The Supporting Research is staggering.
Breathing for wellness on the surface seems pretty obvious. How could anyone teach you how to breath? Trust me I get it. Of all the hundreds of subjects I’ve taught on professional and personal development I never thought Breathing would be one of them. That is until all the threads of knowledge I’d gathered from my own yoga practice, learning yoga philosophy and my own personal experience of learning breathing basics were combined. What I’ve discovered is a world of ancient Sanskrit techniques combined with the very latest in scientific research into brain and body neurotransmitters, and hormones all merging together to explain quite legitimately the need for people to relearn breathing for wellness in many areas of their life.
My love of yoga is generated from the profound impact it has had on my life not just physically but on its development of my awareness, oneness, spiritual development, intuition and energy understanding, mental development and embracing of my uniqueness. So yoga for me is not a fitness industry activity but a way of life. However I understand many need to see the scientific benefits as they don’t have 20 or so years practice of yoga and meditation to see the benefits.
I’ll preface this article by stating I am not medically trained so all information contained in this article relies on research by medical or trained professionals in their field. I write this as an adult education professional, I’m passionate about learning and I’m a yoga philosophy student as well as a 20 plus year yoga practitioner. All implementation or alterations to diet, exercise and medication should be under the guidance of a medical professional, particularly if you have a diagnosed condition.
Breath work in mainstream and professional athlete training is increasingly becoming recognised. Science supports this conscious breathe training for elite athletes. Chances are you’re not an elite athlete though. Many good yoga studio’s teach pranayama (breathing) as a critical first step to learning yoga, basic meditation often accompanies the pranayama, then follow the asanas (postures). So unless you’ve attended a yoga class focussing on breathing or an elite athletic institution you’ve probably never learnt the importance of breathing ‘well’. You’ve probably never been taught the benefits of controlled and thoughtful breathing either. Which in turn means your performance mentally and physically is not anywhere near reaching your full capability. Oxygenating our body and bloodstream, our brain, our heart, all our organs is the true ‘lifeblood’ for human beings. Breathing is life, without it... well we’re dead aren’t we. So when we are breathing inadequately we will never reach our true potential, nor our peak performance.
The forgotten art of breathing has catapulted elite athletes’ performance levels, much is now being written about how it can boost testosterone levels, brain function, improve recovery time, reduce anxiety, depression, fatigue, sleep problems, respiratory conditions, and assist with weight management.
I bet you didn’t know poor breathing may be sabotaging your health, fitness, youthfulness, concentration and career. Yoga breathing techniques can be traced back some say to 3000 BC, possibly even earlier. Yet today only very basic breathing techniques are communicated in schools, medical facilities and fitness centres. The ancient methods of breathing are now understood to tap into the medicinal benefits of breathing. Whether or not these techniques were buried as they compete with conventional 21st century pharmaceuticals is up for debate. However these days with the power of more open information sharing people are starting to educate themselves on these simple but dramatically life altering methods.
BREATHING (YOGA) AND MOOD, ANXIETY AND DEPRESSION
So let’s start with mood, anxiety, depression, insomnia they can be truly debilitating and disruptive to your life. In fact one of them is part of the reason I took up yoga over 20 years ago. I suffered from anxiety since childhood, it manifested in a fear that grips you and puts you into a state of fight or flight for seemly no apparent reason or at least sometimes minor reasons. Like most mental health issues it’s often actually rooted in a physiological explanation. For myself learning yoga breathing was life altering. My health and career went from strength to strength once I had mastered my anxiety through breathing. In fact I went from being fearful to simply go out with my friends and lacking confidence with work to working as a University business trainer, teaching in front of groups of students and heading up a University department's corporate training and consulting services. Correct breathing played a vital role. It increases your brain function, stabilises your body’s response to stressful situations and most of all it gives you confidence in both your body and mind. In fact this is the root purpose of the yoga asanas (postures) and pranayama (breathing) in yoga. While the purpose of adopting yoga is to focus on your achieving a sense of authenticity and sitting comfortably with your consciousness, finding peace within yourself through the 8 Limbs of Yoga (refer to previous article) the byproduct of yoga practice is balancing your neurotransmitters and internal gases entering your blood stream, organs and brain improving many aspects of your health.
On a practical level they are the exercises readying you for real life situations where your body and mind need to harmonise under stress and work as one to help you cope. Personally I am able to affirm it works and in fact it elevates your ability to live life fully whilst helping you maintain a strong, youthful, well functioning body and mind. During the times that I have neglected my yogic practice and lifestyle I’ve experience significant decreases in my physical and mental strength and capability. So call it what you will, breathing yourself into The Zone or Flow, either way people are starting to understand on a scientific level...it works!
