BY CODY MUDGE
Breathing is an autonomous bodily function, that is to say, we have to go out of our way to stop our lungs from doing what they’re there to do. The average adult takes about 12 to 20 breathes per minute according to Ganong’s Review of Medical Physiology. Spending 10 to 15 minutes a day slowing your breathing down to about four breathes per minute can have surprising health benefits.
Deep breathing has been scientifically linked to reduced stress levels, improved blood flow and circulation, increased alertness, heightened memory accessibility and faster recall. The process of deep breathing is popularly referred to as mindfulness meditation. It has been the focus of Dr. Shiv Talwar since he retired from Conestoga College as a civil engineering instructor in 1996.
“If I ask my brain to utilize the thinking part, my cerebral cortex, during an autonomous function, then I am able to be more thoughtful about everything. I am engaging a part of the brain that learns, thinks and remembers things. When we teach mindfulness, we’re really teaching you how to learn,” Talwar said.
Breathing is the only autonomous function over which we can exert control relatively easily. Right now you are able to take a deep, ponderous breath or suck in air quickly to imitate a body at work. By manipulating this function and focusing on it we are able to access a level of the brain that we normally don’t use for simple functions.
The limbic system controls the body’s systems and emotions. When the nervous information highway runs up the spine to the brain the first thing that it hits is the limbic system. This is why we react with emotions faster than with a rational thought. By practising deep breathing we are forcing ourselves to use our cerebral cortex, a relatively new adaptation in the evolution of life on this planet. The cerebral cortex is what allows us to have rational thoughts, to be self-aware, to learn languages, to access memories and to pay attention. When we use this part of the brain to run a function that is normally handled by the limbic system we’re gaining access to processes we don’t usually use for something as simple as taking in, and letting out, breath. Talwar said all of this and more is essential information that he provides to his pupils in order to explain what is happening to them physiologically when they practise deep breathing.
Talwar became interested in deep breathing and mindfulness meditation long before he founded Spiritual Heritage Education Network (SHEN) in Kitchener. For years he watched as his home country of India and neighbouring Pakistan were deadly intolerant of each other. Most startling of all was the apparent incompatibility of different religions to coexist.
“People were being killed for believing in the wrong religion. I can’t think of a more unreasonable thing to be killed over,” he said.
In his pursuit to live a more reasonable life the former engineering instructor started SHEN and now teaches others about how to become more thoughtful through deep breathing. Part of the battle is in dealing with misconceptions about the amount of science there is to back up the practice of mindfulness. Talwar also acknowledges the antagonistic role organized religion plays in preventing people from pursuing a more thoughtful life.
“Faith knows that if your brain is engaged then you are lost to them. You are lost to being controlled.”