There is nothing new about the importance of breathing—just a few minutes of oxygen deprivation is enough to destroy the brain’s ability to process incoming information forever—but few of us realize that how we breathe affects every single aspect of our life.
Poor breathing habits, such as breathing too much, too shallowly, holding our breath or feeling as if we are not breathing at all, can cause major stress to our body, resulting in oxygen depletion and energy shortage.
Many feel that yoga helps them to reduce stress and improve their overall health. There’s two main reasons for this: a) the focus on breathing and b) the different postures that many times are aimed at creating open airways and well functioning breathing muscles. But just because we breathe in a certain way during a yoga exercise doesn’t mean that we shall breathe like that in our daily life.
Even though it’s highly likely that yogis have better breathing habits outside the yoga mat than other people, my experience is that the power of our breath in our daily life is usually either overlooked or has room for improvement, even amongst yogis. As the well known spiritual teacher Ram Dass said after doing breathing retraining for a few weeks, “It has helped me magically, magically.”
There are three very efficient ways to increase stress and imbalance in our body by changing the way we breathe: we can breathe fast and shallow through our mouth, we can hold our breath and finally we can tighten our airways. If we do any of these things, which are pretty much the opposite of the five principles of conscious breathing listed below, we will set our body on red alert, moving to fight or flight and increase stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.
One important aspect which is often forgotten is that we have to distinguish between whether we’re talking about good breathing habits outside the yoga mat or if it’s an exercise on the yoga mat aimed at creating a specific result, for example:
• Breath of fire to increase energy.
• Alternate nostril breathing to balance the autonomic nervous system.
• Count to 4 on the inhale, hold for 7 and then count to 8 on the exhale to increase relaxation.
• Inhale through the nose and exhale through pursed lips to increase lung pressure and muscle relaxation.
When I trained to become a yoga instructor in Medical Yoga, which is based on Kundalini Yoga, we used our breathing in many different ways. I found it fascinating how we could change the state of our body just by altering our breathing. However, soon I realized that there seemed to be a lack of knowledge or even misunderstanding amongst yogis on how to breathe outside the yoga class.
I decided to learn more about what constitutes good breathing habits in our daily life. The result of over five years of studying available literature and several hundred scientific researches reports on breathing as well as experimenting with my own body, is the book The Power of Your Breath. It contains more than 120 scientific references and is based on five simple principles for better breathing in your everyday life, away from the yoga mat:
Good breathing starts in the nose where the inhaled air is humidified, warmed and cleansed of bacteria and other particles in the air before reaching the airways and lungs. On the exhale the nose is rewarmed and remoistened and the particles that get trapped on the inhale are blown out on the exhale.
When we breathe through our mouth we take in unprepared air that is cold, dry and full of particles, making our airways irritated, inflamed and narrow which is why we should both inhale and exhale through the nose.
Our breath should reach deep down in the lower part of our lungs, using our diaphragm—our most important breathing muscle. However deep is not the same as big, so the second principle means that our breath is deep while at the same time the amount of air drawn in is small. The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle, like an umbrella and with an inhale, the diaphragm moves down and expands in all directions—forward, to the sides and back. Hence, it’s not only about “stomach out” on the inhale and “stomach in” on the exhale.
A healthy breathing rate at rest is only about 8 to 12 breaths per minute. When I count the number of breaths on people, without them knowing it, most of them over breathe severely, taking between 18 and 25 breaths per minute.
How do you breathe when concentrating, writing a text message or sitting in front of the computer? It is very common that we hold our breath in these situations. At night, we call it sleep apnea and it has a severe negative impact on our sleep and overall health. At daytime, I call it concentration apnea or fight/flight apnea, and it can be linked to a very bumpy car ride where we first have the foot on the gas pedal and the next second we have the foot on the brake.
When we huff and puff, sniffle, clear our throat, sigh or snore we are actually breathing. Every time we make a sound air is moved in and out of our lungs and these breaths are very inefficient, creating an unnecessary strain on our body.
We take 1,000 breaths per hour and by following these simple tips you will not only improve your everyday breathing habits but also your overall health and harmony.
Author: Anders Olsson
Editor: Katarina Tavčar
Photo: Axel Naud/Flickr