Your breathing impacts not only on the amount of oxygen flooding into your body but it also impacts on your heart rate and the rate it pumps blood through cells, tissue, skin and organs. In fact some yogis have been reported as being capable of actually stopping a heart beating and restarting it with nothing but advanced breathing practice. Maybe it’s my Chinese ancestry but I’ve long been a subscriber to the rather humorous Chinese philosophy that “Your heart is only good for so many beats, and that’s it…don’t waste them on strenuous exercise. Everything wears out eventually. Speeding up your heart won’t make you live longer; it’s like saying you extend the life of car by driving faster. Want to live longer? Take a nap!” So for me yoga breathing and meditation is like a nap. Resting the body through breathing.
Anxiety and Breathing - mouth breathing, shallow breathing and carbon dioxide
The relationship between breathing and anxiety has seen some significant research, Robert Litman a specialist the Buteyko Breathing Technique says “Human bodies top priority for nourishment is his breath, water and food. Breath is first. We often don’t think of breath as nourishment although we know we need it to survive. Breath nourishes us by bringing oxygen to the cells of our body. The cells use this essential ingredient in manufacturing the energy molecules used to run all our biological processes. Breathing also nourishes us through movement. The movement of breath moves the body simultaneously. This movement is like a rocking motion that soothes the nervous system.” He goes on to explain a Research study at the Southern Methodist University shows that when there is an imbalance within the blood gases of carbon dioxide and oxygen that it upsets the respiratory system and causes symptoms of anxiety and other breathing related disorders. It identified that it is the ratio of carbon dioxide to oxygen that is causing symptoms. Many identify carbon dioxide as a waste gas however it is actually part of the respiratory system and is a byproduct of respiration. When those two gases are out of balance people do not feel fully oxygenated they feel hungry for air. The distribution of oxygen from the red blood cells as it travels around the body is so that oxygen can be used to produce the energy that has us function properly. One of the ways that they become unbalanced is when people take a deep breath and then breathe out, sighing, pushing the carbon dioxide out and just generally mouth breathing. Giving off too much carbon dioxide is how the gases get out of balance. Also people hyperventilate. Most of the time this is through panting, sighing, yawning, gasping for breath which is known as heating hyperventilation. There is a general gradual building up of an imbalance of the blood gases. The folk remedy for anxiety or hyperventilating is to put a paper bag over your mouth and breath. What they are doing is breathing in and out their own carbon dioxide. Once that carbon dioxide starts to reenter the body that sense of dizziness disappears and they stop feeling as if they are going to faint. What has happened there is that because they were panting and the carbon dioxide levels have lowered and the oxygen distribution has ‘slowed down’, the brain which needs most of the oxygen, is now getting oxygen deprived, the brain is starting to shut down, which is why you faint and pass out. So you might think panting out carbon dioxide would be a good thing it actually in fact causes an imbalance and slows your uptake of oxygen. So if someone has an imbalance of blood gases, just mildly panting regularly, the brain is under a lot of internal stress on a day to day basis from not having enough oxygen. So any stresses that come from the outside world, whether you are aware of them or not are very hard to cope with because the body is already under internal stress from habitual poor breathing.
The theory identifies the long term impact of mouth breathing, shallow breathing and a build up of carbon dioxide creating the perfect biological storm for anxiety attacks based very much in physiological reasoning and less of what’s often deem psychological causes. Quite honestly this sort of research is reassuring for many anxiety sufferers desperate to understand their flight or fight response being constantly heightened. The root cause could very well be quite simple.
Depression and breathing
So what about depression and breathing. "Depression is not a diagnosis! It is a description of a symptom cluster having dozens if not hundreds of complexly interactive proximal and distal etiological factors". Ron Feintech, PhD. “Depression is an energetic/mental/emotional challenge of global proportions, affecting at least 340 million people worldwide. Furthermore, major depression is a leading cause of disability”. This condition is characterised by sad moods seasonal or otherwise, loss of interest or pleasure, feelings of guilt or low self-esteem, disturbed sleep and appetite, low energy level and the decreased ability to concentrate. These problems often become chronic or recurrent and prevent those affected from performing everyday tasks and family and occupational responsibilities.
