We all know that without breathing Oxygen into our system and Carbon Dioxide out, we wouldn’t survive for long. So it goes without saying that breathing is pretty essential. However, do we really know the full benefits of breathing properly in everyday life, as well as the positive effects of Pranayama and breathing exercises during yoga?
Our respiratory system is interconnected with our brains, emotions and receptors all over the body. When we become anxious or stressed our breath becomes agitated, when we take a walk in a field on a summers day our breath becomes deep, and rhythmic and the whole body responds by shifting into a healthy, calmer rhythm. Just as our breath can become agitated when we are stressed, so we can use our breath to send messages to our body and brain to tell us to calm down. For example, doing abdominal breathing will help us slip into a rest or digest state as it’s the natural breath that we default to when we are most relaxed in a deep sleep.
To understand a little of the physical process of respiration, receptors in the body are triggered when there is too much Carbon Dioxide in the bloodstream, sending a signal to the brain to contract the diaphragm and rib muscles which in turn kick start the lungs and abdomen into action. This results in an inhale which re-oxygenates the blood which in turn triggers the exhalation. All very clever really. As you can imagine, deep yogic breathing promotes a good exchange of Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide and maintaining a deep, even flow of breath into the base of the lungs can prevent a buildup of lactic acid in the muscles.
Not only can we use long, deep breaths to calm our body systems, we can also use the breath to calm the mind. The breath is often used as a focal point for meditation because it is one of the more obvious functions of the body that happens moment to moment, without us having to consciously do anything. This means that right here, right now, our breath is happening to us in this moment, and the next. Bringing your attention to that very point gives us a single focal point, allowing our mind and body fall into union.
But breathing goes way beyond relaxation and meditation. Increasing Oxygen in our system supports the repair of muscles, increases stamina and endurance. Increasing Oxygen to the brain can increase concentration and expand our awareness. Breathing can also increase energy levels and lift your mood. The Wim Hof method claims that heightened Oxygen levels can bring “more energy, reduced stress levels, and an augmented immune response that swiftly deals with pathogens.” Wim has used his breathing technique in many experiments to improve his immune system in a way that has surprised the medical profession.
Just when you thought breathing couldn’t get any better, in 2014 researchers from the University of New South Wales in Australia published findings in The BMJ claiming that when weight is lost, some of it is breathed out as carbon dioxide.
Throughout a yoga practice, you might be reminded to breath and encouraged to maintain a deep and even breath, in the most challenging of postures. This will send calm signals to your body, telling your brain and body that you are relaxed and not stressed. The long, even breaths will also prevent the build of up lactic acid in the muscles. Pranayama may also feature in your practice, perhaps a stronger, faster breath to detoxify or a long, deep breath to cool, balance and calm. And of course, breathing deeply and slowly as a focus for the mind, a way of grounding in the present moment.
But with the long list of benefits above, your breath outside of your yoga practice is equally as important. Are you aware of the depth and placement of your breath throughout the day? Are you able to recognise when you’re feeling stressed at work or at home and use the breath to calm your body’s nervous system? Perhaps you might wake up in the morning by inviting the day to be breathed into you as you awake from deep rest.
So whether you’re low in energy, finding it hard to concentrate, feeling anxious or stressed or simply curious, bringing a bit more oxygen into your life and into your practice is a great resolution for 2019.
Alexandra Ward teaches 2 weekly classes at Unity. Wednesdays 8.45am – 9.45am & 5.30pm – 6.30pm. More info here.