Most of us know that our breath functions automatically most of the time. This function---breathing without thinking---is controlled by the autonomic nervous system in one of the oldest parts of our brain: the brain stem, located at the base, where the spinal chord turns into the brain.
Most of us also know that we can control our breath consciously, choosing the speed at which we breathe and even stopping it altogether, for a short while at least. This conscious control of our breath is done by the somatic nervous system, the part that controls voluntary functions like walking, writing or playing baseball. It is located on the surface of the brain at the very back of the frontal lobe, in a place called the motor cortex.
Whenever we consciously control our breathing, the motor cortex overrides the brain stem. This process takes a lot of effort from the brain, which is why it has the effect of focusing us. As an experiment, try to control your breath while doing a math problem in your head. It is difficult. When we consciously control the breath, the brain becomes still.
This phenomenon is one of the key principles of pranayama (breath control) and even the most simple breathing exercises. Even for a true beginner, counting the breath or trying to control it at all calms the mind and leaves them feeling very focused.
Our recent blog about the myth of oxygenation got a big response. Lots of surprise, some disbelief and a lot of requests for more information. Specifically, if deep breathing does not have a positive impact on our oxygen levels, why do we do it?
There are three huge benefits to practices of breathing: activating and balancing the muscles of breathing, which in turn affects the nervous system; balancing the hemispheres of the brain through the nostrils; and awareness and minor control of the breath-regulating parts of the brain.
THE MUSCLES & THE NERVOUS SYSTEM
You may have heard that some people are belly breathers and some are chest breathers. Most of us have at least a slight imbalance between the abdomen and chest, while others have extreme imbalance. This doesn’t necessarily have an effect on our ability to get oxygen, but it does have an impact on our nervous system.
Generally speaking, abdominal breathing that uses the diaphragm and relaxes the abdominal muscles stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. The opposite is true for chest breathing that uses the intercostal muscles. This stimulates the sympathetic nervous system.
Neither of these is a problem until our breathing patterns become imbalanced and we breathe primarily through only one of the systems. When years or decades go by, one part of the nervous system chronically gets stimulated while the other gets suppressed. Belly breathers will be more relaxed, sleep more, have lower body temperature, be more lethargic. Chest breathers will be more energetic, more stressed, warmer, sleep less.
It is vital for progress in yoga to have balance in the nervous systems. So the first step of breathing practice is to learn to use both parts of the breath, strengthening the muscles and evening the nervous systems.
The olfactory nerves in the nose go straight to the brain. They have the most direct connection to the brain of any of the senses, so their stimulation through the nostrils is potent. The breathing practice of Alternate Nostril, which goes by many names, is one of the oldest yogic techniques. By alternating which nostril we breathe into, we vary the hemisphere of the brain that we stimulate. This has a further effect on the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, and goes even further to balancing the dual nature of the body and mind.
PARTS OF THE BRAIN
The breath is controlled by the brain stem, the oldest part of our brain. Most of the time, we breathe with no conscious thought. But the newer parts of the brain, specifically the cortex, have the ability to override the brain stem to some extent, especially with practice. This awareness and control is very difficult and not appropriate for beginning practitioners, but it is the ultimate reason for breathing practices. Gradually we come to realize the true nature of the breath, which brings us closer to realizing the true nature of the self. (Apologies for the abstract yogi talk, but I don’t know of a clearer way to put it.)
So breathing is powerful. If we use it correctly it has the ability to balance our nervous system, the hemispheres of the brain, and even put us in touch with some deep and essential parts of our being. To me, this is all way more exciting than oxygenating the body!!
How many times have you heard a yoga teacher tell you that deep breathing "oxygenates the blood?"
It isn't true. At the very least it is misleading.
Our nervous system forces us to breathe at the necessary rate to fully oxygenate our blood at all times. This is true when we're resting as well as when we're running a marathon. The body's oxygen requirements are different depending on our activity, and the nervous system automatically adjusts to oxygenate the blood fully. Normal blood oxygenation is 95-100%.
When we are at rest, we breathe slower since the body's oxygen demands are less. Breathing more or deeper while the body is at rest does not "oxygenate" the blood. It hyper-ventilates, which is just a way of saying breathing (ventilating) more than necessary.
