Yogic breathwork, or Pranayama (praa·nuh·yaa·muh), is the foundation for all Yogic practices. Without Pranayama, Yoga would simply be another exercise – a good way to work those muscles, but nothing deeper!
But since the breath is the focal point of any good Yoga class, it connects the body to the mind. The breath yokes the 2 together with each movement, actively anchoring the mind in the here and now.
Breathwork, or Pranayama strategically calms the nervous system, and in doing so, achieves the true purpose of Yoga: Yogash Chitta Vritti Nirodha – Yoga STOPS the fluctuations of the mind. Because while in the breath, there are no worries of the future or stickiness of the past, only NOW.
Breathwork = a calm mind = a chance for the body to rest & digest.
What does Pranayama mean?
|Prana प्राण = life force or vital energy/breath|
|Yama यम = extension or control|
|Pranayama प्राणायाम = Control of breath or expansion of vital life force.|
The idea of Prana or Life Force can be found in every culture.
The Chinese call this energy qi, and Hindus call it prana (one of the key concepts of yoga). A little later, in the West, the Greek term pneuma and the Hebrew term rûah referred both to the breath and to the divine presence. In Latin languages, spiritus is at the root of both “spirit” and “respiration.” In fact, every relaxation, calming or meditation technique relies on breathing, which may be the lowest common denominator in all the approaches to calming the body and mind.Proper Breathing Brings Better Health – Scientific American
But before we go any further…here is a quick overview of the Respiratory System:
I don’t know about you, but for me, it’s been awhile since high school biology! So let’s go through a quick refresher to find out why breathing is so important and why it’s the main focus of yoga.
The Inhale: pulls oxygen from the air into the lungs where it then enters the blood stream. This oxygenated blood is distributed to every part of the body bringing life giving O2 and energizing cells.
The Exhale: expels Carbon Dioxide (CO2) that was created from these freshly oxygenated cells. This CO2 travels back via the bloodstream to the lungs and expelled along with other toxic waste.
BUT…there are Rules for proper breathing (hint – most of us are doing it wrong!)
Rule 1: Breath through the nose
A common Yogic saying is, breathe with your nose, eat with your mouth! The primary job of the nose is to support respiration, while the mouth’s job is digestion.
When I 1st started on my Yoga journey, I had no idea what the difference was between nose and mouth breathing. I thought – what does it matter how I breathe if both are accomplishing the same end goal?! Yoga teachers would always instruct me to use my nose during class, but they never explained why it was important.
Breathing through the nose during yoga AND during everything else in life is important because:
|► Tiny hairs continually sweep the air passages clean of air containing germs, bacteria, & allergens, thus blocking further entry into the lungs.|
|► Warms, sterilizes, & moistures the air to create a soft passageway for oxygen entering the lungs.|
|► Increased oxygen into active tissue enhances endurance & lowers perceived exertion during exercise.|
|► Production of Nitric Oxide which was named “Molecule of the Year” in 1992, tells arteries to relax and expand, allowing for smooth transportation of oxygen throughout the body.|
○ It also: ↑ anti-bacterial properties, ↓ blood pressure, ↓ lactic acid, ↑ immunity, ↓ inflammation, ↓ cell death/turnover, ↑ pain management, ↑ relaxed nervous system, ↑ metabolism, ↑ sexual health.
|► Stimulates the Parasympathetic Nervous System which supports supports recovery, rest, and digestion.|
|► 10-20% more O2 intake than mouth breathing.|
Note – mouth breathing provides none of these benefits and in fact leads to susceptibility to sickness, dry mouth, fatigue, anxiousness, as well as structural changes to the face long term.
Rule 2: Have correct posture
If a person’s posture is bad, it is next to impossible to breathe correctly. There simply is not enough space. The diaphragm needs full range of motion on the inhale, and that is only possible when:
|1. The spine is straight.|
|2. The shoulders are rolled back & down.|
|3. The chin is tucked slightly – in line with the spine.|
|4. The belly EXPANDS on the inhale.|
Bad posture is primarily due to weak back and stomach muscles. I had terrible posture for most of my life. I unconsciously thought that by hunching over, I would appear shorter. Being a tall woman in a short man’s world can be hard!
When I 1st started to work on my posture, it was exhausting. I was using muscles I had never used. It took a number of months of catching myself hunching over, not only while walking, but also at my desk, and actively correcting my posture, for my posture to finally start to change.
Note – correcting our posture and learning how to breathe properly is an act of bravery. We allow ourselves to take up all the space we need in this world. Rather than averting our eyes and trying to crawl back into our hiding place inside, we fully step into our height, breadth, and width of who we really are.
Rule 3: Use the belly
When learning how to breathe properly, it’s helpful to think about how babies breathe when they sleep – their little bellies rise so rhythmically and smoothly. We often lose this automatic respiratory function in preference for chest breathing. This is due to a couple of reasons:
- Societal and cultural conditioning has unconsciously or maybe even consciously directed us to tighten and constrict our abdominal muscles. Terms like muffin top and FUPA that refer to our soft belly’s induce feelings of shame and embarrassment. “So suck it in ladies!” – we’re told. “Squeeze that belly into Spanx.” “Don’t breathe until that hot guy passes, and definitely don’t laugh so hard that the soft spots jiggle.”
