“Pranayama”, the complicated term for breathing techniques, is one of the 8 big branches of Yoga, next to postures and meditation. Still, it might be the most confusing aspect of a class. So, why is there so much focus on breathing? In this article, we talk about the physiological benefits of Pranayama and teach you 2 breathing exercises to get started right away
As modern lifestyle gets more and more hectic, the reported global stress levels have increased significantly over the past years. Chronical stress is seen as one of the six leading causes of death. While there is, for instance, no real medication to treat all the different causes of chronical stress, breathing techniques are seen as a scientifically approved method. They present a longer-lasting solution than any pharmaceutic pill. No wonder every fourth American found their way to the mat, holding onto hope, after learning that Yoga could help them deal with stress. In 2016, 36 Million Americans practiced Yoga regularly. These 36 Million might know, that Yoga breathing not only supports stress reduction but parallel to that, from an athlete’s perspective, there are various reasons to get into it. A breathing practice comes along with improvement of the lung capacity, enhanced exercise stamina, reduced chronic inflammation and facilitated weight loss…in other words, what the ancient Indian priests have discovered over a thousand years ago appears to work. In the following blog, we firstly discuss the purported benefits of breathing for bodily and mental health. Secondly, we will present to you with 2 useful breathing exercises for stress release and breathe control.
“I didn’t want to be alive anymore”,Michael Phelps told Business Insider (1) about his mental health crisis. Soon, he discovered breathing techniques could help him to deal with his mind. Phelps uses deep breathing or the lion’s breath technique whenever he feels upset or stressed.
We take 12-20 breaths per minute, around 23000 a day, without even thinking about it. We consider ourselves to be fine, or at least we don´t worry about the breathing part. Here is the point: Yes, we are functioning, but as a car that drives in a gear too low, it costs us energy, efficiency, and health. Most of the day our breath is shallow, and the frequency is double or even triple the 5-4 times/minute which are regarded as health improving. (2,3) You still might ask yourself how deep breathing can affect your health. The effects are various. To understand them, we have to accept that everything in our body influences the rest of the body reciprocally and in multiple ways.
Let’s go through the most striking benefits of Yoga breathing techniques and analyze how and why they are effective:
Breathing X Chronical stress
Some Scientists declare chronical stress as the most prevalent death risk factor of our time. 50-75% of all doctors appointments are for stress-related ailments. (4) Chronical stress describes the state where your body constantly secretes stress hormones. Too much of these hormones nourish anxiety, depression, mental and physical tensions and often lead towards addictive behavior. Unfortunately, these symptoms can reinforce each other. When driving down this detrimental spiral of body-mind interactions, pills can alleviate the symptoms but are not working the cause. Stress is a natural reaction to perceived danger. In our time there are no lions to run away from, but there are work issues, exams, relationship problems, high expectations, and so much more. Those problems are omnipresent and it´s on us to change the way we perceive them, to train ourselves to calm down and be less attached.
Our breathing plays a crucial part in this game. Yoga Breathing correlates with the heartbeat. An altered heartbeat would supply your muscles faster with blood and prepare you to run away. What makes the breathing special now, is that unlike the heartbeat, you can control the rhythm. In brief, you can control which branch of your autonomic nervous system is more active, the sympathetic or parasympathetic.
Multiple studies have shown this link between types of breathing patterns and the secretion of stress hormones. Fast chest breathing alerts your body to be ready for action. The sympathetic nervous system is activated and it turns up the heart rate, muscle tension, and stress hormones. Practically, when you do a hundred-meter sprint.
Slow, deep belly breathing, can do the opposite. The receptors of the vagus nerve, that are located in your respiratory system, transmit signals towards the brainstem and induce the parasympathetic response: you experience relaxation, calmness and mental clarity. (5) Our body needs both systems in balance to function.
If not, stress hormones can not be mined, this means longer regeneration periods, more body fat, less muscle growth, and poorer sleep for Athletes. In Yoga, we use the breath to activate either the sympathetic or the parasympathetic system. Especially the resting, and stretching poses, in the end, can give your body the time needed to deal with the stress hormones you produced during the day or within a training.
Breathing X Chronic inflammation
A new study found that yogic breathing techniques lower inflammation value in the body (6). If health benefits can be measured in blood after only 10 minutes of rhythmic breathing, how astonishing would be the effect after a whole yoga class? Chronic inflammation is a prolonged inflammatory body response, instead of serving our bodies, it can lead to the destruction of tissue and unfavorable changes in cells. It is induced by our own immune system when overreacting for instance to constant stress stimuli. Research suggests that chronic inflammation plays a dominant role in a range of conditions, from cancer to asthma (7).