Mike White, founder of breathing.com a breathing specialist explains “Depression and shallow breathing are interdependent. In the June 2001 Health magazine, Brenda Penninx, a gerontologist at Wake Forest University, reported that she "followed 2,900 patients...for four years to trace the effects of depression. Patients with depression were almost 4 times as likely to die of heart disease as were non-depressed patients." This is a significant link between breathing, depression and heart conditions. “Depression is mostly about a ‘depressed chest’. Most breathers, regardless of heart health, are already under-breathers or Unbalanced Deep Breathers. A significant answer to this type of depression is to develop their breathing. The heart goes into spasm largely due to lack of oxygen. The chest tightens or gets tighter due to poor posture, trauma including heart surgery, and or stress. That restricts breathing and compromises heart oxygenation. In order to alleviate depressed chests it is necessary to release the tension in and around the entire front, back and sides of the chest cavity and simultaneously rebalance breathing's influence on the nervous system by restoring optimal breathing muscle balance, integration and full-bodied posture.” As promising as these studies appear to be, these breathing exercises are not magic, you don’t just practice this once and expect to immediately feel better. This is where regular yoga asanas and pranayama (breathing) step in. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a 500-year-old yogic manual considered the most influential text on Hatha Yoga, states that: “The mind is the king of the senses, but the breath is the king of the mind.”
So what can you do? Start slowly and become familiar with the following breathing techniques, and eventually make it a daily practice. Committing to just five to 10 minutes of consistent practice every day can create major lasting mental, emotional and physical change. Don’t let the simplicity of these techniques fool you. Don’t underestimate the power of simplicity, the power of your own breath. Your breath is intimately tied to your mood and emotions and if you learn to take control of it, you may just eventually shift your mood with the help of your nose and lungs.
It’s critical to remember that the addition of any exercise that impacts on you physiologically could impact on medication, so if you shift your brain chemicals through breathing it could impact on dosage of medication. Especially if your medication is increasing neurotransmitters like dopamine or serotonin. Using medication long term is coming under scrutiny “Medications have questionable effectiveness let alone safety compliance”. Dr. Candace B. Pert states “I am alarmed at the monster that Johns Hopkins, neuroscientist, Solomon Snyder and I created when we discovered the simple binding assay for drug receptors 25 years ago. Prozac and other antidepressant serotonin-receptor-active compounds may also cause cardiovascular problems in some susceptible people after long-term use, which has become common practice despite the lack of safety studies. The public is being misinformed about the precision of these selective serotonin-uptake inhibitors when the medical profession oversimplifies their action in the brain and ignores the body as if it exists merely to carry the head around! In short, these molecules of emotion regulate every aspect of our physiology. A new paradigm has evolved, with implications that lifestyle changes such as diet and exercise can offer profound, safe and natural mood elevation”. From a Letter to the Editor of TIME Magazine, October 20, 1997, page 8. by Dr. Candice B Pert.
Simply put long term reliance on medication for treatment of many medical issues almost always results in equally damaging side effects. So the use of natural healing practices (though not as profitable for medical and pharmaceutical companies) is an important aspect of anyone’s road to recovery, even if in some instances they won’t replace necessary medication. In many cases doctors understand the significant potential impact of natural therapies like yoga, breathing exercises and health and fitness lifestyle improvements hence they recommend medical consultation, as any significant jump or lowering in hormones or neurotransmitters can have impacts on medication doses. I’ve personally seen people need to reduce or cut out medication impacting on brain chemicals due to changes in food and alcohol consumption and the introduction of exercise and yoga.
Neurotransmitters impact on Mood, Anxiety and Depression
The body is a self regenerating organism, sure it has an end date but for the most part cells repair and heal, and brain chemistry can be influenced by nutrients and natural gas uptake like oxygen through breathing and even the generation of hormones and neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins. Sometimes many confuse these so it helps to understand a bit about them and the impact of breathing and oxygenation or conversely the carbon dioxide impact on them as well as the impact on the nervous system and the heart rate of rapid and shallow breathing as opposed to controlled inhaling and exhaling.
In a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine on those who were diagnosed with mild to moderate depression, researchers looked at exercise alone to treat the condition and found aerobic or simple stretching exercise promoting breathing were equally effective in reducing depressive symptoms. Depressive symptoms were cut almost in half in those who participated in 30-minute aerobic exercise sessions, three to five times a week after 12 weeks. Those who exercised with low-intensity for three and five days a week showed a 30 percent reduction in symptoms. Participants who did stretching flexibility exercises 15 to 20 minutes three days a week averaged a 29 percent decline. The results of this study are similar to that of other studies, which involved patients treated with antidepressants or cognitive therapy, proving in this case patients need not rely on drugs to treat depression. (Not something pharmaceutical companies want you to know). What’s more it demonstrated gentle yoga breathing exercise just as effective as aerobic exercise.
So let’s look at how these neurotransmitters work.
