Illustration: Gustave Doré, Dante’s Inferno, Plate LXV: Canto XXXI
How Yoga Works: Real Life Breath Work
Breath, Brain, and Body Chemistry, Part 2
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
Part 1 Every Breath You Take
I take a breath when I have to.
- Ethel Merman
All this nagging about breathing the “right way” seems like another overbearing perfectionist obsession. Seriously, how can there be a right way or a wrong way to breathe?
We’d all know there’s a right way if we learned to recognize how much of the way we feel all the time has to do with the way we’re breathing. We just don’t make the connection between poor breathing and the rotten biochemistry poor breathing causes.
We end up breathing badly out of the same exhaustion, numbing out and lack of awareness that find us slumping.
The idea that every breath we take is either contributing to our health in a beneficial way or that every breath is contributing to illness is, to say the least, disturbing. And many of us find it hard to believe.
Isn’t the air going to the lungs either way?
In Body Mind and Sport, John Douillard writes, “The nose is for breathing, the mouth is for eating.”
Human beings come into this world as nose breathers. We are “obligate nose breathers,” to be scientific, which means we do not possess the voluntary ability to to breathe through our mouths. Mouth breathing is a learned response triggered by emergency stress.
If an infant’s nose becomes completely obstructed, he or she will fight for nasal air until he begins to suffocate and starts to cry.
The nose is designed for optimum, healthy everything-is-copacetic breathing: the fine hairs inside our noses filter dust and microbes from the air with the help of mucous membranes that additionally add moisture to the air that enters our lungs.
Douillard emphasizes, “The air is warmed, cooled, or moistened depending on conditions by the highly sophisticated design of the nasal passage.”
Breathing through the nose prevents infections while mouth breathing does not.
The mouth, on the other hand, is the more direct emergency route.
The shunting of air directly from the mouth to the lungs appears to trigger a survival response, and as a result activates the fight-or-flight response from the sympathetic nervous system.
And when we habitually hold our breath, the signal is even more urgent.
Breath and body chemistry
You know from experience to take a deep breath you have to slow down. We don’t slow down when we’re running from danger. That’s why our brains respond to shallow breathing by altering our body chemistry: when we’re breathing shallow breaths or not breathing at all, something must be very wrong!
Douillard says this is because stress receptors in our upper lungs are activated by shallow breath.
Without breath awareness and practice to change bad habits, we actually breathe our way all day into a state of anxiety where everything that occurs takes on the sense of urgency or threat.
In fact, Mark Brady, a PhD who writes a unique and informative blog on neuroscience and parenting, suggests this round trip triggering of anxiety could be chipping away at our very lives.
Suppose we die a kind of mini-death every time we involuntarily or unconsciously hold back an out-breath? Tai Chi Master William C. C. Chen believes that many of the activities of modern life work to constantly interrupt our natural breathing patterns.
A random thought, a ringing cell phone, a honking car horn – all can cut an out-breath short, making us inhale before we’ve completely exhaled (I once had someone insult me by calling me a “shallow, mouth-breather!”). *
But I do pranayama when I practice yoga
What does pranayama have to do with the breathing we’re doing the rest of the day?
While it’s powerful to include breath work in your posture practice, just like every other aspect of yoga what we do off the mat is the deeper practice, the practice that changes our lives.
Like sitting up, breathing well requires mindful effort at first, but becomes natural because yoga works the way our bodies work. We’re literally built to sit with poise and breathe with ease. The practice of yoga returns us to our true nature.
Finding engaged effortlessness during yoga practice translates into effortless engagement hour by hour in a life of vitality and health.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.