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Physician Health and Well-Being: Mindfulness of Breath, Body and Heart

Mindfulness of Breath, Body and Heart
By John A. Patterson MD, MSPH, FAAFP, ABIHM
Founding co-chair LMS Physician Wellness Program

The breath is the great connector between mind and body. Mindful breathing is good for both.

Ancient wisdom practices and modern research in medicine and psychology provide clear evidence for the skillful use of breathing practices for relaxation and self-care for people with chronic physical and emotional conditions, including anxiety, depression and pain. With proper training and regular practice, some people are able to minimize the use of prescription medication in collaboration with their prescribing health professional.

Mindful breathing involves the clear intention to place the attention on the breath- right now, in this present moment. It involves the attitudes of curiosity, openness and especially non-judgment when the attention wanders off the breath- knowing that the normal mind wanders- and simply bringing attention back to the breath when we notice the wandering. There are many ways to practice mindful breathing as a totally secular practice or as a complement to spiritual practices like prayer, meditation and contemplation.

Simple breath and body awareness is the most basic mindful breathing practice. One simply feels the physical sensations of the breath in the body- at the nostrils, the upper lip, the back of the throat, the chest and the belly- breathing normally, without changing the rate or depth of breathing- bringing attention back to the breath and body sensation when one notices the wandering.

Soft belly breathing, aka abdominal breathing or diaphragmatic breathing, is an especially relaxing practice. Allowing the belly to expand with the inbreath and contract with the outbreath increases the movement of the diaphragm, stimulating the vagus nerve as it runs through the diaphragm, sending relaxation impulses throughout the entire body- just by softening the belly.

Attention on the outbreath adds additional mental and physical relaxation. Beginning by noticing the inbreath, followed by a slight pause, then the outbreath, followed by a longer pause- one senses the natural internal peace and quiet at the end of the outbreath. This sense of relaxation can be helped by allowing the outbreath to effortlessly go out- out- out, dissolving into space.

Mindfulness of the heart involves the sensation of the heart beating, which is easier for some people than others. It also involves paying attention to the center of the chest and entire body for any pulsing, throbbing, vibration, shimmering or humming. Using the sensations of the breath in the body, one may also feel the breath energizing the heart. One may feel the energy of the breath and the energy of the heart moving together throughout the entire body. The body is a constant flow of energy and information. It is important to remember that mindfulness is also translated as heartfulness.

Mindfulness of the body is called the first foundation of mindfulness practice. In mindfulness practice, we are training the mind to pay attention- here and now. The body is our most dependable object of mindful attention. The body is always here, even when the mind is somewhere else. The body is always in this moment, even when the mind is in the past or future. We know that every cell in the body is fueled by the energy of the breath and the heart. We open our attention to the feeling of energy of the heart and breath moving in and out of every cell in the body.

       Practicing any of the above techniques for even 5 minutes a day can improve overall well-being, promote resilience, manage stress, prevent burnout, cultivate compassion and help manage chronic conditions. Be creative. Start slow. Find the practice that suits your needs. I have made several audio recordings you can access using the link below. 

Resources-

Mindfulness audio recordings at Mind Body Studio

About the Author-  Dr Patterson is past president of the Kentucky Academy of Family Physicians and is certified in family medicine, integrative holistic medicine, mind-body medicine, yoga therapy, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), mindful medical practice and physician coaching. He is on the family practice faculty at the UK College of Medicine, Saybrook College of Integrative Medicine and Health Sciences (Pasadena CA) and the Center for Mind Body Medicine (Washington, DC). He operates the Mind Body Studio in Lexington, where he offers mindfulness classes, coaching and integrative, mind-body medicine consultations, focusing on burnout prevention and stress-related chronic disease. He can be reached through his website at www.mindbodystudio.org