Dopamine levels motivate us to take action toward our goals which in turn results in a surge of pleasure reinforcing the desire to take action. Procrastination, self-doubt, and lack of enthusiasm are linked with low levels of dopamine. People with low dopamine benefit from creating small goals towards a larger goal to ensure a constant flow of dopamine rather than a surge and crash (this is one of the reasons I love teaching especially life goal setting, you see your students mood elevate as they make steps towards their goal. My Goal setting workshops are available at www.priscillaannegreenliving.com.au). How does breathing help? The contraction of the diaphragm sends a message to the brain to release dopamine which creates a calming effect. As the lungs fill, the diaphragm descends as the belly expands whilst this enhances mood and also acts as a pain reliever. You often see people using breathing to assist with pain relief.
It’s not commonly known that serotonin is thought to help regulate several life-sustaining functions, such as breathing. Serotonin flows when you feel good or important. Loneliness and depression appears when serotonin is absent. Serotonin helps control body temperature and breathing and it’s a chemical messenger, that mediates many complex processes in the brain. It's perhaps best known for its role in helping to regulate mood.
Of our approximately 86 billion brain cells, many are influenced by serotonin. Known as the happy neurotransmitter, serotonin is key to helping relay signals from one part of the brain to another. As we know this crucial chemical has a profound impact on our mood and overall state of well-being. However according to Princeton brain researcher Barry Jacobs, PhD, ‘depression sets in when fewer and fewer new brain cells are created’. Often a significant factor to this phenomenon is stress. Solution Yoga breathing. We know yogic Breathing helps reduce stress so it’s a simple and effective solution.
The University of Montreal scientists (Perreau-Linck et al) have shown that ‘activities like mindfulness and meditation is said to have a direct impact on the brain’s production of serotonin levels’. Anyone that’s completed a yoga body scan with a focus on breathing will attest to the change you feel after completing it and the sense of peace, oneness and contentment it often produces. In the end, meditation’s serotonin replenishing effect works to create a utopian chemical environment for the production of new brain cells, making you a happier and healthier person overall.
This is where breathing exercises and healthy lifestyle can benefit serotonin levels. Another incredibly beneficial natural remedy is to get outside and expose yourself to the sun for 20 minutes; our skin absorbs UV rays, which promotes vitamin D and serotonin production. (Note some but not too much daily exposure is healthy to boost serotonin levels.) More than 50 studies have been documented in reputable journals supporting the effectiveness of exercise for depression. A significant component of exercise results in oxygenating your cells along with flooding your brain with serotonin hence the combination of yoga asanas (postures or exercises) and pranayama (breathing) are an invaluable remedy for increasing serotonin.
Oxytocin - Love, Sex and social anxiety are linked
In my opinion Oxytocin is the neurotransmitter that gets so many people into trouble (mood wise). On top of the already confusing brain chemistry is the pressure of societal norms dictating the importance of pairing off and breeding. Oxytocin is important in relation to emotion, mood and depression is vitally important. Oxytocin creates intimacy, trust, and builds relationships. It's released during sex so it’s a powerful bonding neurotransmitter. It’s also released in humans during childbirth and breastfeeding. Oxytocin levels are essential for creating strong and caring bonds. It’s sometimes referred to as the cuddle hormone, and at times when you don’t want to be close with anyone you may be low in oxytocin, a simple way to keep oxytocin flowing is to give someone a hug. Dr. Paul Zak explains that inter-personal touch not only raises oxytocin, but reduces cardiovascular stress and improves the immune system. He goes so far as to recommend eight hugs each day.
A surprising research insight however identified that high levels of oxytocin naturally in some individuals can actually be a contributing factor to anxiety. We all know sensitive people can manifest stress as anxiety but did you know that is because they may be acutely oxytocin sensitive in general social situations. In their case lowering oxytocin can potentially make them more comfortable in social situations. However we are not about to inject anyone with an oxytocin inhibitor but we can use breathing, yoga, exercise and healthy lifestyle to help balance the range of neurotransmitters in the brain. Which is great news for anxiety sufferers. Personally I feel this has worked for me.
Relationship issues can impact significantly on depression. Feeling down or even going into depression following a relationship break up or difficult time can be improved by addressing various neurotransmitters through breathing exercise and diet. The brain cocktail of love (oxytocin), pleasure (dopamine) and happiness (serotonin) can cause wonderful feelings but when they’ve dropped a feeling of heartbreak can occur when suddenly these hormones decline, it’s one of the reasons people have rebound one night stands or flings looking for the rush of these neurotransmitters or they may get a similar high from stalking their ex online and failing to let go. This is where going no contact cold turkey can help the brain adjust back to a level you can live with.The key is to adopt healthy coping tools like breathing, yoga and exercise and not to fall for common quick hits like gambling, flings, excessive food or drinking. To assist with recovering from this type of depression try walks, sunshine, outdoors, exercise, yoga breathing and doing your fulfilling hobbies, a much healthier remedy than stalking your ex for a serotonin rush.
