Our lives can be explained by patterns. Some of the patterns are ingrained in our nervous system, such as the wake-and-sleep cycles, our digestive cycles, as well as our physiological patterns, (ie. how often we breathe, the speed of our heart rate, and the cycles of work and rest that our internal organs follow). We also have behavioral patterns. Things like how we respond to stress or praise, how we perceive situations occurring in the world and respond or act accordingly.
Our patterns, including our physiological patterns, can be altered. They can be thrown off from a baseline of what we might identify as balance and they can also be brought back into balance with a little bit of work. If we are tremendously thrown off, it can take time, but it can be done, especially with a bit of consistency, support and resolve.
As you’ll soon see, humming is one way to restore ourselves to balance. But first, let’s explore the patterns that involve our breath.
The different patterns that make up our respiratory and physiological systems, particularly our breath, are the only patterns that we have a conscious control over.
When we change our breathing patterns, it can impact our bodily functions, emotions and cognitive abilities. For example, the sigh. We do this automatically throughout the day so the body can reinflate the tiny air sacs of the lungs that periodically collapse. But we also do it when we are feeling down or when we need to release some stress.
The breath is therefore both an expression of our inner state and something that we can use to change our inner state. In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, by Svātmārāma, and other texts on yoga, the functions of the mind, and those which drive the breath, are considered one and the same. Breath and mind, mind and breath, are interchangeable. When you control or modify one, you can control the other. If you lose control of one, you lose control over the other.
We all know this to be true because when we have someone in front of us who is visibly upset or freaking out, the first thing we tell them to do is breathe, which actually means, slow down your breath because it has a calming effect on your body.
We learned this from the ancient Yogis. The different practices they shared can heighten the inherent power of breath and lead to deep states of calm, clarity and expanded awareness.
There is a fabulously complex substance created by our body, primarily in the sinuses, as well as the empty cavities of the head, just behind your nose, in the cheekbones, and forehead, which helps prepare the body to deal with hardship. This substance is called nitric oxide (NO).
It is a mild bronchodilator, which means it expands the breathing tubes (which can spasm in times of stress), acts as an immunomodulator that increases or decreases inflammation levels in the body to fight off disease, as well as being an antifungal, antiviral and antibacterial.
Over the past few decades, the pathogen fighting properties of nitric oxide have been discovered, as well as its healing capabilities. The nitric oxide created in the nasal cavities is one of our frontlines of defense for incoming pathogens, and we need antivirals, antifungals, and antibacterials present to filter out and kill off harmful invaders like COVID-19 before they can either settle deep into the lung tissue or directly attack the brain through the olfactory nerves.
If periodically increasing nitric oxide is desirable, nature has provided a clear pathway, humming. Humming has been shown to generate nitric oxide in the nasal cavities by increasing the speed of the airflow in the sinuses.
Humming is a natural phenomenon that occurs spontaneously in human beings. We hum when we are thinking, or happy, or taste something delicious, or agreeing or disagreeing as a non-language-based mode of communication. We hum wordless melodies or along with our favorite songs.
Children hum when they are happy and playing. Humming also keeps us company when we are alone. It is also a non-verbal signifier that allows us to convey a positive or negative, a non-committal, agreeable or non-agreeable feeling. With humming, we can say something without having to use words and the person we are speaking to will get the idea.
If humans bear an innate capacity for doing something in a particular way, it must exist for a purpose. And not only does humming serve to help us express ourselves; it also has some amazing health benefits.
The reason it works is due to a complex interplay of interactions that the vibration of the sound is sending through your autonomic nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system has two primary branches: the sympathetic and parasympathetic. They control and oversee all the operations of things that keep us living so we don’t have to think about them and breathing is one of the key ones. The vagal nerve complex, commonly called the vagus nerve, makes up 80% of the parasympathetic nervous system.
This nerve complex is one of the most far reaching of the nerves that extends from our brains, sending information down to our bodies, while also receiving signals from our internal organs about the state of our body. Extended exhalations, such as those produced by humming, strengthen the vagal brake, which slows the heartbeat and creates a feeling of calm and internal coherence.
The ability to tune into the signals our body is sending is one of the key purposes of a spiritual, contemplative, or meditative discipline. But it’s also a basic function of being human. Many of us have become cut off from what we are feeling in our bodies and could use some help in getting back in touch with those feelings. Slowing down is a very important part of that process.
The humming practice is a very effective means of slowing ourselves down, which includes our minds, our breath, our nervous system and our bodies. Here’s how it works:
1. Inhale comfortably through your nose, and as you exhale through your nose, allow yourself to hum as if you’re feeling really satisfied or happy.
2. Repeat once.
3. Is your sound high or low-pitched? If it’s low-pitched, make it a little higher. If you were very high-pitched, lower the tone slightly so you aren’t straining your hum.
4. Inhale high into the nasal cavity, as though you are taking in a scent from across the room. Any smell that you love will work. It could be the first that comes to mind: the scent of a rose, or of brownies or bread baking in the oven, or perhaps the salty scent of the sea.
5. As you breathe in high into the nasal cavity, savor the imaginary (or real) smell, so that your breath lengthens. When you exhale, keep your awareness near your sense of smell.
6. Repeat a few times, then move on to the combination of these two practices.
7. Next, breathe high into the nasal cavity, savoring your breath like your favorite song, and then …
8. As you exhale, make a humming sound at whatever natural pitch comes out of your nose. And as you make the humming sound, keep your awareness focused near the sense of smell.
9. Repeat three to five times. When you feel you’ve done enough, sit quietly and observe your state of mind, body and nervous system.
You can try this practice several times throughout the day. If you do a few rounds after you wake up in the morning it can help set you up before you start your day; a few rounds at night and it can help wind you down before you go to sleep. There are no contraindications for it. Just stop if you feel that you are getting tired or strained. Usually five to ten rounds are enough, but there is no limit. And just as a side note, this practice tends to drive dogs nuts, but cats are seemingly not affected. Enjoy!