How do yoga breathing techniques benefit one’s overall health? This article tells you why you need to improve your breathing.
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Yoga Breathing Techniques for Better Overall Health
Breath Awareness and Health
“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.” - Thich Nhat Hanh
You probably don’t think about breathing on a daily basis. It just happens naturally.
For many, the only time they’ve had someone call attention to their breath is at the doctor’s office when they have a stethoscope pressed against their back.
You’re asked at every visit to take a big breath in and out. So, if doctors monitor the effectiveness of your ability to breathe deeply, then there must be a profound connection between your health and the quality of your breath.
What are the benefits of deep or belly breathing to your health and well-being?
- Higher and more sustained levels of energy
- Lower stress and anxiety levels
- Better athletic performance
- A higher sense of emotional and physical awareness
- Mental clarity that brings you into the now
- Stronger relationships from clear reasoning
- Lower risk of chronic disease – even cancer
What Is Conscious Breath?
You may be thinking what’s the point of conscious breathing when you breathe every single second of every day.
Conscious breathing means that you bring awareness to the timing and even the location of your breath. The majority of us rarely ever think about our breathing.
However, being aware of your breath is a practice used by a variety of religions and worldviews such as Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity for spiritual development. There are a variety of other health benefits associated with conscious breathing, so the practice is often endorsed by various health professionals.
The type of breathing you do on a day to day basis is called unconscious breathing. Unconscious breathing is organized by the medulla oblongata in the brain stem. All of the functions done by the medulla oblongata are involuntary.
In contrast, conscious breath is controlled by the cerebral cortex. This part of your brain processes higher thought mechanisms such as speech and decision making.
So, by implementing conscious breath, you are engaging your brain more actively and even changing your emotional state.
I was first introduced to the idea of conscious breathing at the age of thirteen. I found that I had a difficult time quieting my thoughts when it was time for me to sleep.
I would become anxious as the hours ticked away while I lay in bed frustrated wondering why I couldn’t sleep.
My mother didn’t know the immense health benefits that stem from the practice of deep breathing, but she knew that taking long breaths could help to calm my nerves. She recommended that I concentrate on breathing slowly rather than trying to fall asleep.
It took several minutes, but eventually, I disciplined my mind to focus on my breath. A few minutes later, I was asleep.
That’s the moment I first discovered the power of conscious breath. I later applied the concept to various other parts of my life after I learned different techniques from my yoga practice.
How Does Yoga Breathing Work?
When you slow your breath and start controlling its rate, you make a direct connection to your central nervous system. By activating your cerebral cortex when you practice conscious breath, you send inhibitory impulses from your cerebral cortex to your hypothalamus in the midbrain.
The major function of the hypothalamus is to control the endocrine and the central nervous system. Essentially, the hypothalamus keeps your body in a state of homeostasis.
What is homeostasis? It’s the human body’s tendency to resist change so it can maintain a stable and constant internal environment. The internal body temperature is a good example of homeostasis.
So, by slowing these impulses, you also slow your emotional response produced by the hypothalamus. That’s why slow breath produces a calming and soothing state in your body.
But, what is the connection between breath and health? Can focusing on breath really lead to a higher level of wellness for our emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being?
Let’s discover how breath awareness and yoga deep breathing exercises can help improve health and well-being.
The Benefits of Deep Breathing
1. Higher Energy Levels
You might be able to skip your morning cup of coffee if you breathe more deeply.
Your breath is essentially the source of life. Without breathing for several minutes, you’d quickly die.
Your breath transports oxygen into your body to support its functions and dispels carbon dioxide out of your body.
Oxygen is also directly tied to how our body produces energy.
In the process of cellular respiration, which is how our cells create energy, oxygen oxidizes our food. This system then releases energy by converting oxygen and glucose into adenosine triphosphate or ATP.
So, the more oxygen you have in your body, the easier your body produces the energy molecule ATP. By taking longer, deeper breaths daily, you might find you feel more revitalized and rejuvenated.
2. Lowers Stress and Anxiety Levels
Deep breaths signal the parasympathetic nervous system to take over. The sympathetic nervous system controls the fight or flight response – a chain of reactions that occur when your body is heavily stressed or feels endangered.