Breathing X Weight loss
70 percent of human toxins are released through breathing. Also, Carbon, the most essential building block for fat or sugar, is mainly released through breathing. While resting we exhale around 4 Liters per minute, but when we are active it can peak up to 50 Liters. No wonder that deep breathing can also play its part regarding weight loss. But be aware, extreme breathing can not be seen as the final solution when you desire to lose weight. In fact, over-breathing is seen to be associated with overweight. According to the breathing coach for Olympic athletes, Patrick Mc Keown: This is because the breath takes part in the regulation of the pH value inside our body. While over-breathing can create pH imbalances in your blood and induce food-cravings (8), yogic, deep breathing has shown to increase certain hormone levels that are responsible for the inhibition of hunger. (9)
Breathing X Exercise stamina
This aspect might be of great interest to runners, other cardio athletes or even extreme sportsmen like mountaineers. When Yoga practitioners were compared to non-practitioners while ascending extremely high altitudes, the results indicated that the practice of respiratory exercises is leading to higher efficiency of ventilation and less sympathetic activation (10).
Our respiratory tract consists of 5 lung lobes. By chest breathing, we only address the upper ones, but while deep belly breathing we can utilize more lung volume. With breathing exercises, we train the responsible muscles, if our diaphragm is well trained, deep breathing won´t be an act of concentration anymore but applicable in other activities.
Breathing X Mind
One of the ultimate purposes of Yoga practice is to teach control over the mind. Read more here.
The mind is absolutely instrumental in achieving results, even for athletes. Sports psychology is a very small part, but it’s extremely important when you’re winning and losing races by hundredths and even thousandths of a second.Michael Johnson
Controlling your breath requires continuous concentration. You can concentrate on any phase of the breath circle: the inhalation, the exhalation, and the pauses. When you reached a pose and the mind starts to wander the breath can be your anchor. There is simply no space for thoughts when you bring your entire attention to fulfill the smooth and even yoga breath. Especially in twisted poses that do not allow your breathing mechanisms work normally, as your stomach is compressed and turned, you have to put extra effort to maintain a deep breath. Yoga teaches you breathing in stressful situations, a tool that is multi-applicable in daily life and performance.
Regarding the current state of research, breathing can be a powerful tool regarding life quality and athletic performance. How old wise Indians have acquired all that knowledge without taking blood samples or brain scans, is incredible. The techniques teach us to observe and control our breathing not only meanwhile we practice but also afterward. Taking the calmness and clarity of your mind in your pocket to the next competition, business meeting or family reunion can be your secret weapon and trustful companion.
“When I´m on the starting line and I´m really nervous and I´m shallow breathing, Pranayama helps me…”Bahns, Triathlete (11)
A simple way to start: 2 exercises for improved life quality and sports performance.
Pranayama is the Sanskrit term for yogic breathing exercises. Inside the word, we find “Prana”, which can be translated as breath or vital energy, “ayama” which means expansion and “yama” which refers to “control”. So Pranayama is the control and expansion of breath or vital energy. Generally speaking, in Yoga we aim for breathing in and out through our nose. The warm air is easier to take in and your nose hairs filter foreign particles. Plus, it is easier to control and elongate the airflow. During the flow, upward movements are mostly accompanied with an inhale while downward, compressing or twisting moves are combined with the exhale. This way makes it easier to reach further inside certain poses. The following 2 exercises give you an understanding of how different your breath can be and how to do the breathing part while being engaged in a flow.
1. The Yogic breathing
- Lay down or find a comfortable seated position.
- Place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly.
- Breathe slowly in (through the nose) and allow your belly to extend completely.
- Notice how the air first lifts the belly, then your chest and at last the area around your clavicle.
- Breathe slowly out (through the nose), and feel how the air runs out the other way around. First, relax the muscles around your neck, then your chest and ultimate your belly. Try to empty your lungs as much as possible.
- Complete 5-10 cycles of these inhale and exhales harmonically and fluidly, without stopping at a certain point or changing the velocity.
+ helps to reduce stress or anxiety
+ brings awareness to all parts of your lower respiratory tract
2. Ujjayi Breath – The victorious breath
- Sit up-wright. Breathe through the nose. Relax your whole body and bring your attention to your throat.
- Now constrict slightly the opening of your throat to create some resistance to the passage of air and a wave-like sound.
- Keep on breathing like that creating a smooth and long sound on every inhalation and exhalation. Let the airflow reach your belly and chest. Be aware so you may not over-tense your throat or upper body.
- Start exercising Ujjayi Breath with 10 rounds. Later you can go for 10-20 minutes.
+ Creates heat in your body
+ Calms your nervous system and mind
+ Teaches you breathe control
Summing it up:
Pranayama is a yogic technique that teaches you how to control and expand your breathing. Newest research showed, that the beneficial effects of breathing techniques are real and are reaching far beyond our expectations: Breathing techniques can alleviate stress, facilitate the treatment of diseases, and work beneficial to Athletic Performance. In purely statistic terms, breathing techniques definitely help to elongate life. Believing that there is no time for half an hour Yoga is one thing, transferring that thought to breathing exercises is a lie. You can apply the “Yogic Breath” everywhere, in the elevator, car, or while waiting in line. After only a couple of breaths, you can feel the difference. If not, leave a comment. There are enough reasons to give it a try and see for yourself.