- The fight or flight (sympathetic nervous system) response. When faced with dangerous or stress inducing situations, breathing becomes more shallow in order to prepare the body to FIGHT! There is no time for calming belly breaths when you realize you are alone in a parking lot late at night with a stranger walking towards you. Shallow breathing can easily become the habitual response to daily non-threatening events and eventually feel like normal breathing.
- Breath retention – throughout the day, do you find yourself suddenly taking large inhales? Do you yawn frequently? Have your coworkers ever commented that you “sigh a lot?” When the breath is held for too long without a corresponding inhale, CO2 increases and O2 decreases causing fatigue, anxiety, and increased blood pressure. Unconsciously holding the breath is again due to utilizing the sympathetic nervous system full-time, instead of periodically. We hold the breath during life threatening situations so the we can remain very still and listen for signs of harm.
Because we don’t use the belly to breathe, accessory muscles are asked to inappropriately participate in the breathing process – primarily the neck and shoulders. When we breathe using the upper body instead of the belly, two things happen:
- The neck and shoulder can feel tense and painful since they’re performing a job they aren’t supposed to.
- The parasympathetic nervous system (relaxation) is never triggered since this function starts in the belly. Chest breathing remains shallow and continually stimulates the sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight).
Rule 4: Breathe slow and full
“For breath is life, and if you breathe well you will live long on earth.”~Sanskrit proverb
On average, most of us breathe between 10-20 breaths per minute. However scientists have begun to study what happens when someone mindfully breathes less than that, between 4-10 breaths per minute. Western researchers are beginning to discover what Yogis have known for 5,000 years: The longer the breath, the longer the life.
I did my Yoga Teachers training in a very traditional institution in India. The focus on Yoga teacher training in India is not asanas (postures), but philosophy and pranayama. One exercise we were given was to find out how long it took us to breathe 100 breaths. Most of us finished at the same time – fairly quickly and rushed. Only one man finished far later than everyone else. He breathed slowly and purposely and opened his eyes to everyone staring at him in awe.
The ancient Indian yogis, in developing the various practices and disciplines of yoga, studied the ways of nature and animals to find out about life and longevity. They observed that animals whose hearts beat quickly and who breathed rapidly (such as butterflies and rabbits) lived a short life, whereas those with slow heart rates and relaxed breathing patterns (such as elephants and tortoises) had a much longer life span. From that extended the ancient yogic belief that each of us is born with a certain number of breaths to take before we die; thus, through lengthening the breath and retaining the breath, we’re effectively increasing our life spans.Your guide to the yogic practice of pranayama ~ Wellbeing
Although 4-10 breaths per minute sounds impossible, it is not unheard of. In 2005, a research study was done on a Yogi with 34 years of breathwork experience. He was able to take 2 breaths per minute without “compromising oxygen saturation.” In 2001, a Kundalini Yogi master was also recording achieving 5 breaths per minute.
So how does longer and slower breathing correlate to lifespan? Breathing stimulates the Parasympathetic Nervous System causing a decrease in blood pressure and heart rate. The entire body is allowed to rest and digest. The immune system also strengthens by increasing lymphocyte, a type of white blood cell that protects from invading organisms.
❤️ A note about shallow and fast breathing ❤️
I want to acknowledge that there are very real reasons why people breathe in a shallow and fast way. It is a learned behavior due to difficult and painful life circumstances. Anxiety, depression, trauma and grief reside in many parts of our body, but are poignantly expressed in the lungs. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, the lungs are the keepers of grief. It is difficult to sit up straight, open the heart, and lift the chin with feelings of deep sadness. The lungs ability to fully do its job of drawing in life giving oxygen and releasing toxins is severely hampered. So if you’re currently experiencing what feels like a ton of bricks laying on your lungs, that is normal. If you’re having a hard time breathing in fully, or even at all, that is also very normal.
And now, without further ado, here are 20 Scientific benefits of proper breathing (hint hint~ Pranayama)
Let’s recap all the fabulous benefits we receive from doing our Pranayama practice:
- Detoxifies and releases toxins
- Decrease blood pressure and heart rate
- Change gene expression by altering the body’s stress response
- Strengthen immunity
- Improve digestion
- Natural painkiller
- Increases energy
- Improves posture
- Reduces inflammation
- Stimulates lymphatic system
- Induces relaxation
- Calms anxiety and depression
- Regulates metabolism
- Helps with sleep
- Increases the activity in the vagus nerve
- Triggers Nitric Oxide
- Builds concentration
- Reduces cortisol build-up from stress
- Balances the endocrine and hormonal system
So let’s Practice!
Follow this fun Gif below to practice our big belly breaths.
- Gradually increase the inhale as the image expands
- Pause at the top
- Exhale following the image as it collapses
- Pause at the bottom