During the fight or flight response, your body basically sets off an alarm system that alerts the hypothalamus. Your hypothalamus then stimulates your adrenal glands to release the hormones adrenaline and cortisol.
The adrenaline increases your heart and breathing rate. Cortisol, a stress hormone, increases the amount of sugar in your bloodstream.
This fight or flight response is great if you need to run away from someone attacking you or any other instance where your life might be threatened.
But, when you activate the fight or flight response with minor stressors and have difficulty stopping the fight or flight response, the overproduction of cortisol and adrenaline can be detrimental to your health.
So, how does an awareness of your breath reverse this? By breathing slowly, you activate the parasympathetic nervous system which helps us to relax.
The parasympathetic nervous system brings your body back into homeostasis. The longer you stay in this state, the better your body heals and develops a healthy immune system.
The shallow breaths we do on a daily basis naturally increase anxiety and stress.
Try to implement more conscious breathing into your life, and you’ll experience the restorative benefits.
You’ll release the tension in your body you may not even realize you have. For instance, is your tongue currently pressed to the roof of your mouth?
Are your teeth clenched? Do you notice you’re tensing any other muscle in your body?
These signs mean your body isn’t as relaxed as it should be for homeostasis. The practice of deep inhalation and exhalation of air helps ease the tension from your body.
3. Better Athletic Performance
I just spoke about the unknown tension you carry in your body on a daily basis. Imagine how much better your athletic performance or weekly exercise routine would be if you were more relaxed.
Imagine how much more you could use your muscles efficiently and effectively if you weren’t combating tension and stress.
When you are exercising, you may notice your breath gets shorter and faster.
Instead of allowing yourself to continue breathing at that rate, try to slow down your breathing rate and take full deep breaths. You’ll slow your heart rate and be able to exercise longer.
I first noticed the benefits of this when I decided I wanted to try running for exercise. I was only able to run for a few minutes at first, and then I was out of breath.
I later tried to breathe deeply while running from the very start. I found that I was able to run for a far longer period of time.
Now, I use deep breathing in all forms of exercise to keep my body energized and to regulate my heart rate.
4. More Awareness and Mental Clarity – These Will Help You Build Stronger Relationships
When you are more aware of your breath, you bring more awareness into your life in general. This heightened sense of awareness can give you more appreciation for the present moment.
You are forced to concentrate solely on your breath in conscious breathing. You can’t think about your to-do list or what someone said to you yesterday.
Conscious breathing only allows you to be in the now.
When you’re only focused on the present moment, you might find your relationships with others strengthen. You’ll only be focused on the time you’re spending with that person at that moment.
You’ll be fully engaged, and your mind won’t wander. The other person will feel more appreciated rather than ignored.
A greater sense of awareness and mindfulness will also improve your mental clarity. Imagine you’re in an argument and instead of lashing back at a hurtful comment, you’re able to take a step back and think of a more productive way to respond.
Slowing your breath actually changes your state of mind. Your hypothalamus begins to put your body into a serene state.
You’ll experience that you’re more rational rather than reactive.
By exhaling frustration and negativity, your stress response improves, and you can handle arguments without your blood pressure rising.
This brings us to another benefit of practicing yoga breathing, lowering the risks of chronic illnesses.
5. Lower Risk for Chronic Disease – Even Cancer
Breathing deeply lowers your stress levels. When you have lower stress levels, you have lower cortisol levels.
High cortisol levels contribute to many chronic health conditions.
The stress hormone often raises your blood pressure and can increase risks of a heart attack or heart disease. Cortisol also increases your blood sugar.
If you have a tendency to get stressed often, cortisol may increase your risk of developing diabetes.
A breathing practice can also help reduce your risk of developing cancer. In 1931, Otto Walberg received the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his discovery that cancer cells do not thrive in an exceedingly oxygenated setting.
Since you’re inhaling oxygen, you allow your body to be continuously oxygenated, thus lowering the risk of cancer cells reproducing and becoming tumors.
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Yoga Breathing Exercises
Traditionally, yoga is a Hindu spiritual practice that combines the idea of conscious breath with bodily posture and movement to help strengthen your muscles, increase your flexibility, bring awareness to your life, and improve your overall health.
