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How Yogic Breathing Brings Relief from Stress
Yogic, or conscious breathing is the cornerstone of any yoga practice. Yogic breathing, through the nostrils, is longer, fuller and deeper, and has profound effects on the mind and emotional state. If the breath is shallow and rapid, the mind is erratic, the nervous system destabilized and the body tense. Take a deeper, fuller breath and you immediately begin to feel calmer, clearer and more relaxed. Conscious breathing focuses the mind, allowing you to become fully present on the mat.
Aside from quieting the mind, the breath itself can have powerful recuperative qualities. The full diaphragm breathing done in yoga brings more air into the lower lobes of the lungs where the majority of the lung’s blood supply awaits the delivery of oxygen. When the breath does not reach the lower lobes, only coming into contact with the lung’s upper lobes, such as in shallow mouth breathing, the heart has to pump that much harder to supply the lungs with the necessary amount of oxygen for gas exchange. By taking deeper, fuller breaths our lungs, and therefore our hearts, perform more efficiently, and our blood becomes more oxygenated, improving the overall function of our cardiovascular, immune and digestive systems as well.
Additionally, the lower lobes of the lungs contain many of the parasympathetic nerve receptors, while many of the sympathetic nerve receptors are housed in the upper lobes. When oxygen is brought into the lungs’ lower lobes the parasympathetic nervous system—the calming half of the autonomic nervous system responsible for rest-and-digest activities in the body—is stimulated. Conversely, short, shallow breathing engages the nerve receptors of the sympathetic nervous system, kicking in the fight-or-flight (stress) response, the heart beats faster, muscles tense, blood pressure, sugar and cortisol levels go up. When the parasympathetic nervous system takes over, your heart rate slows, muscles release, blood pressure lowers and so forth, inducing an overall state of relaxation and restoring many of the body’s systems. Therefore, deep breathing not only helps combat mental anxiety, but also helps the body recuperate and heal from the negative effects of stress.
On the subtle, or energetic, level the full yogic breath brings more prana into the body while also regulating the flow of energy. Prana is the body’s subtle, life-force energy. It is the animating force behind every atom, cell, organ and system of the body, coordinating every bodily activity from the pumping of the heart to the elimination of waste. Prana also greatly influences the mind’s state. Unstable pranic energy causes the mind to become agitated and the body’s various systems irregular, causing disease in both the mind and body. The breath is an extension of prana. The deeper you breathe the more prana you receive. You can even direct the flow of prana into specific areas of the body just by sending the breath there. Furthermore, by establishing a one-to-one ratio inhale to exhale prana becomes more stable, the mind calmer, and all of the body’s living systems function more optimally.
Through the Nose
The yogic breath is done through the nostrils for multiple reasons. For starters, mouth breathing is short, rapid, and shallow, stimulating the fight-or-flight response, while nostril breathing slows the breath rate down, allowing for a fuller, deeper inhalation and more complete exhalation. Second, each nostril is lined with a mucus membrane that keeps the air moist, warding off infection, as well as tiny, hair-like cilia that clean and filter the incoming air; breathing through the mouth only dries out the throat’s protective mucous membrane. Therefore, breathing through the nose is optimal and actually more natural. While it may be difficult at first, we are designed to breathe through the nose and nostril breathing will feel more normal with continued practice.
Three Steps to a Deeper Breath
The easiest way to access a deeper, full diaphragmatic breath is lying comfortably on your back with a bolster or pillows underneath your knees.
Begin by taking a longer, slower breath through the nose gently expanding the belly outward. Try to eliminate the movement of the upper chest by consciously relaxing your shoulders, neck and jaw muscles.
Exhale slowly through the nose, allowing the belly to softly release toward the spine. Try not to force the air, allow the exhale to come to a natural rest before beginning the next inhale.
Read more on this subject with YogaUOnline: Anatomy of Breathing - Benefits of Deepening Your Breath.
Study with B Grace Bullock, PhD and YogaUOnline: BREATHE: Yogic Tools for Happy, Healthy, and Fulfilling Relationships.
Meagan McCrary is an experienced yoga teacher (E-RYT 500) and writer with a passion for helping people find more comfort, clarity, compassion and joy on the mat and in their lives. She is the author of Pick Your Yoga Practice: Exploring and Understanding Different Styles of Yoga a comprehensive encyclopedia of prominent yoga styles, including each system’s teaching methodology, elements of practice, philosophical and spiritual underpinnings, class structure, physical exertion and personal attention. Currently living in Los Angeles, Meagan teaches at the various Equinox Sports Clubs, works privately with clients and leads retreats internationally. You can find her blog, teaching schedule and latest offerings at www.MeaganMcCrary.com