How To Breathe

”Your breath is the bridge between your body and your mind.”

I believe that this is one of the most important lessons that any physical discipline can teach us, not just yoga.

What does this mean exactly? Well, many of us can see pretty easily that our state of mind informs the quality of our breath. That is to say, if your life is suddenly in danger or you are taken by surprise, one of the immediate physical reactions is a quick and shallow breath or a gasp. 

This is known as the fight or flight response and it is an incredible natural ability we have. All of your body’s resources become laser-focused on one thing: getting you out of harm’s way.

The shallow breath has the immediate effect of removing your thinking brain from the equation. Oxygen that was bound for your brain by way of the breath train, is re-routed to your muscles which now need all the explosive strength they can get to run from the tiger or jump out of the path of the boulder. The shallow breath keeps you in reaction and panic mode until the threat has passed. This is all by Mama Nature’s brilliant design.

Feed Your Brain

But the big problem with a shallow breath is that it doesn’t feed your brain the oxygen it needs to function properly. Shallow breathing is supposed to be reserved for “special occasions” if you will… the fight or flight response. Shallow breathing does not allow you to think clearly or make good decisions. But many people don’t breathe well. Due to stress from one thing or another, they are constantly in fight or flight mode.

It’s not healthy or sustainable.

You can’t always be in fight or flight mode, though many of us are. The shallow breath, the lack of nourishment to your brain, is the net effect of constant stress at work or in home life. In this world, it is imperative that you learn to tap into your relaxation response. A deep breath does that. 

Once you understand the mechanics behind the breath, how it works, you can begin to utilize your breath to inform your state of mind. Which is a pretty neat trick.

Pranayama is a component of yoga, 

… specifically Patanjali’s 8-limbed path of yoga. 

In yogic philosophy, the right side of the body is thought of as male-dominant and the left is female. The right is the sun, the left is the moon. The right is hot energy, the left is cool.

And throughout the day, just like your various other body parts, the musculature in your nose and sinuses functions at various levels. 

The right and left nostrils are connected directly to the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Because the muscles in each side of your nose and sinuses fluctuate, it may be part of the reason you feel sharper (or duller) at different parts of the day. So pranayama can be used for regulating the function of each side, smoothing things out so you’re not too fiery nor too sluggish. 

Asana is what most of us know as the poses, the exercise portion of what is thought of as a “yogic lifestyle”. Pranayama is like yoga poses for your breath… it’s the ancient practice of breath manipulation. 

“Prana” is a Sanskrit word that means “life force”. A “yama” is an action.

So pranayama is the practice of moving your life force… Manipulating it, working with it. Regulating it. That’s what giving yourself some breathing room, expanding the breadth and depth to that life force of yours, is all about.

Pranayama is also great for:

  • Strengthening the diaphragm for more muscle behind your breath
  • Bringing a calm, centered feeling with long, even exhales
  • Adding Nitric Oxide for less anxiety and better lung health too

Among so many other things. If you never do any other kind of yoga or bodywork, learn a few breathing exercises. You will thank yourself, I promise!

Your diaphragm is actually a muscle… 

… and that makes it capable of becoming stronger through training, just like your biceps, glutes, or your quads. 

Thus, your life force can be made stronger by way of the breath too. Learning how to direct the breath, and how to work out the muscle, will have a profound effect on your ability to change your state of mind by improving the quality of your breath. 

Samavrtti is a breath exercise also known as Square Breath. It’s great for observing how the breath and the diaphragm moves. It’s also perfect for training the diaphragm by way of lengthening the inhale and exhale.

The vagus nerve interfaces with the relaxation responses in the heart, lungs, and digestive tract. 

In other words, a happy vagus nerve means your most basic functions are happy too. Blood is pumping easily, breath is breathing smoothly, and energy is moving freely. How do you get a happy vagus nerve? It’s pretty easy actually. An exhale that is longer than the inhale is all you need.

The opposite of fight or flight, “rest and digest” mode is governed by the vagus nerve which is a part of the parasympathetic nervous system, slowing the heart rate and increasing glandular activity. One thing we know for sure is that you need a strong vagus nerve. ”Low vagal tone” is a medical term and it means that the vagus nerve is impaired in its functioning. This causes very real stress in the body and can lead to conditions such as anxiety, depression, gut problems. So it bears repeating:

You need a strong vagus nerve. 

It is so important to your well-being that there is electrotherapy specifically for vagal nerve stimulation. This non-pharmaceutical option can help people with treatment-resistant depression. 

But you can stimulate your vagus nerve with your breath too. Just a nice, long, deep exhale will get you there. 

If you’re familiar with COVID-19 and its effects, you know that one of the more deadly is known as a cytokine storm. Vagus nerve stimulation has been demonstrated to block the production of cytokines and was recently studied in a COVID context with very promising results.

Nitric oxide helps blood vessels relax. So it’s kind of a big deal.

This is a powerful neurotransmitter that improves circulation, influences immunity, weight, mood, and even sexual function. Nitric oxide is extremely important for lung health.

It turns out that you can boost nitric oxide in your body by certain nasal breathing techniques, and the fathers of Pranayama seemed to somehow have a lead on its positive effects. There is now a lot of science to prove that humming when you exhale, as in the case of the ancient Pranayama technique known as Bee Breath, gives a blast of nitric oxide right to the upper respiratory tract where it can do the most good. 

Inhaled nitric oxide is now being studied as a therapy to help restore lung function and boost immune response in patients with severe COVID-19 symptoms. Lab tests have shown that nitric oxide increases the survival rate of mammalian cells that have been infected with coronavirus. 

Let’s breathe.

I created a special breath flow that brings together all the intentions of building a stronger diaphragm, inciting a relaxation response, and adding that healing nitric oxide to our upper airways. Ready to give it a try?

Square Breath For Strengthening – 

Begin by inhaling for 4 counts, and exhaling for 4 counts.

Notice there is space at the top of the inhale, and the bottom of the exhale. Draw those spaces out to a count of 4, so you have created a square out of your breath.

Inhale 2,3,4

Hold 2,3,4

Exhale 2,3,4

Hold 2,3,4

Return to normal breath as needed.

Let It All Gooooo – 

Next, take your square breath and give it a longer exhale. Build up your 4 count square again, then give it a really long exhale, like 8-10 counts. 

Every other side of the breath remains 4 counts.

Return to normal breath as needed.

Get Your Buzz On

Now for the last piece of our special flow… the buzz buzz!

Build your 4 count breath, add your superlong exhale, but instead of just exhaling, hum. That’s right, keep your mouth closed, and hum a tune if you like. The ancients called this Bee Breath, and I can’t help but notice that “OM” ming is the exact same thing. So do whatever you like with your extralong buzzy exhale… keeping your mouth closed and the humming going are the two main points to cultivating that sweet sweet nitric oxide.

Big Breath Is A Big Deal!

But seriously… if you never set foot on a yoga mat, or develop a taste for kale, or even try to try to stretch your muscles, knowing how to direct your breath can make all your days easier. Every encounter you have, every single day, even with yourself, can be made better with a strong, purposeful, conscious breath. 

Give it a shot!


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