Yoga and Breathing

Breathing is easy. Take a breath in. And breathe out. There, see how easy that was?

Since the day you were born, your body has taken around 20,000 breaths every single day and most of them totally unconsciously.

It's no wonder we call breathing in inspiration. The very act of breathing – the contracting muscles, pressure changes and exchanging gases that allow us to keep living is a wonderful example of evolution's beautiful ingenuity.

Breathing out, on the other hand, brings with it connotations of finality, release and, ultimately, death. Expiration evokes ideas of fruit in the supermarket that's past its expiry date.

So, how does breathing affect us and why is it such a big deal in yoga? It took me a long time to balance my own practice. For a long time, the movements and shapes took priority over my breath. But it was by refocusing on the breath that I was able to take my yoga practice to the next level.

This article covers the basic mechanics of breath, why it's so important to breathe, best practices when it comes to breathing, and some exercises you can try as well as some further resources to learn about breathing and improving your breathing.

Please, join me as we take a quiet breath in through our nose.

And breathe out through your mouth with a slight sigh.

Let's go.

Why is breathing so important for wellbeing?

Breathing is without a doubt super important. Human beings have probably known that since before we were even humans, but scientists are coming up with more and more ways of quantifying its importance in the lab.

Recent studies link healthy breathing to:

When we breathe, our body uses muscles – abdominals, intercostal muscles (also called ribcage muscles) and the diaphragm, a thin, dome-shaped muscle that sits at the base of the chest.

When these muscles contract, the volume of our lungs increases and we breathe in. When they relax, the volume in the lungs decreases and we breathe out.

Our breath is actually just air flowing in and out of our lungs according to the changes in pressure caused by the contraction and relaxation of our chest. But I guess breathing sounds better than gaseous exchange due to pressure differentials!

What affects our breathing?

The quantity and quality of our breathing can change because of internal and external factors. The lengths of our breaths, the air we breathe, even how we're feeling can all affect our breathing.

Most of the time, we can trust our bodies to do the right thing, but it's worth considering the following factors that can positively and negatively affect the health of our breath:

  • Mouth/nose breathing

  • Environmental factors like pollution, smog, etc.

  • Hormones

  • Bacterial and viral infections (COVID-19, for example)

  • Caffeine

  • Laughter

  • Stress and anxiety

  • Fatigue

How to balance your breath

Breathing affects every single part of our body. From cell development to brain function, hormone levels and muscle performance, good, healthy breathing is imperative for a happy, healthy body.

Our bodies search for balance, whether it's in a one-legged yoga pose or simply balancing an out-breath with an in-breath. The body’s ability to maintain a relatively stable internal state, regardless of changes in the world around you, is called homeostasis.

The human body strives to maintain homeostasis in everything from blood oxygen levels to pH, core body temperature to the volume of water in the body. Every second of every day your body’s systems are working to find balance. (When working correctly, that is.)

When it comes to breathing, a relaxed, shallow, unconscious breath usually indicates that your body has found a balanced breath. Not all the time, though; if you're sprinting a hill, your body has to change to find a new balance, normally indicated by open-mouthed, red-faced panting.

Balancing your breath in yoga doesn’t necessarily mean you’re breathing in and out for the same number of beats. When you're practising yoga, finding balance means you're in tune, on point, and completely present in the moment. I find it helps not to think about it.

One final note on balanced breathing, the latest research indicates that most people in our society have a tendency to over breathe and breathe too much through our mouths. If you’re interested in the benefits of nose-breathing and balanced breathing in general then I really recommend reading or listening to James Nestor.

The downsides of imbalanced breathing

It's not worth stressing over minutely, but breathing properly offers huge advantages. An unnecessarily imbalanced breath is often symptomatic of an underlying issue like stress or an infection.

In the short term, over and under-breathing can cause:

  • Breathlessness

  • Dizziness

  • Lactic acid build-up

  • Fatigue

  • Reduced clarity of thought

  • Fight or flight hormone release leading to depletion, exhaustion and burnout

Over time, these short-term symptoms can develop into more serious, wide-ranging effects like anxiety, depression, cell deterioration, lack of sleep, and a whole bunch of deleterious effects.

