But what if thinking about them could help restore our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health? The benefits of controlling respiration include muscle relaxation, increased energy, reduced anxiety, depression, and stress, and even lower and stabilized blood pressure! Breathing well balances carbon dioxide and oxygen levels in the body, helping everything function better. Breathing the right way is an all-natural, straightforward way to enhance health and wellbeing.
Because everyone breathes, why don’t we all realize these benefits? Because not all breaths are equal. Low quality breathing increases stress on the body, making it more acidic and prone to infection.
For thousands of years, the practice of yoga has included breathing techniques (pranayama) to calm the nervous system and overworked mind. Yoga breathwork focuses on the correct way to breathe and developing habits that will ensure optimal benefits from this essential activity.
It starts with breathing the right way. The most effective and optimal breathing is slow (around 8-10 breaths per minute), deep (from the belly), and through the nose.
“We really should be breathing through our nose, not our mouths,” says Lindsay Smith, founder of Vibe Yoga and Warriors at Ease certified trauma-informed instructor. “Our nose is designed to filter out debris.”
Nasal passages humidify the air you inhale. Unfiltered air brought in the through the mouth goes straight to the lungs, and it can be filled with dust, pollution, bacteria, and viruses, causing inflammation.
Beyond nose breathing, yoga techniques also concentrate on diaphragmatic breathing, or “belly breathing,” which helps expand the lungs for increased oxygen, while strengthening the muscles of the chest, improving digestion and quality of sleep.
With this breathing, the belly rises and falls with little or no movement of the rib cage. Breathing this way helps slow breathing and heart rate, while increasing function of the heart and lungs and using less energy.
One way to practice belly breathing is to sit with your spine straight and long. If on a chair, make sure both feet are flat on the floor. Relax and take several deep breaths through the nose, focusing on breathing without tension. Put a hand on your upper chest and one on your stomach. Inhale slowly through your nose until you feel your stomach rise against your hand. As you exhale slowly, you should feel your stomach fall away toward your back. The goal is slow, deep breaths where the stomach, not the chest, is moving.
While we mostly breathe without thinking about it, yoga focuses on thinking about correct and beneficial breathing.
“There was a study of free divers who were able to expand their lung capacity by practicing breathing for 3 to 4 minutes a day,” Smith says. “Another study showed that mouth-breathers who began to breathe through their noses improved their immune system.”
One technique that Smith finds especially powerful is alternate nostril breathing. “This technique activates the opposite side of the brain, making you more aware,” Smith says. It also can help lower blood pressure, and studies have found that with over one month of practice of the technique, people had healthier lungs.
To Practice Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhan Pranayama):
- Bring your right hand in front of your nose with your palm facing your face and move your forefinger and middle finger out of the way by placing them on your forehead.
- Place your thumb on your right nostril, applying gentle pressure to close it off
- Close your eyes and exhale fully and slowly through your left nostril.
- Release your right nostril and use your ring finger to press and close the left nostril.
- Breath in slowly, deeply and continuously from the right side.
- After inhaling completely, exhale through your right nostril.
- Release the left nostril and close the right nostril with your thumb.
- Breathe fully and exhale fully as before from the left nostril.
- Repeat the full process two or more times.
- For the most benefit, practice daily until you can do it for 10 minutes at a time.
Smith says breathwork can be as simple as taking a slow inhale for 4 seconds, holding that inhale for 4 seconds and slowly exhaling for 4 seconds. The most important part is consistently practicing, even if only a few minutes a day.
Former New Yorker Madeline Paniagua, 65, who began practicing yoga 12 years ago and goes to classes four to five times a week, finds that breathwork helps her calm down and focus.
“It’s amazing how when you concentrate on your breath, you find instant calm,” she says. “Now before I react, I take a couple of breaths and let it go. I’m more mindful of what’s really going on around me.”
Donna Occhuizzo, 69, used to be a gym fanatic, but decided to try yoga for mental, physical, and emotional balance. She finds yoga has helped reduce her arthritis pain and increase flexibility. She knows yoga helps her because when she left the gym after a workout, she was worn out. After yoga, she feels refreshed and alert.
“When I’m stressed or upset, I take four or five deep breaths slowly,” she says. “It’s amazing what it does, centering me and bringing me in balance. It’s like a luxury day at a good spa.”
This article was featured in Time of the Islands Magazine in July 2022.
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