Pranayama: relearning to breathe

Breathing – what’s the big deal?

Inhale, exhale. That’s a breath. What more is there to know about inhaling and exhaling? You may feel like I’ve got this because we unconsciously and involuntarily take about 20,000 breaths a day. If you feel you’re an expert at breathing because you do it all day long, then I urge you to rethink and relearn. A good start would be to pick up a copy of a book by James Nestor: Breath, the New Science of a Lost Art. Then come to a Tampa Yoga Therapy class and learn pranayama.

Oddly, Nestor doesn’t specifically mention pranayama or even yoga until about the fifth chapter in. Most of his eastern credits go to Buddhism and his personal practice. But after that, he’s all in with an extended bibliography that speaks to one of my favorite topics: Many of the ancient practices of yoga are complementing (and in some cases, outperforming) modern medicine. Of particular note are pranayama and meditation. We are fast-learning the neurophysiology behind these yogic practices of self-regulation.

What does it mean to relearn to breathe?

People are extremely intelligent. But we can be sluggish on system intelligence because our smart body works on autopilot. Those who take the time to study their own systems with acute awareness usually come to rethink and relearn A LOT. Matters not if you lived 5000 years ago, or were born yesterday. It turns out if you pay attention and develop emotional awareness around your autonomic nervous system, you will find your true nature within this “lost art” of breathing.

Your chances of greater breathing skills are improved when guided by an experienced pranayama teacher. With guidance, encouragement, and practice you expand your repertoire of different breathing patterns. You learn different pranayama practices for different effects on the body. For example, to calm down the nervous system you begin to ease into longer periods of holding the breath. Gaining breath holding skills give us  greater control over respiratory and autonomic systems with less exertion and effort.

What does holding my breath have to do with breathing?

Well, nothing! It is a whole, separate topic. But it has everything to do with slowing down your systems and calming your brain. Reducing the number of breaths we take — by holding and slowing, actually improves the functions most affected by our breath patterns. (Note: James Nestor goes in for great detail on oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange with scientific experts in his books and on his website). Learning to slow the breath through retention is literally at the heart of the benefits.

This is especially true as we move into pranayama practices like Anulom Vilom that involve learning the breath retention techniques. With Anulom Vilom there is a slight holding in of the breath at the top of the inhale, and a short holding out of the breath at the bottom of the exhale.

And benefits of relearning to breathe are . . . ?

Reduced stress, less anxiety, better digestion, improved sleep, and a statistically significant decrease in blood pressure in both systolic and diastolic levels, after a few weeks of a regular pranayama practice. Should I continue, or is that list sufficient? Smile. Patterns of inhaling and exhaling in specific pranayama techniques give us back some of the control we need over our “modern” autonomic nervous system. Read modern=out of control.

In therapy sessions and therapeutic yoga classes at Tampa Yoga Therapy, a wide range of pranayama and meditation practices are main components. Some examples are Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breathing), Anulom Vilom, the variation that includes breath retention; diaphragmatic breathing, counting breath, and “box breathing” techniques. Once comfortable with Nadi Shodhana, Anulom Vilom, and some of yoga’s basic pranayamas, we can begin extending our pranayama practice to include more repetitions and longer periods of breath holding. Meditation dovetails directly into pranayama. Where the mind goes, the prana flows. We relearn and rethink our way into a more intentional way of being.


Nestor, James, “Breath: the New Science of a Lost Art,” Riverhead Books, May 2020. More at

Mayank Shukla, Diksha Chauhan, Ritu Raj, “Breathing exercises and pranayamas to decrease perceived exertion during breath-holding while locked-down due to COVID-19 online randomized study,” Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, Vol. 41, November 2020

Pooja Agrawal, Abhishek Sinha, Rinku Garg, “Effect of 4 weeks of Pranayama training and 6 min walk test on blood pressure in healthy subjects,” International Journal of Scientific Research, Vol. 9, No. 8, August 2020

Calm down and take a FREE online YOGA class

Free Yoga Via Zoom

Feeling a little anxious these days? Calming down with yoga has never been easier! Now you can practice yoga in the comfort of your home and on your own schedule. Online yoga classes are here and popping up all over. Don’t worry about pouring yourself into your stretchy yoga pants. And no need to squeeze into that special yoga sports bra. Just show up, as you are!

Social distancing may be our new normal for awhile. It requires a physical barrier of space between us at this time. And we are leaning heavily on technology to keep us connected. Online yoga classes taught live and pre-recorded are not a new thing. They’ve been going on since the early days of the internet on platforms like Facebook and YouTube. Now we have Vimeo, FaceTime, Instagram stories, GoToMeeting, ZOOM, BlueJeans, and many more. Bandwidth may end up being an issue, but that’s a topic for another time.

I posted my first online yoga classes on March 4, 2020 in preparation for my trip to the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Massachusetts. My online yoga classes were set up for my regular students to practice yoga while I was away at yoga therapy certification training. Online yoga classes are needed by a much larger audience now. COVID-19, the corona virus seems to be changing everything in our lives. It is just one more yogic “adjustment” we need to make.

Advanced Therapeutic Yoga Classes Online for YOU

My online yoga classes can be found under the “online courses” tab. I plan to add more the the following courses and to add different courses in the coming weeks. Here is a sampling of the online yoga courses now on the Tampa Yoga Therapy site:

Online Chair Yoga – Practice yoga in a chair. If you’ve done yoga before you’ll recognize many of the movements in this class. If you’ve never done yoga before you may find this to be one of the most accessible forms of yoga. Make no mistake, chair yoga is STILL yoga.
Pranayama – this course features short videos demonstrating breathing practices such as Dirgha (the three part breath), Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breathing), Kaki Mudra (the beak breath), Kapalabhati (the skull polishing breath), and others.
Basic Yoga Practices – which includes a free “preview” video titled, “Please Watch This First,” where I explain a general approach to yoga asana practice. The lessons within this course are for practices like the Sun Salutations sequence, a basic yoga practice.
Live Yoga via ZOOM – This is where you’ll find the current week’s regularly scheduled, live yoga classes where I will be teaching class from the Take Me To The River Yoga studio.

