I often have students ask me, “What’s up with all the breathing in yoga? Why do we have to breathe through the nose all the time? How come I go to some classes and everyone’s breathing like Darth Vadar??”
Welcome to the world of pranayama; the science of breath. Pranayama is not to be taken lightly. Indeed, B. K. S. Iyengar is noted for not teaching pranayama to students until they have strengthened their body, nervous system and lungs by practicing asana for at least 2 years. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika (a very old ‘how to’ text on yoga) suggests that we commence pranayama practice only when the body has been regulated by asana and a moderate diet. For some of us, that could take awhile…
The breath has a direct effect on the brain, the endocrine system and the central nervous system. When you can control and stabilize your breathing, you can control and stabilize your mind. Let’s keep it simple and look at a few of the reasons we’re taught to breathe through our noses.
1) Breathing through the nose slows the breath down and in yoga, slow is good. When using the nose, we’re taking air in through two small holes – the nostrils, rather than one giant hole – the mouth. We’re taught to equalize the breath by breathing in and out for the same amount of time as well as volume. Give this a try…inhale to a count of four, exhale to a count of four. Nice, huh?
2) Now, in regards to the heavy breathing you hear; by slightly constricting the back of the throat as you breathe in and out, you’re creating an even smaller passage for the air to enter. Kind of like breathing through a straw. You get this subtle wind-tunnel effect/sound which not only slows the breath down even more, but can sometimes give Darth Vadar a run for his money. This breath is called Ujjayi breath, which means “victorious breath”. Go ahead and give this a shot, too. In many classes, you’ll be asked to hold a pose for, say, five breaths. By incorporating ujjayi breath, we have something audible on which to focus our attention, rather than the burn we may be experiencing in our quadriceps. We also experience the benefit of staying in the pose longer as our breath is moving ever-so-slowly through the nose. As our practice becomes more rigorous, we are challenged to maintain a smooth, steady ujjayi breath.
3) So there’s these little bitty, teeny tiny hairs way up in our nostrils called cilia. These little tiny hairs are like a microscopic field of wheat, and when we breathe in and out, they move back and forth with our wind. Gently flowing back and forth, these tiny, little micro-wheat fields act as a broom, dusting the bad stuff out. But wait, this is where it gets interesting; as the cilia flow back and forth keeping our sinuses cleaned out, they also stimulate our brain. And who amongst us couldn’t use a little more stimulation in the brain? Just imagine if all 6 billion of us listened to Mozart and breathed through their noses…
The breath is our most powerful tool to bring equanimity to our minds. As the 17th century mystic, Kariba Ekken, said, “If you would foster a calm spirit, first regulate your breathing; for when that is under control, the heart will be at peace; but when breathing is spasmodic, then it will be troubled. Therefore, before attempting anything, first regulate your breathing on which your temper will be softened, your spirit calmed.”
Lisa Bracken breathes and teaches at the Yoga Barn at The Canebrake (www.TheCanebrake.com) as well as at NSU in Tahlequah. Due to the benefits of yoga and her Neti Pot, she hasn’t had to breathe through her mouth for years.