The word yoga literally means to yoke or union. Though this can be interpreted in various ways — in yoga, you work to yoke your breath to movement.
This action connects you to the present, to your soul, and to those around you.
There are different kinds of yoga breathing exercises to help reduce stress. Here are five yoga breathing exercise for you to receive the benefits of implementing conscious breath in your life:
1. Ujjayi Breath
This breathing technique is also called the victorious breath. It increases internal body heat and gets your blood flow circulating.
This fact makes the ujjayi breath perfect for exercise or warming up.
In addition to this benefit, the ujjayi breath also:
- Relieves stress and tension
- Regulates blood pressure
- Increases energy
- Clears the mind
- Detoxes the body
How to Perform the Ujjayi Breath
Are you ready to warm up your body for your next yoga technique? Follow these instructions to perform this yoga breathing exercise:
- You’ll be breathing solely out of your nose for this one, so keep your mouth closed.
- Take a large inhale through your nose and focus the oxygen pathway onto the back of your throat.
- Then, exhale slowly while slightly constricting your throat muscles.
To really get the hang of it, try to start by inhaling for a count of five and then exhaling for a count of five. This breath should feel really cleansing to your body.
2. Belly Breath
This breathing technique is also called the diaphragmatic breathing technique and is excellent for those who experience anxiety.
Whether you’re having a legitimate panic attack or just feeling a bit nervous about a presentation, diaphragmatic breathing can help you relax.
- A decreased heart rate
- Lower levels of stress
- A strengthened diaphragm
- Less need for energy exertion for breathing
How to Perform the Belly Breath
Calm your senses with this yoga breath work. Follow these simple steps:
- Start by lying on your back.
- Place one had on your chest and the other on your stomach just below your rib cage.
- Breathe in slowly through your nose filling your belly with air.
- You should feel your hand rise on your stomach, but your hand on your chest should remain still.
- Then, exhale through your mouth and allow your stomach to lower. Your chest always remains still.
3. Alternate Nostril Breath
This breathing technique is also called the Nadi Shodhana. This type of breathing practice is also great for stress, but I personally use it for mental clarity.
This Pranayama yoga breathing technique comes from the Sanskrit word “nadi” meaning flow, while “shodhana” means purification. This technique helps you purify airflow for mental clarity.
What is Pranayama? This is a yoga breathing exercise using controlled and regulated breathing to remove mental and emotional blockages.
- A clearer focused mind
- Rejuvenation of the nervous system
- Removal of toxins in the body
How to Perform the Alternate Nostril Breath
- Find mental clarity with Nadi Shodhana with these steps:
- Start by sitting up straight with your legs crossed.
- Next, make a fist with your hand, and then extend your pinky and thumb.
- Press your thumb to your right nostril and inhale slowly through your left.
- Then press your pinky to your left nostril and exhale through your right nostril.
- Continue to alternate your inhales and exhales.
4. Lion’s Breath
If you want to make your breathing exercise fun and energizing, try the Lion’s Breath. Even your kids, if you have them, will enjoy doing this yoga deep breathing exercise with you.
How to Perform the Lion’s Breath
Invigorate your body with this breathing exercise. Follow the steps below for a fun exercise bonding time with your kids:
- Inhale deeply through your nose.
- Then lean back and exhale loudly with your mouth open wide and your tongue sticking out.
- Repeat this cycle, but this time, raise your arms up as you inhale. As you exhale, form cactus arms to feel all the more relaxed.
5. Three Part Breathing
If the Lion’s Breath technique gears you up for an invigorating weekend, Three Part Breathing helps you unwind at the end of a long day.
It soothes your muscles and clears your mind to help prepare you for bed.
How to Perform the Three Part Breathing
- Place one hand on your upper chest and the other on your navel.
- Inhale into your chest and your upper abdomen, then puff out your belly like a balloon.
- Exhale, release your breath to release the tension from your body.
Starting Your Path to Healthy Living
There is so much more to a holistic lifestyle than deep breathing techniques.
When you start your journey to healthier living, there seems to be so much information to weed through. It can be confusing and difficult to determine what you should focus on first.
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Are you practicing yogic breathing techniques in your daily life? Let us know how it has impacted your health and well-being in the comments section below!
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on November 2, 2018, and has been updated for quality and relevancy.