Additionally a critical aspect and misunderstanding around oxytocin in males and females and what causes unnecessary angst is the incredible difference in men and women in relation to oxytocin after sex. Most don’t understand their own behaviour in relation to intimacy. While women tend to react to the surge of oxytocin by trying to bond and be closer, men’s reaction is the polar opposite. Why? Because in men while their oxytocin levels will go up after intimacy their testosterone levels will go down. This often leads to men feeling down, possibly depressed, confused, doubting their feelings, pulling away and often not understanding why they have this need to be alone as they have lost some sort of drive. Particularly when intimacy is infrequent the hormone and neurotransmitter surges are significant and the difference may result in very noticeable mood variations and behaviour changes. Yep they go kind of weird after sex. So firstly that’s an important biological response to acknowledge, it’s quite normal and common.
It’s also worth storing this in your back pocket next time you need some yogic breathing remedies for intimacy. Research shows us that a man or woman that engages in any sort of relationship can actually reduce their chance of ‘falling for someone, or allowing someone to fall for them’ by limiting access and flow of oxytocin. Limited contact less than once a week, low affection, no alcohol when intimate and definately no cuddles especially after sex can inhibit oxytocin. We see it all the time and often wonder if the (usually men) in particular are aware that they inacting a very powerful chemical control to retain independence. I personally think it’s quite an evolutionary behaviour. The good thing here is it does provide an opportunity where couples yoga asanas and breathing can help reconnect low oxytocin couples where the bonds need to be rebuilt chemically, emotionally and spiritually.
So now that you understand how it works how does breathing impact on oxytocin? When you breathe in, the diaphragm drops down pulling your lungs with it and pressing against abdominal organs making room for the lungs to expand and fill with oxygen. As you exhale, the diaphragm moves back upward pressing against your lungs, releasing carbon dioxide. Studies show deep breathing can alleviate depression and anxiety and raise the feel good hormones oxytocin and prolactin while lowering levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. So a fantastic way to combat this imbalance is breathing techniques combined with yoga movement. The brain uses roughly 80% of the oxygen present in the body, therefore, breathing optimally will support mental health and overall sense of well being. Guys you need to keep reading as we’ll be talking about testosterone levels shortly and how breathing can help regulate this. (In the section Breathing and hormones like testosterone).
Endorphins are released in response to pain and stress and help to alleviate anxiety and depression. The surging high after exercise is a result of endorphins. Similar to morphine, it acts as an analgesic and sedative, diminishing our pain. Having a good laugh and being silly is one of the easiest ways to induce endorphin release, I’m pretty adapt at this one. Interesting and coincidently the smell of vanilla and lavender (funnily enough my two favourite scents) have been linked with the production of endorphins. Studies have shown that dark chocolate and spicy foods can lead the brain to release endorphins. So apart from exercise, aromatherapy, spicy food and dark chocolate you can add breathing exercises to boost endorphins. Your breathing can have a significant impact. Notice when a child or a pet sleep their belly, and not their chest, moves up and down. This deep breathing from the diaphragm is the way we are meant to breathe, but few of us do. Most adults take shallow breaths from the chest instead. According to Dr. Jeffrey Rossman, author of The Mind-Body Mood Solution, studies show that when you breath at the rate of six breaths per minute, your heart and breath become synchronised. He recommends achieving synchronisation with a simple breathing exercise.
Below are some breathing exercises and reference sheets to help you with introducing better breathing practice into your life.
Breathe in from your belly for 5 seconds and then exhale out for 5 seconds. Do this for one minute. This belly breathing is an important part of yoga, it sends a signal to the brain to release feel-good neurotransmitters such as endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine.
To take this a step further lay on the floor and place your hands on your stomach with your finger tips meeting above your belly button. Start by breathing in to your stomach for 3 seconds expanding your stomach outwards, then for the count of 3 continue to inhale filling the centre of your chest. The for the count of 3 continue to fill your upper chest. Hold for 4 seconds then slowly release and exhale the air from the top on the chest then the centre then the belly. Repeat this 4 times. You will feel the oxygen rushing to your brain.
Sudarshan Kriya Yoga breathing (3 types)
Some other highly effective breathing methods for mood, anxiety and depression include Sudarshan Kriya Yoga breathing. ‘Su’ means proper, and ‘darshan’ means vision. ‘Kriya’ in yogic science means to purify the body. As a whole, Sudarshan Kriya means ‘proper vision by purifying action.’ It involves cyclical breathing patterns that range from slow and calming to rapid and stimulating. When you take control of your breath it positively affects your immune system, nerves, and psychological balance. According to a 2009 published study of Harvard Medical School, Sudarshan Kriya yoga can effectively address anxiety and depression.