Those posted early in March are my first ever online video classes. I have a lot to learn! Have patience while I improve my technical expertise and work through the practice of delivering yoga online. Please join me in either a live class via ZOOM or through a pre-recorded online yoga class. It’s easy. Try it today at

#yogaonline #tampayoga #yogatherapy #tampayogatherapy #yoga #cabinfever #yogaintampa #onlineyogaclass


Yoga and the Stress Response

Yoga and the Stress ResponseIf you thought this article would be how yoga is the “answer” to the problems of the stress response, you’d be partially correct! If you believe that one of yoga’s primary benefits is to gain control over the stress response, you’d be 100% correct. (Spoiler alert: the stress response has a corresponding condition: the relaxation response.) So, why isn’t yoga the answer to the stress response?

Let’s engage in Q and A around the concept of the stress response:

Q. To understand the stress response, let’s start with the topic experts. Who has the best current information on the relationships between the brain, the body, stress, coping, and their combined effects on trauma and stress-related diseases?
A. Top contenders and supports of yoga are Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. in The Body Keeps The Score, Robert M. Sapolsky in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, and his book published in 2017, Behave.

Q. What is the stress response?
A. The stress response is a host of physical and mental reactions in response to an immediate, short-term crisis, or stressor. (Picture this: The snake, a major stressor slithers into your path, and viola! You are immediately transported via the stress response, to the safety of a tree limb without so much as a thought!).

Q. The stress response is a good thing then, right?
A. Yes and No. I know, not much better than the phrase “it depends”!
Speaking for the Yes side: for acute physical emergencies it is absolutely necessary for your appropriate response to danger. The stress response is what your body does to reestablish homeostasis.
Speaking for the No side: Reacting physiologically to stressors in a chronic, constant manner is not a good thing. Much like over-stretching a rubber band, you eventually “wear out” systems in your body. When acute danger is sensed, every system in your body is designed to deliver a quick response. Your physiology can get over-stretched by constantly reacting, or even anticipating what you may consider a stressor.

Q. What are some examples of stressors?
A. Lions, tigers, and bears. The list quickly expands to include romantic, familial and social relationships, money, jobs, outward appearance, social standing and on, and on. It is anything important enough to cause you to worry, thereby expending large amounts of emotional or physical energy. It is everything that causes you to worry.

Q. Why shouldn’t you strive to completely eliminate the stress response?
A. Simply put: it is critical to your survival. Most animals (including me and you!) have survived and evolved thanks to the stress response. Stress response is what gives you the strength to get up and do what needs to be done! It powers you through adversity and challenge.

Q. What does a healthy stress response look like?
A. Tough question. It depends. Read up on the Polyvagal Theory here to entertain this question further.

Q. What role does yoga have with regard to the stress response?
A. Your body is a veritable expert at initiating the stress response. And you are the absolute master of your body, even if you don’t yet think so! Yoga may have a role in helping you initiate the relaxation response. Yoga may help you reach balance and homeostasis by developing greater awareness. Yoga teaches you to choose the appropriate response to a given situation.

Q. A few of the answers above mentioned homeostasis. What is homeostasis? A. Robert Sapolsky keeps it general when he says: “. . . different variables are maintained in homeostatic balance, the state in which all sorts of physiological measures are being kept at the optimal level. The brain, it has been noted, has evolved to seek homeostasis.” (It has been noted: the brain has evolved).

Back to our original inquiry: why isn’t yoga the answer and what is the role of yoga and the stress response? It is kind of a trick question. Yoga is not the answer because we don’t want to eliminate the stress response. We need the brain to be fully functioning and mediating the proper stress response. Yoga’s main purpose and goal is to still the fluctuations of the mind. We need to calm the mind and maintain balanced reactions to our world. As noted, the brain has evolved.

For the sake of discussion in this article, let’s use mind and brain interchangeably. As noted, and as hammered into place: the brain has evolved. It has evolved to accept messages from every organ and system in your body. Like a relay station, albeit a very sophisticated one! The current scientific evolution is proving the brain doesn’t “think” of everything, and doesn’t “control” everything. And we’re learning that most decisions are based on emotions, and not entirely on an ordered, brain-powered logic.

Yoga’s role in the stress response is to give you the experience of self-regulation. Through yoga you can learn to feel the physical effects of emotional activation. Part of that lesson comes from asana, the postures. Asana is used to activate and relax the muscles of the body as a start to the true yogic practice. Awareness of the body in asana leads to awareness of the mind in meditation. Disturbing “gut reactions” or getting the “sh*t scared out of you” actually start first in the body. A run away stress response may bypass your logic-powered brain, creating a “knee jerk reaction.” Or you may have developed habits of ignoring or stuffing your emotions. Either way, the result may be an over reactive stress response: anger, fear, or withdrawing.

Yoga may help you gain greater control over your responses to stressors. The yogic practices of right breathing, intentional movement, and mindful meditation may begin to initiate your relaxation response. Or a more active yogic practice may increase the stress response in a positive way. Yoga isn’t all about the relation response! Sometimes living a sedentary lifestyle, feeling lethargic, or having a need to increase lung capacity calls for a different approach. But that’s a topic for another article!