A relationship with our breath is a vital aspect of our evolution on the path of Yoga.
Many people who are new to yoga tell me that at first, they struggled with yoga. I was no different when I began going to yoga classes. Aside from all the things which I thought were wrong with me which I perceived meant I would be no good at yoga including;
Not strong enough
Not coordinated enough
Not enough core stability
Generally not feeling good enough
Also, Poor concentration because back then I think my mind was at its busiest. I would try to focus so hard that I’m sure I would accidentally hold my breath, forgetting to let my breath keep rolling.
Sometimes teachers would drop in a cursory reminder about breath. Have you heard any cues like this?
“And Breeeeeeeeeathe”, they would say with zero explanation.
Whaaaaaaaat?! I thought I already was breathing because I am not dead.
When I heard cues like this as a beginner I would start gulping in air, breathing through my mouth as if exerting myself with weightlifting or running (which incidentally is not the best type of breathing when exercising. I will come back to this…). The harder I breathed the more anxious I became until sometimes I would feel on the verge of panic in class, because that is the effect of over breathing, too much arousal of the sympathetic nervous system or fight or flight response. I wish the teacher had offered an alternative way to breathe, because I was not the only one in class huffing and puffing.
No wonder I did not love yoga back then. What I did enjoy was getting comfy in the peace and quiet for savasana towards the end of the sessions. The resting time was a big part of what kept me returning to practice!
What is Pranayama?
A few years later a yoga teacher introduced something called Pranayama into her class. I had no idea at the time that yoga goes way beyond the poses (asana). Pranayama offers us a practical experience of connecting with our life force in a more subtle form than by only making shapes on the mat.
Pranayama in the language of Sanskrit means life force (prana) cultivation (ayama). We evoke our relationship with prana through our breath, where this our life force resides on the breath’s tide.
I heard the teacher’s words delivered clearly and calmly:
“There are 3 stages to Pranayama.”
Following her cues let me feel and witness my breath, both being the experience and observing what was happening. We sit in stillness and notice the breath in its normal state, then make a change to the breath for a few rounds, and then notice the new state of the breath. Lightly closing my mouth to let the breath ebb and flow through my nose offered me a new layer of calm which had evaded me until then. I fell in love with my yoga practice that day. Yeah, yeah, it’s cringey but it’s true!
Of course our feelings toward our practice may change, and our practice itself may change along with the shifting sands of our energy levels and the needs of the body. No matter what changes, while we still have breath, your breath can be the foundation of your practice.
Breath is at the heart of yoga. The calming effects of nose breathing can help to ease heightened nervous system states like panic, anxiety and stress whether you sit for a period of pranayama or you are staying mindful of your breath as you move through asana.
Benefits of Nasal Breathing
By inhaling through your nose you can cool the brain’s frontal lobes- the lobes involved in thinking, planning and processing.
By fully exhaling through your nose you create more space in your body to receive the energy of the inhale.
Breathing through the nose helps to filter unwanted crud out of the body and the air, thanks to the tiny nose hairs which act as a filter.
Nasal breathing stimulates our production of a neuro transmitter called gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) which soothes sympathetic nervous system states associated with stress, burn out and anxiety.
Nose breathing increases lung capacity, very helpful for exercise performance and for recovery from respiratory illness.
Breathing calmly through your nose stimulates the vagus nerve. This is a long, unfurling flower like nerve which extends through the throat and caresses our major organs. Healthy vagal tone is connected with healthy digestive, cardiac and hormonal function.
You can still practise nasal breathing if you have a broken nose.
Your nose really is your friend and your breath can unlock the calming, soothing, enlivening, spacious, refreshing benefits that yoga offers not only to the nervous system, but for our whole being. Letting the breath roll lightly through the nose while we practice asana will create mindful awareness of what we need in our physical practice, helping us to manage strong sensation when lunging, folding, stretching and strengthening.
My invitation to you is to let your breath come first both on and off your yoga mat.
We will have plenty of time for Pranayama on the late summer yoga retreat.