Does your breath help you sustain and improve your mental and physical health .. or might it exasperate your health problems?
As a yoga teacher, people come to me wanting to find calmness and a healthier body. What I see more than anything else, is dysfunctional, shallow breathing, mouth breathing and weak diaphragms. I see seemingly fit and healthy people, who are unable to truly breathe deeply and unaware that their shallow breath aggravates their stress. I see people whose sleep problems are worsened by mouth-breathing at night, leading to weight gain, depression and lower sex drive.
So what is a life changing, health improving breath? There are 3 aspects to a great foundational breath:
- Breathe through your nose.
Breathing through your nose doesn’t just filter the air. It also heats, slows and pressurizes the air so that the lungs can extract more oxygen. Breathing through your nose has also shown to lower blood pressure, and help a variety of issues, such as sleep apnea, erectile dysfunction and digestion. Further, breathing through your nose will strengthen the soft tissue at the back of your mouth, reduce snoring, expand air intake and improve sleep.
2. Breathe into your belly and move your diaphragm
When you expand the belly as you inhale, you are of course not actually breathing into your belly. You are moving your diaphragm down, creating space for your lungs to fill up properly. Gently contracting as you exhale, engages your diaphragm, in essence exercising it. Moving your diaphragm when you breathe has the added, and very important, benefit of stimulating your Vagus nerve. As you are contracting the diaphragm on your exhale, the Vagus nerve sends a signal to your brain to activate your para-sympathetic nervous system (yes, we are geeking out now, but stay with me). Your para-sympathetic nervous system is basically your rest mode. This promotes calm, digestion, sleep etc.
Opposite, a shallow breath, will send a signal to your brain to stay in a sympathetic state: This is your fight or flight mode. When we get stuck in fight or flight mode, we are anxious, stressed and suffer from disturbed sleep patterns.
3. Slow down your breath.
Take the time every day to slow down your breath. More specifically, aim for a 5.5 second inhale and a 5.5 second exhale. A 2001 study showed not only increased blood flow to the brain and heart when breathing at that rate, but also the body’s circulation and nervous system coordinating to peak efficiency. Another 2011 study showed significant improvement amongst patients with anxiety and depression, and it has even helped to restore the lungs of 9/11 survivors suffering from respiratory issues.
Don’t get discouraged if 5.5 seconds seems impossibly long; start out aiming for 3 second inhale/exhale and build up.
Taking time every day to breathe this foundational breath, will not only reduce stress and improve sleep, it will improve your lung functionality… and it can be done as you are watching Netflix!!
For more information on how to improve your breath, check out my beginners breath video: https://youtu.be/LyuAn6LIqMo
or check out https://www.ninajarnumyoga.com
Sources and recommended reading:
“Breath” by James Nestor
Richard P. Brown & Patricia L. Gerbarg; The Healing Power of Breath; Simple Techniques to Reduce Stress & Anxiety, Enhance Concentration and Balance Your Emotions
Luciano Bernardi: “Effect of Rosary Prayer and Yoga Mantras on Autonomic Cardiovascular Rhythms; Comparative Study”. British Medical Journal 323, no. 7327 (dec. 2001)