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GRETCHEN CUDA: Does the thought of shelling out 140 bucks to have your fascia stretched make you feel a little stressed out? Me, too. I'm Gretchen Cuda. And believe it or not, what I'm doing right now...

(Soundbite of breathing and exhaling)

CUDA: ...breathing - is not only relaxing, it's actually affecting my heart, my brain, my digestion, my immune system and maybe even my genes. But don't take my word for it. Here's Mladen Golubic, a physician in the Cleveland Clinic's Center for Integrative Medicine.

Dr. MLADEN GOLUBIC (Cleveland Clinic's Center for Integrative Medicine): You can influence asthma. You can influence chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. You can influence heart failure. There are studies that show that people who practice breathing exercises and have those conditions, they benefit.

CUDA: He's talking about modern science, but these techniques aren't new. In India, breath work - called pranayama - is a regular part of yoga practice. Pranayama literally means control of the life force, and yoga practitioners have used it as a tool for affecting both the mind and body for thousands of years.

Judi Barr teaches yoga to patients with chronic diseases at the Cleveland Clinic to help them manage their health through lifestyle changes. She teaches them an energizing breath called firebreath.

Ms. JUDI BARR (Yoga Instructor): So at first, we pant like a little doggy. And then we close our mouth, and then the nostril breath starts right after that. OK, here we go.

(Soundbite of demonstration of firebreath)

CUDA: Research has shown that breathing exercises like these can have immediate effects by altering the pH of the blood or changing blood pressure. But more importantly, they can be used as a method to train the body's reaction to stressful situations, and dampen the production of harmful stress hormones.

Esther Sternberg is a physician, author of several books on stress and healing, and researcher´┐Żat the National Institute of Mental Health. Sternberg says rapid breathing is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system. It's part of the fight-or-flight response - the part activated by stress. In contrast, slow, deep breathing actually stimulates the opposing parasympathetic reaction - the one that calms us down.

Dr. ESTER STERNBERG (Physician, Author): The relaxation response is controlled by the vagus nerve. Think of a car throttling down the highway at 120 miles an hour. That's the stress response, and the vagus nerve is the brake. When you take slow, deep breaths, that is what is engaging the brake.

CUDA: Harvard researcher Herbert Benson coined the term "The Relaxation Response" in 1975, with a book of the same name. In it, Benson used scientific research to show that short periods of meditation, using breathing as a focus, could alter the body's stress response. In his new book, "The Relaxation Revolution," Benson claims that breathing can even change the expression of genes. He says by using your breath, you can alter the basic activity of your cells with your mind.

Dr. HERBERT BENSON (Researcher, Harvard University; Author): It does away with the whole mind-body separation. Here you can use the mind to actually change your body, and the gene's that we're changing were the very genes that were acting in an opposite fashion when people are under stress.

CUDA: Of course, breathing is not the answer to every medical problem. But Benson and others agree: The breath isn't something Western medicine should just blow off. It's a powerful tool for influencing individual health and well-being. And the best part is: All the ingredients are free and literally, right under your nose.

CUDA: For NPR, I'm Gretchen Cuda.

INSKEEP: And that's "Your Health" for this Monday morning.

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INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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