Furthermore, it's easy to fall into a negative cycle when it comes to bad breathing habits. For example, over-breathing can trigger fight/flight mode. This, in turn, results in increased panic, anxiety, and fear, which starts the process all over again by instigating even more over-breathing.

The upsides of balanced breathing

Don't despair, though. Balancing your breath, doing a little 'breathwork,' which really just means bringing your conscious attention onto your breath, can trigger a positive feedback loop.

Simply by consciously prolonging the pause at the end of each breath, you can self-regulate against stress and anxiety, lower your heart rate, and flood your body with rest and digest hormones, which, in turn, slow down and relax the breath.

Balanced, happy, healthy breathing helps:

  • Increase metabolism and digestion

  • Improve posture and stability

  • Relax, lower stress and anxiety

  • Body self-regulation and homeostasis.

How does yoga improve breathing?

Yoga is one of the best ways we've come up with to improve these basic skills – moving, breathing, recognising and focusing on the breath. They're subtle and elusive. The more you practice, the more you realise there is to learn. But it is worth it.

One of the translations of yoga is union. I love how all-encompassing that is. In this context, it can mean the union of the in-breath and out, the union of pressures and volumes, the union of breathing and movement, and the union of the body's internal, unconscious and automatic systems with the external, gaseous cocktail of Mother Earth's atmosphere.

In yoga, breathing techniques are often referred to as ‘pranayama’. Prana means ‘life force’ - and breathing is our main source of life and energy. ‘Yama’ means to control or restrain. So, most pranayama techniques use breath control as a way to move and manipulate this energetic field within the body.

If you're interested in drilling down into specific yogic breathing techniques, take a look at Charley's video tutorial for Ujjayi Breath. Ujjayi, or Ocean breath, is a great technique for heightening breath awareness and developing diaphragmatic breathing.

There's also alternate nostril breathing (nadi shodhana), breath of fire (kapalabhati), breath-holding (sama vritti), 3-layer breathing (viloma) and the Wim Hof Method. Some of these practices are very challenging, especially at the beginning.

Pranayama and breath-work often deliberately introduce stress into our system, which has beneficial effects for us if we persist - but when you’re starting out it’s a good idea to take it slow and get some guidance.

What does balanced, happy, healthy breathing actually look like?

It's impossible for me to tell you how to breathe. Everyone's body is different, with different heart rates, pH levels, hormones and everything else that makes up a body and consciousness.

However, there do seem to be some tried and true ways of improving your breath over time. They may look simple, but they can be tough:

  • Nose breathing

  • 'Low and slow' breaths

  • Effortless breathing pattern

Just to reiterate, don't stress over any of this too minutely. As we've seen, stress can cause negative feedback loops which directly affect the quality and quantity of our breathing.

Instead, let's try to learn to trust our body and its relationship with the atmosphere. Let's try to find balance and breathe new life into the world.


Epilogue, or what happens if we don't breathe...

If we don't breathe, this happens (major spoiler alert by the way):

(From Jack London's Martin Eden)

“Down, down, he swam till his arms and legs grew tired and hardly moved. He knew that he was deep. The pressure on his ear-drums was a pain, and there was a buzzing in his head. His endurance was faltering, but he compelled his arms and legs to drive him deeper until his will snapped and the air drove from his lungs in a great explosive rush. The bubbles rubbed and bounded like tiny balloons against his cheeks and eyes as they took their upward flight. Then came pain and strangulation. This hurt was not death, was the thought that oscillated through his reeling consciousness. Death did not hurt. It was life, the pangs of life, this awful, suffocating feeling; it was the last blow life could deal him.

His wilful hands and feet began to beat and churn about, spasmodically and feebly. But he had fooled them and the will to live that made them beat and churn. He was too deep down. They could never bring him to the surface. He seemed floating languidly in a sea of dreamy vision. Colors and radiances surrounded him and bathed him and pervaded him. What was that? It seemed a lighthouse; but it was inside his brain—a flashing, bright white light. It flashed swifter and swifter. There was a long rumble of sound, and it seemed to him that he was falling down a vast and interminable stairway. And somewhere at the bottom he fell into darkness. That much he knew. He had fallen into darkness. And at the instant he knew, he ceased to know.”

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