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 mrjamesnestor.com/breath
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