The Diaphragm: Master Key to Breathwork

The neuroscience behind mindfulness

Why is it that simply paying conscious attention to breathing is so powerful?

No matter what culture, religion, or spiritual tradition you examine–this is in most, if not all of them. This 11-minute audio is from last night’s FaceBook Live hangout. Included is an excerpt from Dr. Dan Siegel‘s “Creating Harmony With Breath Awareness.”

Included is an excerpt from “Creating Harmony With Breath Awareness,” by Dr. Dan Siegel, Co-Director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA. A leader in the field of contemplative neuroscience, Dr. Siegel explains:

Mindfulness involves attuning to our own intention. Of course, mindfulness itself is an intentional state, so we could say that this creates the following tongue twister: An intention to pay attention to intention to be mindful. This appears to be a reentry loop of mental reinforcement that lies at the heart of the experience. Intention to attend to intention.

An example of this kind of intrapersonal attunement would be the practice of breath awareness. You are aware of your in-breath. The mirror neuron (a neuron that fires both when a person performs an action and when the person observes the same action performed by another) and superior temporal areas (which play a significant role in the executive attention network of the brain) as a part of the resonance circuits, automatically—through SIMA (sensory implications of motor action)—anticipate the out-breath.

With a beat of time, the out-breath indeed comes and there is a match between what was anticipated and what is happening. That matching creates coherence. Naturally the awareness of the out-breath entrains an anticipation of the in-breath, which when it comes, integrates SIMA with here-and-now awareness and reflective coherence is created. This may be why the breath is such a powerful, and common, focus of mindful awareness. It is also interesting to note that each relaxed half breath takes about the interval D. N. Stern (The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life. New York: W. W. Norton, 2003) defines as the present moment.

The lungs are placed in a recess so sacred and hidden…

The lungs are placed in a recess so sacred and hidden that nature would seem to have specially withdrawn this part both from the eyes and from the intellect: for, beyond the wish, it has not yet been granted to any one to fit a window to the breast and redeem from darkness the profounder secrets of nature. For of all of the parts of the body, the lungs alone, as if shrinking from observation, cease from their movement and collapse at once on the first entrance of light and self-revelation. Hence such an ignorance of respiration and a sort of holy wonder. Still let me draw near to the inmost vitals, and concerning so obscure a matter, make at least a guess.”

-John Mayow, in Ttractus Quinque (1674), quoted from Proctor’s A History of Breathing Physiology, p.. 153 (in -H. David Coulter, 2001. Anatomy of Hatha Yoga. Body and Breath, Inc., Honesdale, Pa. p. 67)

Three Brains, Three Kinds of Digestion

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“Research over the past two decades profoundly deepened our knowledge of human intelligence… intelligence is distributed throughout the human system… the heart is an intelligent system profoundly affecting brain processing…”

-Doc Childre

Our commonly-held notion that each of us can be divided into three ‘parts,’ namely body, heart, and mind, is reflected in recent research that adds scientific agreement to this scheme. It is not uncommon these days to read that we possess not one brain, not two brains (a book about the ‘gut brain,’ the enteric nervous system, is titled The Second Brain), but three brains: head brain, heart brain, and gut brain. The term brain is appropriate because of the number and concentration of nerves that is common between all three, and because each one ‘thinks,’ if you define thinking to mean ‘gathers information, makes decisions, and initiates action.’

The heart brain is the newest on the scene. In From Chaos to Coherence, HeartMath founder Doc Childre writes: “Research over the past two decades profoundly deepened our knowledge of human intelligence… intelligence is distributed throughout the human system… the heart is an intelligent system profoundly affecting brain processing…” Scientific research is beginning to quantify what yogis, artists, musicians, and poets have always known from direct experience.

In Ayurveda, digestion is regarded as the ‘central pillar of the body.’ Digestion is a fundamental concern for the gut brain. Disgust means “I can’t swallow this; I don’t want to have to digest this.” Many of our deepest, strongest, and most reliable emotions occur from the enteric nervous system, and therefore “gut feeling.” Gut feeling is a synonym for intuition. Intuition is knowing that does not come from the head brain.

The process of digestion may, in fact, be the evolutionary raison d’être shared by all three. Gut brain controls food digestion, heart brain controls emotional digestion, and head brain controls information digestion. When food digestion is off kilter we have a stomach ache. When emotions are sour or toxic we have heartache. When thoughts are negative or when we experience information overload we have a headache. In each brain, indigestion can be caused by toxic input or simply by overloading the system: too much food, too much emotional stress, or too many media inputs (one survey suggests we digest an average of 205 actual messages each day).

Yoga is concerned with homeostasis, with creating and sustaining dynamic balance among all three. Only when all three are entrained, in synch, can those higher, emergent human functions that we call spiritual, flower.

You are what you eat, so eat healthy!

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