The Science of Breath and Spirit: A Young Scientist’s Adventures in Breath at the Ann Arbor Zen Buddhist Temple

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By Catherine Carr

This article was originally published in the Crazy Wisdom Community Journal, Issue #74. Read issue #74 here!

“Are you connecting with your breath?” Rev. Haju asks me, leaning forward to inspect my posture. Her eyes are hawk-sharp but loving. It’s a powerful combination. 

I close my eyes and let go.

I am not always good at that. For someone with ambition, letting go can be quite alien. Striving, trying to force things to be a certain way, are habits I slip into as soon as I stop paying attention.

But the Rev.’s watchful eyes are incentive to pay attention. To prove that I can let go. That I know how. And the act of proving reminds me what it feels like.

Breathe. 

Muscle tension melts away. Release.

Breathe.

The world looks different. Lighter, brighter.

Breathe. 

Is this the same world I left behind sixty seconds ago? It feels different.

“Yes,” Haju says. “You’re doing it.”

Breathe. 

Your body is at peace.

Breathe. 

In this very moment, nothing is lacking.

Breathe. 

In this very moment, you are.

That’s why I’m living here, in Ann Arbor’s Zen Buddhist Temple. It was my good fortune to discover that the old house on Packard, which hosts a wonderful, intentional spiritual community, had a residential program. Now each morning at 5:30a.m., I sit on a brown cloth cushion in the parlor of an old house, in the company of the half a dozen or so other Temple residents. While the night brightens from black into the glow of blue pre-dawn, we meditate.

The clarity the practice has brought has been remarkable and badly needed. The Temple is run by those devoted to teaching the practices of meditation and non-attachment and serves as sanctuary for those seeking healing and harmony. 

My reason for being here is that I’m staring down a huge gamble: a career transition from clinical research coordinator at Mott Children’s Hospital to full-time freelance writer and editor. My meditation practice helps me keep the risks and rewards in plain sight rather than succumbing to the anxiety that can so easily become overwhelming.

My training in scientific research colors everything I do, and my Temple stay is no exception. One of the things that impresses me most is that virtually every aspect of the Temple’s lifestyle choices and daily practice are scientifically supported. The practices of meditation, prostrations, a Buddhist vegetarian diet; all would be recommended by neurologists as readily as by Buddhist priests.

There was a time when scientists viewed meditation and breath practices as strictly spiritual claims. But in recent decades, mechanisms have been found for the effectiveness of meditation practices, like those taught at the Temple, to bring about real changes in physical and mental health. The simple practice of relaxed breathing has been found to hold tremendous medical promise.

These findings seem to validate what mystics have been saying for millennia: that when we do things that nurture our spirits, we have good health. That the better part of wisdom is just remembering to breathe. 

The Eastern spiritual arts often teach that breath is synonymous with spirit. The Chinese word “qi” and the Sanskrit word “prana” both translate literally into “breath.” Students of yoga, martial arts, and Eastern meditation practices will recognize that harmonizing breath with movement and intention is foundational to all of these disciplines.

What might be more surprising to modern audiences is that the same link exists in ancient Western traditions. It seems that the connection between spiritual well-being and the act of breathing was universally experienced across the ancient world.

In Latin, the word “spiritum” literally means “breath.” Though rarely discussed in Western theology or holy books, this connection has been preserved in the English word “inspiration,” – which is used both by artists and theologians to describe moments of seemingly supernatural clarity, and by doctors to describe the simple act of breathing in. 

Now, science is beginning to uncover stunning links between breath–the act of drawing in oxygen using the muscles of the diaphragm–and whole-brain-and-body health. 

The connection went undetected by Western science for centuries because the mechanisms were largely invisible to the naked eye. Doctors knew that the diaphragm–the suite of muscles involved in breathing –was also home to a nexus of nerves which reached into dozens of major organ systems, as well as being connected back to the brain. What was not immediately obvious to the first students of anatomy was that many of these neural connections are two-way; the diaphragm, through its action, can both send commands to other vital organs,and affect the rhythms and patterns of brain activity.

While it was once assumed that the brain was the only important player in matters of mood and perception, a growing body of evidence suggests that the relationship between the brain and body works both ways. Intentionally slow, relaxed breathing can actually change our brain activity, and in doing so, everything about our experience of life.

The medical community calls this practice “diaphragmatic breathing.” They define this as a breathing method that involves the whole diaphragm, relaxed “belly breathing,” often settling out at about four breaths per minute. This breathing rate–drastically slower than the everyday life average of 8-12 breaths per minute–gives us a clue as to how different time taken for diaphragmatic breathing feels. It’s slow. Gentle. Freeing. With stress and oxygen consumption being the major drivers of faster respiration, diaphragmatic breathing describes a state where four breaths is all that is needed. Four breaths. Per minute. Nothing more.

