It’s impossible to talk about yoga without talking about breathing. Yoga instructors frequently talk about the need to connect the mind and body through the breath. Have you ever wondered exactly what they mean by that?
Such statements might make yoga feel complicated or difficult. It isn’t. The simple truth is that if you’re capable of breathing, you have the skills needed to do yoga. As a practitioner of yoga, you’ll build knowledge and awareness that will help you breathe more efficiently.
Our breathing is controlled by our autonomic nervous system. Because breathing happens automatically, we tend to give little thought to this essential life function. Still, we do have control over the manner and quality of our breath. How we breathe can have a huge impact on our health, energy, stamina and quality of life.
The Quality of Your Breathing Matters
Our bodily functions are regulated by oxygen, and every cell in the body requires oxygen to survive. The quality of our breathing determines how much fresh oxygen is drawn into the lungs. When we learn to breathe more efficiently, our oxygen level increases. Oxygenated cells metabolize energy more effectively, so we experience a spike in our energy and stamina. We’re more productive and think more clearly.
While focused on a task, as we are during yoga class, it’s easy to forget about the importance of taking full, deep breaths. Perhaps you’re hot and annoyed or lost in thought. Maybe you’re distracted by an area of discomfort or fixated on the mastery of a particular pose. It happens to even seasoned yoga practitioners. That’s why the instructor will periodically remind you to focus on your breath.
Your teacher simply asks you to bring awareness to your breath. What we’re really telling you is to breathe in and out through your nose. This may counteract your learned response to the body’s demand for more oxygen when the heart rate increases: open mouth breathing.
How You Breathe Matters
Expanding the lungs is harder when you breathe through your nose. So when you first attempt unfamiliar poses in the hot yoga room, your natural reaction is to make the work of breathing easier. Breathing through your mouth might feel like the easiest way to accomplish this. However, here are a few reasons why breathing through the nose is preferable to breathing through the mouth:
- The nose is designed to prepare air for entry into the lungs. The nostrils filter impurities, regulate air temperature and moisturize or dehumidify air. The nostrils also signal the lungs to prepare for incoming air.
- Though the nostrils are smaller and less air is inhaled, the slower breath allows your lungs to extract oxygen more efficiently. So while you take less air in through the nostrils, your body will get more oxygen.
- Increased airflow through the nostrils in linked to increased brain activity and improved verbal and spatial performance.
- Mouth breathing circumnavigates critical stages in the breathing process, therefore exacerbating conditions like sleep apnea, allergies and asthma. It also reduces the oxygen available to organs like the heart and brain.
- When you breathe through your mouth, the body responds as if you’re in danger, raising cortisol and stress hormone levels. Blood pressure levels are also raised. This creates the opposite effect of the calming one you likely intended when you stepped on the mat.
- Open mouth breathing while awake trains your body to do this while you’re sleeping. This contributes to snoring. Learning to breathe correctly during the day increases the likelihood you’ll do the same while asleep. Something that will make your sleeping partner happy.
How you breathe matters tremendously. Notice the quality and manner of your breathing. Take full, deep breaths in and out of the nostrils. By breathing correctly when breath is under your conscious control, your breathing habits will improve when they return to unconscious control.
As for the challenge of breathing through the nose in your hot yoga class, just know it gets easier. The body has the miraculous ability to quickly adapt to the demands of heat and the postures. For most people it only takes three or four classes to notice this change.
Yoga Contributes to Improved Breathing
We’ve explored the reasons it’s important to take full, deep breaths through the nose. However, poor posture can prevent us from breathing properly.
Think of how you sit throughout the day. Perhaps you’re hunched over a computer, slumped against your car seat or curled forward on the couch in front of the television. These examples of poor body mechanics compromise air passages. As a result, automatic breathing in these postures is shallow. Your body gets less oxygen than it needs for optimal performance.
A continued yoga practice develops the muscles required for proper posture. Core muscles are strengthened and elongated. We become more aware of the correct alignment of the spine. This awareness translates to how we move about the world once we are off the mat. Here are three poses that can be particularly helpful in improving posture:
- Tree pose. We stand tall, lengthening the spine and stretching the chest and shoulders. This awareness of the need to lengthen the torso carries throughout the day.
- Downward facing dog. The spine is stretched and lengthened and the shoulders open up, reversing the effects of slumping posture.
- Plank pose. Core muscles, which hold the body upright, are strengthened, alleviating stress on the spine.
Many yoga asanas help realign the spine, open the chest and stretch and lengthen muscles that contribute to better posture. The beauty of these poses is that they help retrain our body. Eventually, sitting or standing straight and tall feel natural, even when you’re relaxed. Therefore, your passageways remain fully open, allowing you to take full, deep breaths, even during autonomic breathing.
Your cells require an adequate amount of oxygen to function optimally. Taking deep, full breaths in and out of the nose allows the lungs to work optimally and filter enough oxygen from the air. When we do this during conscious breathing, we train the body to breathe properly, even when our breathing is on autopilot. Proper posture also contributes to our ability to breathe effectively.
A continued yoga practice makes us conscious of the quality of our breath, encourages us to breathe in and out through the nose and improves our posture. All of this contributes to better breathing and better health.