By Gwen Lawrence
I grew up during the age of Jane Fonda aerobics marathons and “No pain, no gain” mantras. When the way of the warrior was breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth. As an exercise enthusiast and a dancer throughout college, I lived my life this way without ever questioning the theory. Now I know better: Question everything!
Breathing is a 24-7 unconscious act. Breathing provides necessary oxygen to your body, without which the cells of your body would quickly die. But are you breathing the “right way”?
The path of the breath
The air we breathe is first processed through the nose. The nose is a miraculous filter lined with tiny hairs called cilia. The cilia have many functions: they filter, humidify and warm or cool the air (depending on the temperature) before it enters the lungs. It is estimated that cilia protect our bodies against about 20 billion particles of foreign matter every day!
Once it exits the nose, air passes through the mucus-lined windpipe. This is another avenue to trap unwanted particles before they enter the lungs. Next, air enters the lungs, where the oxygen is pumped into the bloodstream and circulated through the body. In exchange, the air leaving the body carries with it carbon dioxide from the cells, a waste material that is expelled through exhalation.
The benefits of nasal breathing
Breathing through the nose is the way our bodies were designed. In fact, it’s been said that breathing through your mouth is about as practical as trying to eat through your nose!
According to experts, most people breathe at 10-20 percent of their full capacity. Restricted breathing greatly decreases respiratory function, which in turn decreases energy levels in the body. Since oxygen is our main source of life, and exhalation is the main way to expel toxins from our bodies, poor breathing can contribute to a multitude of health problems, from high blood pressure to insomnia. Poor breathing may even contribute to some forms of cancer: In 1931, Otto Warburg won a Nobel Prize for determining that only oxygen-starved cells will mutate and become cancerous. That is proof enough for me to learn to breathe properly!
Many of us feel stressed out, overworked, and overstimulated during our daily lives, which leaves us in a chronic state of fight or flight response. Breathing in and out through the nose helps us take fuller, deeper breaths, which stimulates the lower lung to distribute greater amounts of oxygen throughout the body. Also, the lower lung is rich with the parasympathetic nerve receptors associated with calming the body and mind, whereas the upper lungs — which are stimulated by chest and mouth breathing — prompt us to hyperventilate and trigger sympathetic nerve receptors, which result in the fight or flight reaction.
Another reason to embrace proper nasal breathing? It can enhance your workout! John Douillard, author of Body Mind Sport, says:
“To experience the zone in training is our birthright, and it is within the design of our human nervous system to access it. To push ourselves to exhaustion when we have the capacity to allow effortless, perfect performance to flow naturally, from the inside out, seems somehow primitive and a waste of time. I have never heard of a peak experience that was described as painful, grueling or exhausting. Rather, the descriptions always fit the original definition of exercise: rejuvenating, stress-reliving and accessing full human potential.”
Here are a few more of the benefits of nasal breathing:
- The lungs actually extract oxygen from the air during exhalation, in addition to inhalation. Because the nostrils are smaller than the mouth, air exhaled through the nose creates a back flow of air (and oxygen) into the lungs. And because we exhale more slowly through the nose than we do though the mouth, the lungs have more time to extract oxygen from the air we’ve already taken in.
- When there is proper oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange during respiration, the blood will maintain a balanced pH. If carbon dioxide is lost too quickly, as in mouth breathing, oxygen absorption is decreased, which can result in dizziness or even fainting.
- Air that we inhale through the nose passes through the nasal mucosa, which stimulates the reflex nerves that control breathing. Mouth breathing bypasses the nasal mucosa and makes regular breathing difficult, which can lead to snoring, breath irregularities and sleep apnea.
- Breathing through the nose forces us to slow down until proper breath is trained; therefore, proper nose breathing reduces hypertension and stress. It also helps prevent us from overexerting ourselves during a workout.
- Our nostrils and sinuses filter and warm/cool air as it enters our bodies.
- Our sinuses produce nitric oxide, which, when carried into the body through the breath, combats harmful bacteria and viruses in our bodies, regulates blood pressure and boosts the immune system.
- Mouth breathing accelerates water loss, contributing to dehydration.
- The nose houses olfactory bulbs, which are direct extensions of part of the brain called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is responsible for many functions in our bodies, particularly those that are automatic, such as heartbeat, blood pressure, thirst, appetite and sleep cycles. The hypothalamus is also responsible for generating chemicals that influence memory and emotion.
- The increased oxygen we get through nasal breath increases energy and vitality.
Perfecting your breath
Among all natural self-healing techniques, breath work is unique because breathing is the only conscious means of improving, maintaining, and repairing the other unconsciously run systems of the body. Heart rate, blood pressure, circulation, digestion, hormone secretion, and even our mental and emotional states all can be controlled, regulated, and healed through proper breathing practices. Ancient yogis knew this, and modern research and science agree. Once the body is healthy, nourished and calmed through proper breath work, the body can soar to its full potential.
So how do we make sure we are breathing correctly? Here are some tips:
Belly breathing —in conjunction with nasal breathing — is the most efficient way to achieve optimal health. Many people who breath through the mouth too much are also shallow chest breathers. Poor posture and a sedentary lifestyle contribute to this lazy, ineffective and unhealthy way of breathing. Instead, focus on breathing through the nose and into the belly.
The breathing muscle is the diaphragm, which should rise and fall with each breath, producing a belly movement. This movement massages the stomach and vital organs of digestion, promoting good elimination, another way to remove toxins from the body. This type of breathing also stimulates the vagus nerve, a cranial nerve that starts in the brain stem and extends, down below the head to the neck, chest and abdomen, where it contributes to the innervation of the organs of the body. Besides output to the various organs in the body, the vagus nerve conveys sensory information about the state of the body’s organs to the central nervous system.
One reason people do not utilize the nose for optimal breathing is that they are chronically congested. The age-old practice of Jala Neti, nasal irrigation, is the answer. This practice is thousands of years old, adapted from Eastern medicine. It is as common in the yoga community as brushing your teeth!
Proper breathing oxygenates the body and helps eliminate free radicals by removing pollutants, toxins and allergens. Accumulation of toxins takes place all the time and it is necessary to find safe, natural, non-addictive ways to rid the body of them and restore cells to normal. Nasal irrigation tools, such as neti pots, are a great way to accomplish this. This non-pharmacological therapy involves rinsing the nasal passages with a saltwater solution, helping to rid the nose of allergens and mucus. Nasal saline irrigation has been shown to be a beneficial therapy in the treatment and prevention of sinus infection and allergic rhinitis, and may even reduce the need for antibiotics in those people prone to sinus infections. Using a neti pot will leave you feeling invigorated, will decrease drowsiness, and will balance and strengthen the nervous system.
Yoga poses for proper breathing
Finally, here are some easy yoga poses and breathing practices to help open your ribcage and achieve optimum breath:
- Camel Pose
- Seated Twists
- Fish Pose
- Gentle Backbends
- Triangle Pose and Revolved Triangle Pose
- Reclining Spinal Twists
- Breath of Fire
- Alternate Nostril Breathing
- Three-Part Yogic Breath
So for the next few days, try to slow down and focus on breathing deeply in and out of your nose!