Ujjayi (Victorious, Warrior, Hissing, Ocean or Vadar Breath)
Ujjayi requires you to breathe consciously. You can feel your breath by touching your throat. it’s name comes from the Sanskrit word “ujjayi,” (pronounced Ooj-Eye) which means “to conquer” or “to be victorious.” Therefore, it is also often referred to as “Victorious Breath.” Because of the sound it makes when performed correctly, this breath is also sometimes called Ocean Breath, Hissing Breath or Warrior Breathing, but I love the descriptive name Vader Breath as everyone knows the sound.
You gently constrict the back of your throat, which results in the breath sounding like ocean waves or a subtle hiss (or Darth Vadar). To do it remember to breath upwards into your chest drawing from the lower pelvis, in this instance you are not belly breathing. Ujjayi is a slow breathing process where you inhale and exhale, keeping the durations of inhalation and exhalation equal. This technique requires you to take 2-4 breaths per minute approximately. (Although if you are starting out I’d suggest about 5 breaths. Inhale for 6 seconds then exhale for 6. Work your way up to 8 seconds). Slow breathing trains you to gain control over your breath and lets you prolong it. It calms you down and keeps you alert.
This is a form of breathing very similar to coherent breathing. One study looked at the effects of pairing a style of yoga known as Iyengar Yoga with a type of breathing exercise known as coherent breathing. Researchers found significant improvement in mental, emotional and physical symptoms of depression with these two breathing exercises. In the end of a 12 week research project, a significant amount of subjects had scored the lowest level on the Beck Depression Inventory-II (BDI-II) mood scale, a questionnaire used to track depressive symptoms. This indicated a shift from major depression to minimal depression. This is significant improvement.
Bhastrika (Bellows Breath)
Bhastrika will have you inhale and exhale air rapidly and forcefully. You should be able to do 30 breaths per minute. The breathing style is primarily short and quick. The duration of the exhalations should be twice that of the inhalations. It has the unique effect of stimulating the body followed by calmness.
Kriya (Purifying Breath)
Kriya is an advanced form of breathing which I’m not suggesting you try here. It requires you to breathe in slow, medium, and fast cycles. The breaths should be cyclical and rhythmic. Where the duration of your inhalation is twice that of your exhalations. This final step clears your vision and purifies. It takes practice, dedication and time and is often utilised by those that have mastered other forms of breathing.
Nitric Oxide and Nose breathing versus mouth breathing and performance
Researchers studying the Tarahumara runners over a course of 26 miles, found that their heart rate was at 130 beats per minute! Comparing this to the Western marathon runner 160-180 beats per minute. The hidden cause mouth breathing. Coincidently I was taught by a doctor to stop mouth breathing when I was very young, why because I had reoccurring bronchitis. The doctor wanted me to reduce the intake of cold air into my lungs so he instructed me to practice nose breathing. So while I still hadn’t learnt the art of controlled breathing it certainly put me on the right path. What it did make me aware of as I began yoga in my 20’s was the instructors constant reference to breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. I had learnt to breath entirely through my nose, not using my mouth at all and yet many people in the class had the opposite experience breathing primarily in and out via the mouth.
It’s believed that breathing through the mouth can cause you to over breath. This is where a state of Hypocapnia comes in. Hypocapnia (reduced carbon dioxide in the blood usually resulting from deep or rapid breathing) results in your blood vessels constricting, which then leads to a decreased flow of blood to all vital organs. Hypocapnia results in CO2 deficiency... through OVER-BREATHING. CO2 deficiency causes many health issues ranging from low testosterone, restricted blood vessel, fatigue, performance anxiety, fear, sleep problems problems, depression, poor oxygen saturation, respiratory problems, chronic diseases, muscular weakness, poor endurance....are these sounding familiar.....
So just as shallow breathing results in health issues so too does over breathing. Many people are unaware that their chest breathing, mouth breathing and over-breathing are actually reducing blood oxygen levels in your body. What this can mean is people may be breathing three times more than the medical recommendation, most of these people believe that they have good breathing or even normal breathing. I particularly became aware of it when I would put my son to bed in his early school age years. He would be over excited, or had a bad day at school and I’d notice his breathing was so fast, more than 3 times faster than mine. Not like the days when he was a baby and he would lay in my arms and our breathing would be slow and steady and synchronised. It was now fast, shallow mouth breathing and alarming to say the least. I realised I needed to teach him to yoga breath. Slow steady belly breathing from the stomach, centre and upper chest. Now at 10 he fully understands how to slow his breathing and the importance of shifting to nose breathing.
