To be honest, I’d never paid that much attention to my breath before I started practising yoga. And during class I used to hold my breath to squeeze into a yoga pose… I never really understood the breath connection until I trained to be a yoga teacher, which is why I place such an emphasis on the breath in my teaching as I want you to understand how you can breathe your way to better health. In this article, the first of a series, we will explore the why of yogic breathing. The next article, we will explore the how of yogic breathing.
Ancient yogis observed the animal kingdom and noticed that the animals which lived the longest (elephants, tortoises, whales) had the slowest rate of respiration. They concluded that we can live longer, healthier lives if we slowed down our breath. Not surprisingly, breath control or pranayama is a key feature in the system of yoga. The average human breathes 12-16 breaths per minute (at rest), while the average yogi breathes 4-10 breaths per minute.
Breathing – we’ve been doing it wrong…
Nose breathing vs mouth breathing
Although we’ve been breathing all our lives, some of us are better at it than others which is why some people really struggle with the whole breathing thing in yoga. Firstly, yogic breathing is through the nose. There are numerous studies outlining why nose breathing is better than mouth breathing, but basically:
- Absorption of oxygen from the air occurs on the exhalation and since nasal breathing slows the air movement, the lungs have more time to extract the oxygen from the air.
- Nasal breathing draws more oxygen to the lower lobes of the lungs which promotes relaxation
- Nasal breathing results in a lower heart rate and rate of respiration compared with mouth breathing
- Nasal breathing increases alpha brain waves (more relaxing) compared with mouth breathing
- Breathing through the mouth is inefficient and leads to hyperventilation. This can worsens symptoms of asthma, heart disease, high blood pressure and gum disease.
- Mouth breathing can be linked to anxiety, stress, addictions, sleeping problems and negative emotions
- Mouth breathing leads to slouching, poor posture and muscular tension.
Belly vs chest breathing
To slow down and deepen the breath, we need to engage the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle at the base of our lungs, separating our lungs from our digestive organs. The diaphragm is the primary breathing muscle, however, if we don’t use it properly, our body has to rely on the accessory breathing muscles in the chest and throat which can lead to tension in the upper body and shallow breathing.
Benefits of diaphragmatic or deep belly breathing:
- improved digestion. When we’re stressed, our body shunts energy away from digestion to deal with the stressor. Deep breathing and relaxation help to stimulate the digestive process leading to less bloating, cramping and constipation.
- increased oxygen to the blood stream, helping the vital organs to function more effectively
- increased oxygen to the brain, boosting memory and cognitive function
- reduced stress and anxiety due to the calming affect on the nervous system
The mental benefits of yogic breathing
What happens in vagus…
Deep, diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, the largest nerve in our body. The vagus nerve connects the brain to the belly and signals the brain when we’re stressed or relaxed, triggering a nervous system response. Our autonomic nervous system consists of the stress response (the fight or flight response of the sympathetic nervous system) and the relaxation response (the rest and digest, calming response of the parasympathetic nervous system).
Through yoga and yogic breathing we can consciously control the relaxation response. When we breathe consciously, engaging the diaphragm with our full yogic breath, we stimulate the vagus nerve which sends a message to the brain that we can relax and kicks off the chain reaction of physiological functions including: slowing the heart rate, lowering blood pressure, reducing anxiety and releasing muscular tension. In short, there is a direct relationship between the quality of our breath and our state of mind.
Controlling the mind through the breath?
Did you know that breathing through your right nostril will give you more energy and breathing through your left nostril will help you to relax and calm down? Yep, that’s another reason we breathe through the nose in yoga. The nerves in our nasal passage correlate to the different hemispheres of our brain and our nervous system. Breathing through the right nostril will stimulate the rational, left side of the brain and the sympathetic nervous system; increasing our energy and improving left brain functioning such as speech, communication, problem solving and analysis. Breathing through the left nostril has the opposing effect, stimulates the emotional, right side of the brain and promotes the parasympathetic nervous system or relaxation response; calming us down and improving right brain functioning such as creativity, intuition, imagination and ability to see the whole.
Throughout your day, one nostril will dominate (usually the right). When we lie on our side, the nostril that’s on top will dominate. That’s one of the reasons we roll to the right after Savasana (to promote relaxation through left nostril dominance).
A regular yoga practice makes us increasingly aware of our breath. Our breath becomes our focal point and we practise with a single-pointed focus. The breath then becomes the bridge that invites the mind to come back to the body, to drop into the present moment. Present moment awareness is also known as mindfulness. Mindfulness is rapidly gaining traction in western medicine as one of the most effective tools in dealing with anxiety and stress.Mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment without judgement. It is the opposite of mindlessness or everyday thinking. Mindfulness helps to free us from unwanted, repetitive and incessant thinking.
A common mindfulness technique is to watch the breath without judgement. Watch each inhale, watch each exhale and watch yourself react to the observation of the breath. This is super relaxing because the mind stops racing a million miles an hour, the thoughts slow down and you can find some mental breathing space.
And before you know it, you’re meditating
Paying this much attention to breathing will naturally lead you to a meditative state. In meditation, our brainwaves alter from a higher frequency of the Beta state (12-38Hz) associated with stress and anxiety to the more relaxed Alpha state (9-13 Hz) to the deeper state of awareness of Theta brainwaves (4-8 Hz) and finally the Delta state (which most of us only reach through sleep). The mind follows the breath, so when we actively slow down our respiration through yogic breathing, we slow down the brain waves which equates to fewer thoughts and more space in between thoughts. And in the space between our thoughts we will find bliss.
And this is where our yoga path leads us. From the physical poses, through the breath and into the subtle mental and spiritual aspects of our practice.
Want to learn more?
Discover the powerful practice of pranayama.
Learn the science of brainwave frequencies and how they affect how we think and feel.
Practice techniques to calm the mind.
Discover a variety of meditation techniques.
Learn to go beyond ordinary thinking into higher states of consciousness.