The power of this practice reaches even beyond its influence on our brains. 

In recent decades, countless studies have shown that our minds and emotions influence, and often determine, physical outcomes including blood sugar, blood pressure, immune function, and wound healing.

The invisible messengers that scientists of earlier eras couldn’t see are hormones. Chemicals released by organs, usually under the direction of the brain, which affect the functioning of organ systems throughout the body. Some of the most important hormones that are within our control are those related to “fight or flight” responses —those that tell our body whether we are living in a time of panic or a time of plenty.

If you were being chased by a lion, the effects of these fight-or-flight hormones would be very helpful. They prompt the pancreas to dump sugar into the blood, to fuel your muscles to run fast or fight hard. They prompt the arteries to narrow and stiffen, creating higher blood pressure to carry oxygen from your lungs to your legs faster. They put a stop to organ functions that aren’t necessary in the moment, such as digestion, healing, and immune responses. They cause cravings for high-sugar, high-fat, and high-calorie food to fuel your survival struggle.

But when these same hormones can be triggered by a late bill payment, a poor grade, an awkward moment, or a tight deadline, that practically guarantees a public health disaster. When a society riddled with deadlines, uncertainties, and other stressors makes our bodies think that there are always lions in the shadows, it’s no wonder that mental and medical health problems in modern society are through the roof.

Conscious breathing practice is the way we tell our bodies that there are no lions. That we are safe. That it is safe for us to thrive.

The results are stunning. Clinical trials have found that diaphragmatic breathing can bring about clinically significant improvement in everything from depression and anxiety to asthma and diabetes, and can improve mood and increase biomarkers of good health and longevity even in people without acute diseases. 

To a modern understanding of the body, these seemingly miraculous results are far from mystifying. As science advances, there are now many known neurological, chemical, and mechanical ways by which this simple breathing practice would be logically expected to improve overall brain and body function.

We know that diaphragmatic breathing sends neural impulses to our brains and changes brain rhythms and activity. We know that it increases attention span, lifts mood, and decreases anxiety. We know that it decreases levels of stress hormones in our blood, and lowers blood sugar and blood pressure along with them. We know that those same stress hormones suppress immune function and wound healing and may cause depression when sustained over time. 

We know that the simple act of breathing—the way in which we conduct it —determines how much oxygen reaches our brains and other organs. It seems that the ancient sages were right: the keys to good health and long life have always been inside us. We need only remember how to use them.

Diaphragmatic breathing routines have been found to lower blood sugar and damage to cells in people with diabetes. Long-term diaphragmatic breathing practice has even been shown to improve weight loss over time in diabetic patients.

Diaphragmatic breathing is good for athletes, too. When practiced after workouts, it can decrease cellular damage caused by exercise, leading to less wear and tear and faster recovery times. 

These isolated examples of specific benefits to specific groups of people that scientists have studied speaks to a larger point. It is now quite reasonable to say that, based on clinical evidence, conscious diaphragmatic breathing is good for everyone.

Watching these findings take root in the medical community in the five years prior to my Temple stay was fascinating. When fliers began to appear for meditation and mindfulness classes being offered by the hospital to staff and patients, some older doctors were almost apologetic about offering or attending them. One explained to me, “It really does work,” as though this finding was surprising.

It seemed that the idea that the unseen—the signals propagating along nerve fibers, the hormones in the blood—could have real healing power still seemed suspicious, or unscientific, to some.

As I write this, I’m still using an essentially Western view. With each sentence I justify the practice of Zen breathing, breaking down objections, heaping facts and figures, reason upon reason as to why it is a good idea. In the process, I create a sense of need for meditation. Of fear of consequences. That’s funny, isn’t it? These things—stress, fear, need—are exactly what the practice of meditation is designed to wash away.

As doctors and hospitals struggle to motivate their patients to get away from a culture of need and lack, and the medical consequences this culture entails, a Buddhist view may be helpful to us here:

Breathe.

In this very moment, nothing is lacking.

Breathe. 

When we breathe, we take in the vital energy of life.

Breathe.

When the breath flows naturally, we are in flow with the wider reality.

Breathe.

When we breathe freely, we begin to heal.

This is not only mysticism. It’s not just the claim of a philosophy or a unprovable idea. It’s science, thoroughly proven. 

And so, when I am able, I sit on my brown cloth cushion. 

I close my eyes.

And breathe.

Catherine Carr is a writer, editor, and former clinical research coordinator. She was born and raised in Ann Arbor and earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Neuroscience from the University of Michigan. She has spent the last three years traveling North America to study the many ways in which we connect to the Divine, and has now begun work on a series of books in which she hopes to bring a scientific eye to the question of what religion does for us and for our society. You can reach her at clkagmi@gmail.com.

Author: ckarr114

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