So how does this impact on athletes and runners? The normal breathing rate is 6-8 breaths per minute. However, if at rest, your breathing rate is higher, then you need to take heed. All elite athletes know the importance of recovery. If you’re over-breathing at rest, you are not recovering effectively. This also goes for breathing during sleep, which is your optimal recovery window, without this your athletic performance will suffer.
The lesson here is that as mentioned previously carbon dioxide is not the enemy, it in fact serves a purpose in our body. Your body constantly produces carbon dioxide through the use of energy. When carbon dioxide reaches a certain level, a message is sent from your respiratory system from your brain to trigger the inhalation, you exhale carbon dioxide and a new breathing cycle begins. It’s the carbon dioxide that stimulates you to breathe. The link here with the Tarahumara runners is simulation of Altitude Training Through Improving Your CO2 Tolerance. The Tarahumara have excellent CO2 tolerance. Additionally their ability as a hunter tribe is to stay calm under pressure. Studies show the Tarahumara breathe only through the nose, regulating oxygen, it's believed that nose breathing can also improve uptake of nasal nitric oxide - a chemical which is thought to improve oxygen utilisation and to boost the immune system, the Tarahumara are feeding their bodies with a consistent strong supply of nitric oxide. Additionally altitude training has helped the performance for athletes for years thanks to its ability to boost oxygen carrying red blood cells.
Nitric oxide generally is considered a toxic substance, but the importance of nitric oxide in the body is significantly different. Inside it is dilating the blood vessels and supplying oxygen-rich blood to nourish the heart and relieve pain. Nitric oxide is vital to blood circulation functions. It is a powerful vasodilator, which means it opens your blood vessels, increasing blood flow and countering the constriction of your vessels caused by a CO2 deficiency. Nitric oxide has been shown to be important for memory and behaviour by transmitting information between nerve cells in the brain, assisting the immune system in fighting off bacteria and defending against tumours, reducing inflammation, sleep quality, sense of smell, endurance and strength as well as brain fog, poor concentration and even the onset of dementia which can be caused by lack of oxygen to the brain. The clincher.... your brain is only 2% of your body’s mass but consumes 25% of your body’s oxygen requirements. Still think your breathing is no big deal?
So a lack of adequate blood flow to your brain will dramatically limit the nutrients and the removal of waste, which in turn reduces brain performance and opens you up to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's. It’s believed about 950 ml of blood normally flows through your brain every minute. If the amount of blood flow is less than it should be, the brain cannot work efficiently. This can lead to memory loss and other symptoms. Nitric oxide boosts this blood flow.
Nasal breathing - why it’s so critical
Prepare yourself, it’s frighteningly simple. The link I found was that the vasodilator gas nitric oxide is produced in the paranasal sinuses, yes nose breathing not mouth breathing. It is excreted continuously into the nasal airways. Furthermore research shows that nasal nitric oxide levels increases dramatically during humming compared with normal quiet nasal exhalation. This effect is likely due to increased contribution of nitric oxide from the paranasal sinuses. Humming causes the air to oscillate, which in turn seems to increase the exchange of air between the sinuses and the nasal cavity (this is where you’ll find Vadar breathing very helpful). Also the practice of Yogic Om, but we won’t get into that in this article.
If that’s not enough though about 20 years ago, scientific research proved the theory behind Nada Shodhana nasal breathing, through the left nostril it increases the activity in the right side of the brain while breathing through the right nostril stimulates the left side of the brain. The right side of the brain is responsible for processing our emotions and influences our creativity while the left side governs the logic and language aspects of our life.
Nitric oxide, sexual health, heart health and hormones like testosterone
Nitric oxide from nasal breathing boosts testosterone. Produced in the testes, ovaries and adrenal glands, testosterone begins to lower in your 20s to early 30s. Low testosterone results in a loss of bone strength, brain function, lean muscle and libido… so it’s very important for you to strengthen your nitric oxide, which in turn will rebalance your testosterone levels. Nitric oxide supports the blood vessels and increase blood flow, it decreases plaque growth and blood clotting. Conversely, when the endothelium senses high cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking, or emotional distress, it releases less nitric oxide, and heart disease accelerates. Male erection depends on the release of nitric oxide. So the simple act of nasal breathing to support your nitric oxide levels has immense benefits for men.
Nasal breathing research benefits to heart, respiration and blood pressure.