Anytime we breathe more than the body requires, the big change we are causing is the removal of carbon dioxide, one of the body's metabolic wastes. Hyperventilation removes more carbon dioxide than the body produces, and this leads to a whole host of physiological effects. Most significantly, the blood vessels in the brain constrict, limiting blood flow to the brain. This makes us light-headed.
So that light-headed feeling you get when breathing deeply isn't energization or "oxygenation," but constricted blood vessels in the brain. Your brain is actually getting less oxygen than if you were to breathe normally!
These two positions begin to bridge the gap between Camel, a vital posture in beginning practice, and Full Camel, the most accessible of the Full Backbends.
Preparation 1, with the hands on the back of the thighs (pictured top), is a remedy to the most common problem with Camel Posture: Once we attain a certain level of ease, we are temped to push the hips forward beyond the knees. Instead, we should keep the hips over the knees and bend the spine more deeply, lowering the head and shoulders. We accomplish this by placing the hands on the back of the thighs instead of the heels (as in beginning Camel) and lowering the upper body.
Preparation 2, reaching one arm overhead with the other on the back of the thigh (pic- tured bottom), helps us to open our chest and shoulders. By reaching with only one arm, we can become comfortable with this intense sensation while still supported and safe.
Breath will be short in any deep backbend. The lungs are stretched, and most of the muscles of breathing are paralyzed by the extension of the front side.
It is easy to panic when you feel the breath shorten. One of the vital elements of deepening your backbends is learning to stay relaxed even when your breath becomes quite short. If you sense rising panic, come out of the posture a little, and work where your breath can be calm.
These positions allow you to gradually deepen your backbend while still supported, helping you to overcome the natural fear and disorientation that are the greatest obstactles to backward bending.
Excerpt from the Ghosh Yoga Practice Manual - Advanced 1
In Standing Deep Breathing (with Folding Hands/Arms) we move the chest and arms in harmony with the expansion and contraction of the breath. We use the arm movements to aid us in deepening the breath, stretching and strengthening our breathing muscles.
As the chest expands on the inhale, we open the arms to stretch the shoulders, chest and throat. As the chest contracts on the exhale, we draw the arms, shoulders and chest inward, easing the muscular effort and encouraging relaxation.
With this exercise, slow and deepen your breath as much as possible without creating tension. If you find yourself tensing in an effort to lengthen the breath, relax your effort. Try six seconds on the inhale and six seconds on the exhale.
This exercise stretches and strengthens the breathing muscles in the chest, upper back and belly. It increases lung capacity. Any exercise that slows the breath will slow the heart rate, lowering the blood pressure and reducing stress.
An excerpt from the Ghosh Yoga Practice Manual - Beginning.
This exercise deepens the breath, expands the lungs and strengthens the breathing muscles in the chest. Use the lifting arms to stretch the ribs wide and help the lungs fill completely. Pull the belly in at the end of the inhale; it helps to isolate the muscles in the ribcage, making them stronger and opening the lungs. On the exhale, as the head drops back, stretch the chin up and away to get an even bend in the neck. The natural motion of the torso on an exhale is to contract. By extending the throat here we create tension and build heat in the body.
Work to slow your breathing down. As a beginning student try for four to six seconds on both the inhale and exhale. As an intermediate try for eight, and as an advanced student ten.
Start to develop the connection between breath and physical movement. It will bring about calmness and steadiness in your postures. Notice your body calming and thoughts slowing down as you progress through the exercise. Notice your focused and present state of mind. Learning simple breath control techniques like this can be used in stressful or emotional situations in your daily life.
Any exercise that slows the breath will slow the heart rate, lowering the blood pressure and reducing stress. This exercise increases lung capacity and strengthens the breathing muscles in the chest. It also stretches the shoulders, hands and throat.
Excerpt from the Ghosh Yoga Practice Manual - Intermediate
This short group of postures is our first movement after breathing. We bend the spine alternately forward and backward. The asymmetry in the lower body—one leg forward and one leg back—improves our balance and body awareness while opening the hips and lower back.
