Even though most of us have been humming throughout our lives, there are several powerful health benefits to paying closer attention to it and consciously integrating it into our daily wellness routines. Dive right into a practice session with Brian, then explore the resources below to learn more.
Slow and low for calm focus.
The benefits researchers associate with humming can be grouped into two general categories. First, we promote a sense of calm focus by slowing down our exhalation when we hum. This process is complex but can be understood as activating the parasympathetic, or “rest and digest” side of our autonomic nervous system.1 When we exhale slowly and deeply, we lower the heart rate and light up areas in the brain associated with reflection and decision-making. That slow and low out-breath sends messages up through the vagus nerve to our brain’s alarm centers that “everything is OK” and there’s no need for the “fight or flight” response of our sympathetic nervous system.2 This helps explain why we are often encouraged to “take a deep breath” when presented with a potential stress trigger.
Noses are for breathing, mouths are for eating.
The second group of benefits we receive from humming relates to how we exhale. As we hum along to our favorite tune, we vibrate or oscillate the air in our sinuses and nasal cavity. This action naturally increases our production of nitric oxide (NO), a molecule that opens our blood vessels, boosts our circulation and even supports our digestion and immune function.3 Humming was found in one study to contribute to a 15-fold increase in NO production in the airways.4 Now, it is important to note that in order to reap these benefits we need to breathe in through the nose to carry these NO molecules down into the lungs. As we like to remind our students, nasal breathing is usually preferred to mouth breathing for a number of reasons, but we’ll save those for a future post!
Listen to the bees and let them guide you. – Brother Adam
The benefits of humming were well-known to the earliest practitioners of yoga, who integrated a soft vocalization during prolonged exhalation in an exercise we know today as the Bee Breath, or Bhramari Pranayama. Resembling the soft droning of a bee, this pranayama (breath control) practice embodies some of the vibratory qualities of mantra meditation where words and phrases are repeated to help softly center the mind within the body.5 There is evidence that such vocalizations may trigger the release of “feel-good chemicals” including endorphins and oxytocin, into the blood stream7,8. This helps to explain the virtuous circle common to many mind-body activities, where the more frequent and focused our practice is, the more deeply and consistently we feel its benefits. Humming can become a powerful tool in all of our wellness toolkits. Just like the breath, it’s always right there waiting for us, a gateway into the present moment.
General breathwork references:
McKeown, P. (2016). The Oxygen Advantage. New York, NY: William Morrow.
Nestor, James, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. (2020). New York, NY: Riverhead.
1 Gerritsen. R & Band, G.(2018). Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 12(397): 1-25.
doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2018.00397 (This review presents a wide range of studies that illustrate how slower respiration rates and longer exhalations phasically and tonically stimulate the vagus nerve.)
2 De Couck, M., Caers, R., Musch, L., Fliegauf, J., Giangreco, A. & Gidron, Y. (2019). How Breathing Can Help You Make Better Decisions: Two Studies on the Effects of Breathing Patterns on Heart Rate Variability and Decision-Making in Business Cases. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 139(2019):1-9. doi: 10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2019.02.011 (Reports that just two minutes of deep breathing with longer exhalation engages the vagus nerve, increases HRV, and improves decision-making. )
3 Wink, D, Hines, H., Cheng, R., Switzer, C., Flores-Santana, W., Vitek, M., Ridnour, L. & Colton, C. (2011). Nitric oxide and redox mechanisms in the immune response. Journal of Leukocyte Biology, 89(6): 873-891. doi: 10.1189/jlb.1010550
4 Weitzberg, E. & Lundberg, J. (2002). Humming Greatly Increases Nasal Nitric Oxide. American Journal of Respiratory Critical Care Medicine, 166(2002): 144-145. doi:10.1164/rccm.200202-138BC
5 Kuppusamy, M., Kamaldeen., D, Pitani, R., Amaldas, J. & Shanmugam, P. (2018). Effects of Bhramari Pranayama on health – A systematic review. Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine,(8)1: 11-16.
6 MacMullan, A. (2020, September 25). Bee Breath: Hum Your Way to Health. Retrieved December 12, 2020, from https://www.premayogainstitute.com/pyi-blog/bee-breath-hum-your-way-to-health
7 Merrett, D., Peretz, I. & Wilson, S. (2014). Neurobiological, cognitive, and emotional mechanisms in melodic intonation therapy. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8: 1-12.
8 Wilson, S., Abbott, D, Lusher, D., Gentle, E. & Jackson, G. (2011). Finding your voice: A singing lesson from functional imaging. Human Brain Mapping, 32(12): 2115-2130.