June 23, 2011

Why Yogis Breathe through the Nose.

Oh, NO!

Photo: allahabadbandb.com

Want to know some of the science behind all the breathing-through-the-nose business in yoga? The answer is no!

Yes, it’s nitric oxide (NO), a wonder-chemical your sinuses produce during nasal breathing, breath retention, and humming. Say “ommmmm;”  the buzzing om in your face is shaking nitric oxide into your bloodstream.

Photo: mediabistro.com

The first cousin of laughing gas, nitric oxide is remarkable stuff. It’s a relaxant that causes blood vessels to dilate, improving the absorption and release of gases in the lungs. It regulates the production of hair and erections. It messes with the DNA in bacteria and kills them. It’s in health products; it’s in semiconductors. Lightning produces nitric oxide, and so do your sinuses.

Nitric oxide from the sinuses helps to explain why we feel so good after doing ujjayi breathing through a yoga session, and why the pranayama practices of bhramari or kumbhaka are so refreshing.  It may even explain why it is so invigorating to breathe through the nose during aerobic exercise. Whatever else they do, these activities all stimulate the production of nitric oxide in the schnoz. From there, NO travels down our windpipe, offing bacteria and opening blood vessels as it travels down to the lungs and back again.

Interesting science, isn’t it?

Equally interesting to me is the more philosophical question it raises. If breathing through the nose feels good, who cares what the chemicals are?

This goes to the alchemy of my western mind. As a man of the twenty-first century, my mind places faith in good science. As Patanjali said, knowledge comes from either direct experience, logical inference, or the testimony of someone you believe. For me, this chemical explanation of nasal breathing hits on all three of Patanjali’s cylinders: the experience of my own senses, with a logical explanation, corroborated by scientists.

I love these little epiphanies of yoga, which integrate the experience of my body, age-old observations, and modern science. They effect me the way NO effects the pulmonary capillaries –  precipitating relaxation, expansion, and an increased ability to absorb. Ahh…

Patanjali had it right in so many ways. In this particular case he promoted breathing practices two thousand years before an explanation appeared and neatly described the experience of knowing something. I keep discovering other cases like this. Patanjali had an infallible nose for the truth, and NO’s science reminds me of that.

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