Breathwork and the Nervous System

Breathwork is a beautiful and practical way to promote relaxation and reduce stress. When we breathe consciously, it engages the body's natural "rest and digest" response by activating the parasympathetic nervous system.(1) This response is regulated by the vagus nerve, a long nerve that runs from the brainstem to the abdomen. The vagus nerve plays an essential role in controlling important bodily functions like our digestion, heart and respiratory rates.(2) 

Through breathwork, we can lower the effects of the sympathetic nervous system, commonly referred to as our "fight or flight" response. By activating our parasympathetic nervous system, breathwork releases calming neurotransmitters like acetylcholine and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) into the body, reducing feelings of stress and anxiety and lowering levels of cortisol and other stress hormones like epinephrine and noradrenaline.(3)

Extended periods of stress can have harmful effects on both mental and physical health, leading to prolonged anxiety or depression, an increased risk of heart disease, a weakened immune system and poor sleep hygiene.(4) Taking the time to breathe and cultivate states of real relaxation is important for our ability to cope emotionally and manage stress.(5)

How to down-regulate and awaken the senses

One simple way to do this is to go into a Child's Pose. This pose encourages slow, deep breathing, activating the parasympathetic nervous system. In this gentle, grounding position, we can feel more connected to where we are and to our breath. We can always add rhythmic and intuitive motions such as rocking or circling to deepen our sensations. This is a great way to begin relaxing and nurturing a sense of calmness.


(1) Athanasios Drigas, Eleni Mitsea, Conscious Breathing: a Powerful Tool for Physical & Neuropsychological Regulation. The role of Mobile Apps. Technium Social Sciences Journal, Vol. 28, 2022

(2)Gerritsen RJS, Band GPH. Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity. Front Hum Neurosci. 2018

(2) Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. "parasympathetic nervous system." Encyclopedia Britannica, February 25, 2023.

(3) Cleveland Clinic

(4) David A. Kalmbach, Jason R. Anderson, Christopher L. Drake, The impact of stress on sleep: Pathogenic sleep reactivity as a vulnerability to insomnia and circadian disorders, Journal of Sleep ResearchVolume 27, Issue 6

(5) Harvard Health Publishing. (2022). Understanding the stress response. Harvard Medical School.

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