Deep breathing has become such a widely cited tool for calming down that it’s hard to believe that there was ever a time when it wasn’t prescribed as a simple, practical cure-all for the anxious. And yet, the seeds of its ubiquity weren’t really planted until the 1960s.
Back then, there was a different “crisis of masculinity” afoot. In particular, coronary heart disease was killing about one-third of Americans and a disproportionate number of men. “There was a lot of concern about men dropping dead of heart attacks from too much stress,” explains science historian and Harvard professor Anne Harrington.
And so, to alleviate all of that stress, they were told to breathe — primarily by now-retired Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson, who would go on to start the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.
In the early 1970s, Benson was approached by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a guru who developed and popularized transcendental meditation and asked Benson to study it, Darshan Mehta, the current director of the Benson-Henry Institute, tells me. Maharishi and other transcendentalists “moved from Woodstock to science, and there, they found Benson, who was this young, budding cardiologist studying hypertension,” Mehta explains.
Benson was hesitant at first, but he eventually acquiesced to Maharishi and his followers’ requests to study their meditation methods in a lab. Because meditation didn’t yet have a foothold in the scientific community, they started in secret, sneaking subjects into Harvard Medical School on nights and weekends. But ultimately, Mehta says,
“When they went to practice their approach, [Benson] noted there was a distinct physiologic change that was captured by a drop in blood pressure and respiratory rate, and a decrease in heart rate.”
In 1975, Benson co-wrote the best-seller The Relaxation Response, which paved the way for legitimizing breathwork in the scientific space. His findings “found acceptance in American culture by presenting themselves as solutions to stressors of modern life,” says Harrington.
However, this is only half of the story. A few years later, 60 miles away in Wooster, Massachusetts, scientist Jon Kabat-Zinn was concerned about angry New England men — and he believed that mindfulness could chill them the fuck out. And so, Kabat-Zinn opened the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979, where he developed an eight-week mindfulness program to reduce stress. Harrington, who wrote about Benson and Kabat-Zinn in her book The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine, says that the main difference between Benson and Kabat-Zinn was that Benson presented relaxation techniques, like deep breathing, as simple tools everyone can use, whereas Kabat-Zinn viewed mindfulness as a complex skill you had to work to acquire.
“[Kabat-Zinn and his adherents] would joke that it was quite stressful to go through their stress-reduction program because they asked people to sit with their suffering, and not to shy away from it, not to flee it, but just to observe it,” Harrington says.
Either way, Benson and Kabat-Zinn both attempted to take practices that “might have been seen as kooky or too Eastern or not American, and tried to defang them, tried to secularize them and related them to stress reduction,” she continues. Along the way, they both became victims of their own success. Benson was criticized by his peers for writing a book for a lay audience, and Kabat-Zinn was similarly judged for allowing mindfulness to become “corporate and trendy.”
Nonetheless, deep and mindful breathing has remained one of the most universal solutions to stress since the 1980s and continues to be a very easily understood way in which the body affects the mind and vice versa. To say nothing of how, while deaths from heart disease have declined since the 1960s, concerns about keeping men alive have not. The threats just look different today — see: disproportionately higher rates of substance abuse and suicide. “The sense that we’re in a crisis around stress is important context for understanding why there was receptivity to accepting these secularized, simple, anyone-can-employ-them kind of strategies,” Harrington underscores.
Which is why these four little words have come to hold such palliative power: Take a deep breath.