Why Yogis Breathe through the Nose.

Via Mid Walsh
on Jun 23, 2011
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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.


About Mid Walsh

Mid Walsh is a yoga teacher, poet, sculler, educational publishing professional, and co-owner of Dancing Crow Yoga. He lives with his wife and their enchanted cat Carmen in a house near the ocean in Massachusetts.


14 Responses to “Why Yogis Breathe through the Nose.”

  1. timful says:

    Very interesting! I too am always looking for "scientific" explanations for things I learn from yoga. However, I think it is not quite correct to say that Patanjali promoted breathing practices "two thousand years before an explanation appeared." Surely, he offered some explanation? And if it sounds quaint to us today, I can bet that our "Nitrous Oxide" explanation will sound equally quaint in 2000 years. We are all just groping at the truth, and if we do get closer, it is the same way you get closer to the sun when you stand on a chair.

  2. tanya lee markul says:

    Indeed interesting!!!!

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Assoc. Yoga Editor
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  3. As Johnny Carson used to say to Ed McMahon, "I did not know that". Great blog.

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

    Bob W. Yoga Editor

  4. midwalsh says:

    Glad you thought so, Jennifer!

  5. midwalsh says:

    Hey thanks Bob. Makes you wonder what is going on in the 'hood under the hood, doesn't it…

  6. midwalsh says:

    NO problem, Jill. ;>)

    What a great question: the difference between divine connection, everyday epiphanies and a electro-chemical events in the brain… Can there ever be an answer? (would we really want one?)

  7. Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

    Bob W. Yoga Editor
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  8. Jac Vidgen says:

    Hey thanks for the article. Having taught Buteyko's method of breathing reconditioning for the past 17 years, I'd suggest that although NO certainly makes a difference, Carbon Dioxide is actually way more powerful – not just as a vessel dilator, but as the primary catalyst which allows effective delivery of Oxygen from the blood into the cells, as well as being a major regulator in most systems of the body. Exclusive nasal breathing is critical for a range of reasons apart from the introduction of Nitric Oxide – eg. it helps regulate air flow in and out (therefore helping reduce increasingly prevalent chronic low-grade hyperventilation), it allows for effective humidification, dehumidification, temperature control, filtration and also the introduction of other important chemicals – none of which occur with mouth-breathing. As far as I know, the Bhagavad-Gita prescribes "The removal of outside stimuli and the suspension of breath within the nostrils controls the mind, and the transcendentalist becomes free from desire, fear and anger, and the one who is always in this state is certainly liberated". And undoubtedly, carefully managed breath-holding, followed by carefully managed breathing, increases CO2 levels in the body – which is highly beneficial, as most modern humans have a deficiency of CO2.

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  10. Dena says:

    Good to know! I always breathe through my nose during yoga practice, but I didn't know why. Now I do. Thanks!

  11. midwalsh says:

    Hey glad you like the post Dena, and thanks for commenting. As Jac points out above, nitric oxide certainly isn't the only factor at play. (Is there every really only one factor at play in anything anymore??) But it certainly is a cool one !!!

  12. Hi Jac,
    You are right about the science of the benefits of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream against NO as of today. With that being said, having oxygen and carbon dioxide molecules in your bloodstream longer is very benificial to harnessing the power of both gases in our bloodstream. We know that NO is only activated thru nasal breathing into forehead area. The life of NO chemical is very short but very helpful in raising endorphins and dopamine that helps control pain states with a lower heartrate and brainwaves activities, ie alpha states, flow states. I'm all for all yogic breathing exercises in all cardio routines, to take presure of the cardiovascular system. The more body learns to live without breath, it remembers that it knows how to live on the subtle energy of prana, which takes less from mother earth.

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