Tokyo >> A breathing exercise developed by respiratory specialist Ikuo Homma, who has long studied the close relationship between breathing and emotion, has attracted attention as a simple but effective way to build a healthy body and mind and ultimately improve the quality of people’s lives.
Calm Breathing Project, a nonprofit organization based in Tokyo, has promoted the Ratata breathing exercise, in which simple body movements of the neck, shoulders and chest are brought in line with one’s breathing rhythm.
The group has taught the method in areas stricken by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.
It has also been used in other places, including nursing care facilities.
“Difficulty in breathing is tantamount to difficulty living,” project director Homma, 70, said. “If you change the way you breathe, you can calm down your mind and the state of your body will improve as breathing and emotion move in tandem.”
The project was launched in 2013 to provide psychological support to people, particularly children in the disaster-hit Tohoku region, through breathing.
Homma said conventional psychotherapeutic techniques such as cognitive-behavioral therapy generally involve flashbacks of agonizing experiences, making many people shy away from such methods.
“We simply aimed to change the way they breathe without thinking much about specific psychotherapeutic methods,” he said.
Homma picked the name Ratata from the nickname of a popular motorcycle released in the 1970s. The exercise is conducted to cheerful music, the lyrics for which were written by Homma himself, using catchy words for children.
“When the music is played, you can move and breathe naturally,” he said. “It’s essential to keep doing it. The exercise is simple, but you won’t be able to continue unless you understand how it works.”
Homma, who is also president of Tokyo Ariake University of Medical and Health Sciences, has proposed that breathing techniques be taught to people in disaster-hit areas worldwide.
With his study focusing on what he calls “emotional breathing,” the respiratory physiologist shows how respiration is closely connected to emotion.
Anxiety and anger tend to make breathing rapid and shallow, while breathing is likely to become slow and deep when people feel relaxed. He said many people have experienced this relationship firsthand, but scientific research on the topic is relatively new.
His research has found that respiration is closely attuned to activity in the amygdala — the emotional center of the brain. He said many people in contemporary society have problems with this type of breathing due to stress. But based on this mechanism, stress can be eased through breathing.
“By controlling your breathing, you can control your emotions,” he said.
The project has expanded its activities with a new focus on elderly people whose respiratory functions have deteriorated, a symptom of aging that tends to affect their minds.
The group conducted breathing exercises at a day-care facility in Kyoto, once weekly for six months, with people with an average age of 80. Improvement was seen in their breathing capacity, and the participants also reported less anxiety and more stable moods.