remodeling [122] and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), particularly in the hippocampus [123,124,125], are modulated by LC activity and NA signaling pathways. It seems plausible that by controlling the breath, NA levels could be optimized to facilitate the formation of neuronal connectivity, and encourage BDNF expression and neurogenesis, given our findings of NA-respiratory coupling."

Application of these findings are limitless across Psychological & Physiological domains.

For the science nerds out there read here the original research paper (Melnychuk, 2021)

For the facilitators, presenters, practitioners and experience-geeks out there. Read here how I implement these findings in our workshops, and specifically our Burnout & Trauma-Care Clinic and Saturday Morning Relaxation Stations.

In my next article, I summarise papers on Noradregeric- Respiratory coupling. How breathing interacts with our neurochemicals. Stay tuned.

Thank you Huberman for providing the inspiration. Thank you Burnout & Trauma-Care Participants for piloting the program. And thank you reader, in advance, for your questions, comments and personal experiences using breath to better your mind.


Recently, at The Burnout & Trauma-Care Clinic we applied these subtle mechanisms as a figure-of-8 image coupled with the cycle of inhalation and exhalation. 

I have used this technique personaly to build non-reactivity in relation to the feelings of anger and powerlessness. By inhaling to stimulate cortical function, I am able to "separate" from the personal-nature of the emotion and with deliberate hindbrain connection on the exhale, I am able to "enter" into the sensory/ bodily component of emotion.  It's fair to say I've paid a lot of attention to the breath over the years. Try watching your breathing as you continue reading.

The beauty of the figure-of-8 is that it enables the full spectrum of cortical and hindbrain responses to be integrated. Rebounding between cortex and hindbrain is the trauma response in which we are unable to integrate the thought association with the experience. Either the body over-reacts due to the mental overwhelm or the mind dissociates due to sensory overload. This lack of integration is unsettling and leads to insecure attachments.

The line of the figure-of-8 enables awareness during the transitory phases as well as the end-points of oscillation. 

It is well established that dissociation is a coping mechanism when the existing resources are overwhelmed. Trauma, indeed, is defined as any experience which overwhelms the resources of the organism. Trauma recovery is the claiming of the inner resources specfic to the experience of powerlessness ie empowering the individual with the mature response necessary to handle the event skillfully. 

Activating the mature functions of the cortex, we are able to invite an observer to the sensory experience, in a way which enables us to stay present rather than "spinning off".

Paying attention to the primal functions of the hindbrain, we are able to associate with the vulnerable parts of the self while knowing survival is not at stake. 

Please let me know your feedback and comments on these techniques. I have so very much to learn from each of you doing the work.

The Burnout & Trauma-Care Clinic. 8-9:30am Saturday mornings at One Natural Therapies.

New Intake : 1 June

Bring a friend and receive 30% off your next Breath-based Massage.







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