We now know nasal breathing can reduce stress and improve cardiovascular function. There are many studies supporting the general health benefits of nasal yogic breathing. One study found that people who practiced alternate nostril breathing lowered their perceived stress levels. In the same study, alternate nostril breathing was the only type of breath work that was found to have a positive effect on cardiovascular function. It was shown to significantly lower factors such as heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure. The participants were taught the practice for 30 minutes three times per week by their yoga instructor.
In other research it was shown yogic breathing practices may improve lung function and respiratory endurance. A study examined the effects of pranayama practice on the lung functions of competitive swimmers and found that it had a positive effect on respiratory endurance, this respiratory endurance may also improve athletic performance. Similarly to the previous study the swimmers practiced 5 days a week for 30 minutes. Lowering your heart rate can help to promote cardiovascular health and according to a study, engaging in a slow yogic breath such as alternative nostril breathing may significantly decrease heart rate and average breathing rhythm. Alternate nostril breathing may enhance overall health and well-being according to research it has shown to have a positive effect on mental health by reducing stress and anxiety.
Research from 2011 found that a six-week alternative nostril breathing program had a positive impact on physical and physiological fitness-based performance. The breathing technique was found to have a positive influence on blood pressure, heart rate, and vital capacity and a 2018 review found that different types of yogic breathing have many positive benefits for your health, including improvements to neurocognitive, respiratory, and metabolic functions in healthy people. Alternate nostril breathing was also found to increase breath awareness and have a beneficial effect on the nervous system.
Exercise 5. Nasal Breathing
Exercise - Nasal Breathing - Nada Shodhana Pranayama
From the Yoga Sanskrit texts this translates as “subtle energy clearing breathing technique.”
To practice alternate nostril breathing:
Sit in a comfortable position with your legs crossed.Place your left hand on your left knee.
Lift your right hand up toward your nose.
Exhale completely and then use your right thumb to close your right nostril.Inhale through your left nostril and then close the left nostril with your fingers.
Open the right nostril and exhale through this side.
Inhale through the right nostril and then close this nostril.
Open the left nostril and exhale through the left side.This is one cycle.
Continue for up to 5 minutes.
Always complete the practice by finishing with an exhale on the left side.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a 500-year-old yogic manual considered the most influential text on Hatha Yoga, states “The mind is the king of the senses, but the breath is the king of the mind.” It’s important to become familiar with these breathing techniques progressively, particularly if you are using them to address a health concern. Eventually make it a daily practice. Whether you are committing to doing them as part of your asana (postures) or separately, just 5 to 10 minutes of consistent practice every day can assist with mental, emotional and physical change. On the outset it just seems too simple but don’t let the simplicity of these techniques fool you. Don’t underestimate the power of breathing. Your breath is intimately tied to your mood and emotions and if you take control of it, you may eventually shift your mood, your breathing becomes stronger and you’ll notice reductions in breathing related conditions, infections and your more consistent regulated inhaling and exhaling will assist with being able to engage in exercise, increase stamina and weight management through expelling fat via the breathing process. Research suggests 12 minutes a day of yoga can reduce depression symptoms by 44%, yoga asanas (postures) done properly are breathing with movements.
Breathing to promote better quality of life and wellness is rooted in scientific physiological benefits. It’s often hard to understand the benefits touted by yoga instructors without having first been informed of the scientific basis. So when you are informed that yogic breathing improves your overall health and well-being, increases your energy levels and strengthens the immune system, improves organ function, trains you to deal with challenging situations in a better manner. Plus it helps to clear your head of clutter and improves your sleep quality, enhances your brain function and increases your creativity, reduces stress and eases anxiety and depression. It can help you attain inner peace and ease the tensions in your personal and professional relationships and create harmony whilst making you aware of yourself, your consciousness and sit comfortably in your own authentic self. It will help you become more aware of your surroundings and increase your confidence whilst making you more patient. Phew!!!! These claims are founded in scientific physiological changes, and in observation of yogis for more than 5000 years so it’s safe to suggest they’re worth a go.
Head to my www.priscillaannegreenliving.com.au website for ebookings in my one-on-one Yoga Breathing for Wellness sessions.
Nitric Oxide and Nasal humming
American Journal of Preventive Medicine January 2005;28(1):1-8,
Effect of fast and slow pranayama on perceived stress and cardiovascular parameters in young health-care students
Yogic breathing practices improve lung functions of competitive young swimmers,
Chirag SunilHakkedRagavendrasamyBalakrishnanManjunath NandiKrishnamurthy, Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine,Volume 8, Issue 2, April–June 2017, Pages 99-104
On Spectral Analysis of Heart Rate Variability during Very Slow Yogic Breathing
Effects of yoga Nasal Breathing