Connect with the warming, strengthening and opening sensations. Try to be stable, though at first you may feel wobbly. Work to feel your spine bending evenly in the backbend and forward bend. Avoid any sharp sensation in the spine—it means you have gone too deep without support.
In the backbends, the lungs are extended so the breath will feel shallow. Keep the breathing relaxed even though the breaths will be about 50%. In the forward bends the lungs are compressed as we engage the chest and abdomen. Focus on the breathing muscles on the backside of the chest. Breath will be about 60% in these positions, but it will feel much more relaxed than in the backbends.
These postures make the spine exible, releasing the muscles of the deep spine and low back. They stretch and strengthen the shoulders, chest, back, pelvis, legs, feet and abdomen including the psoas. They improve balance. The forward bend compresses the intestines, stomach, liver, pancreas and throat, encouraging circulation in the digestive system and the endocrine system.
An excerpt from the Ghosh Yoga Practice Manual - Intermediate
Once we are using the body to breathe fully and properly, we start to affect the depth and frequency of the breath. This does two things: It changes the chemistry of the blood, which has lots of impacts on the function of the rest of the body; and it begins to bring us in touch with our autonomic nervous system, the part that controls our sub-conscious breathing and heart rate.
OXYGEN & CARBON DIOXIDE
You may hear people talk about "oxygenation" of the blood through deep breathing, but that is not really what happens. Due to something called the (nerd alert!) oxygen-hemoglobin dissociation curve, it is next to impossible to change the amount of oxygen in our tissues in any meaningful way. Hemoglobin---the protein that carries oxygen in the blood---holds on tighter to oxygen when there is less coming in through the lungs. When there is lots of oxygen coming in, the hemoglobin allows it to come and go freely. This results in a steady supply of oxygen to the cells and tissues of the body, regardless of how much we breathe.
The real chemical element that changes when we do breathing exercises is carbon dioxide. When we breathe more than normal, we expel lots of carbon dioxide from our system, changing the chemistry of the blood. Less carbon dioxide makes the blood alkaline, resulting in a cascade of secondary effects in our nervous system, lungs and brain. We often feel it as "light-headedness."
When we breathe less than normal---the ultimate goal of yogic pranayama practice---carbon dioxide builds up in our blood, making it acidic. This creates a similar but opposite cascade of effects in the nervous system, lungs and brain. It causes dilation of the vessels in the brain and the desensitization of the peripheral nervous system. We feel it as a calm (or even numb) body and an alert mind. Does that sound like meditation to anyone?
Once we are aware of the effects of our breathing on our brain, we start to control it. This is when we enter Level 3, where the true practice of Pranayama begins.
The first steps of learning Pranayama (breath control) are vitally important. They lay the foundation for the practices that follow. If we overlook these steps or learn them incorrectly, we carry bad habits into our Pranayama practice.
While laying the foundation, we aren't actually doing Pranayama. We are preparing the body and mind for what is to come. This mostly consists of understanding the way the body breathes, learning to control the muscles of breathing, and balancing the body and mind.
HOW THE BODY BREATHES
It is easy to overlook the way the body actually breathes, choosing instead for metaphorical images and oversimplified ideas of expansion and contraction. In truth, the body both expands and contracts on the inhale and exhale (what?!?!?!). Breath control lies in understanding, feeling and controlling these forces.
BALANCING THE BODY, BRAIN AND ENERGY
The other main element that prepares us for Pranayama is balance. Most of us are uneven in our nervous system, hemispheres of the body and brain, and therefore our focus and energy. We must balance these things before proceeding to Pranayama practice.
These principles are the basis for our "Pranayama Level 1" class. We practice it at length during Practice Week, also moving into Level 2, which delves deeper into the chemical effects of breathing and the beginnings of true, traditional Pranayama.
Scott & Ida are Yoga Acharyas (Masters of Yoga). They are the head teachers of Ghosh Yoga. This blog is about their experience with yoga practice, study and teaching.
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- Lock the Knee History
- Why Teaching Is Not a Personal Practice
- The 113 Postures of Ghosh Yoga
- Should We Be Teaching Advanced Postures in a Beginning Class?
- Bow Pose (Dhanurasana)
- The Oxygenation Myth