A Guide to Breathing [+ Recommended Resources]
This post was originally published on the Bright Blog May 19, 2021. It was written by Stephanie Morton, E-RYT,MSc.
Many of us are introduced to yoga through a fitness class-like experience of moving the body in a series of poses. Indeed, the path of yoga begins with Asana, the Sanskrit word for yoga posture.
This movement practice provides great physical benefits in terms of mobility and strength, and with its attention to breathing allows us to imagine the possibility of something more profound. Yet asana is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of all the tools outlined within the Yogic Path.
Some explore these practices more deeply out of curiosity and a sense of seeking. For others, neuroscience and physiological studies supporting ancient wisdom and anecdotal testimonials may be more convincing. In our modern world where insomnia, anxiety, sleep apnea, and email apnea are signs of our de-evolution as a species, it makes sense to pause and experiment with breathing exercises, known as Pranayama, as a complement to our movement practices.
An introductory breathing cue offered in almost all yoga classes is “Inhale and exhale through your nose.” It sounds almost too simple; however, many of us are unconsciously mouth breathers.
Exclusive nostril breathing not only decreases exertion and increase efficiency in physical exercise, but also is now being offered as a treatment in a number of disorders, from sleep apnea to ADHD. For those who find nostril breathing difficult, it can be helpful to know that evidence shows that the more you practice, the easier it becomes.
A 5.5 Second Formula
Chanting and prayer have been a feature of almost all cultures across time and geography, and have offered humans a respite from chaos with calm. What is of particular interest is that the rhythm of the breath associated with many different traditional prayers and chants has been proven to be 5.5 breaths per minute.
The simple math shows us that a 5.5-second nasal inhalation followed by a 5.5-second nasal exhalation is ideal. When breathing in this way, the body enters a state of balance where the circulatory and nervous systems are coordinating and working at peak efficiency.
The Spirituality and Science Behind Nasal Breathing
Ancient wisdom across different traditions has also described channels of energy called prana or chi running through the body. Imagine a circulatory-like system that allows energy to flow. Like circulation, where the breath facilitates an exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, yogic teachings describe the energy that flows in and out through the nose.
The right nostril is described as begin connected to solar or fiery energy while the left nostril is associated with softer, quieter moon energy.
If this type of talk is too esoteric for you, it may be interesting to note there is now scientific evidence demonstrating that exclusive breath through the right nostril turns on the sympathetic nervous system, triggering the fight or flight responses and causing body heat, cortisol levels, blood pressure and heart rate to increase. It also increases blood flow to the opposite brain hemisphere, where the prefrontal cortex is associated with logic, decision making, language, and computing.
The left nostril is deeply connected with the parasympathetic nervous system, the rest-and-relax response. Exclusive left nostril breathing then has the opposite effect, cooling the body, lowering blood pressure, and shifting blood to the part of the prefrontal cortex responsible for creative thought and mental abstractions.
Both science and yoga agree that our bodies operate most efficiently in a state of balance and the breath can be extremely supportive in this effort.
Following are a few accessible types of Pranayama/breathing exercises. When beginning, it is always helpful to set up the environment to support the inward attention. A quiet space free of distractions is ideal. And yet the beauty of these practices is that the breath is with us wherever we are so that eventually they can be done anywhere.
Method 1: Natural Breath
We begin to connect with our experience of breathing.
How to Practice: Find a comfortable seated position, close the eyes and begin to watch the breath.
Notice how and where the air is entering and exiting. Notice the quality of the inhalation and exhalation. Notice if there are any changes that occur over the time spent observing the breath.
For the most part, this is a passive exercise, but here is a great place to practice nostril breathing.
Benefits: This focus on the breath allows an experience a quieting of the mind and prepares for other breathing exercises.
Method 2: Three-Part Breath
With this practice, we are able to explore the depth of our breath, and the physical responses to bringing more air into the lungs and fulling emptying them.
How to Practice: From a comfortable seated or reclined position, bring attention to the natural rhythm of the breath. Place one hand on the sternum (around the heart) and one hand on the belly.
With an inhalation, notice the space around the belly expand.
Exhale from the belly, drawing it in slightly.
On the second inhalation, observe the belly expand and then the rib cage expand.
Exhale from the ribcage and then belly.
With the next breath, observe the belly expand, the rib cage expand and finally feel the space in the upper chest fill with air.
Exhale from the belly, the ribcage and then chest. Continue with this 3-part breath.
Eventually work towards a 5.5 second inhale and 5.5 second exhale for optimal physical benefits.
Benefits: Turning on the parasympathetic nervous system response allows the muscles to relax, the heart rate to slow, blood pressure to drop and anxiety may lessen.
Method 3: Alternate Nostril Breathing
This can be an interesting and yet accessible practice as you become comfortable with the natural and 3-part breathing techniques.
How to Practice: Begin by setting an intention for the practice. How are you feeling? How would you like to benefit from this breathing exercise. If you want to calm the body, prepare for meditation or for sleep, you will begin by breathing in through the left nostril, which is our traditional way of practicing.
However, if you need focus, to wake up, or energize the body, experiment with beginning with the right nostril. You may also explore taking a few breaths through each nostril, and opt to begin with the one that is not as open as the other.
From a comfortable seated position, find the natural breath.
Bring your index and middle finger of your right hand to rest in the space between your eyebrows.
Gently close the right nostril with your thumb and inhale through the left nostril.
Close the left nostril with your ring finger and exhale through the right nostril.
Inhale through the right nostril and then close that with the thumb. Exhale through the left nostril. This is one cycle.
Note: The arm and shoulder on the side of the lifted right hand can become fatigued, so you may support this with a pillow under the elbow, or use the left hand to hold the right elbow in place.
Benefits: This pranayama practice brings balance into the physical and energetic bodies. It can promote sleep or an attentive wakeful experience, depending on one’s intention and practice.
Nestor, J. (2020). Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. Riverhead Books.
Iyengar, B. K. S. (2013). Light on Pranayama: The Definitive Guide to the Art of Breathing by B.K.S. Iyengar. Harper Collins.
Rosen, R. (2002). The Yoga of Breath: A Step-by-Step Guide to Pranayama (1st ed.). Shambhala.
Sovik, R. (n.d.). Joyous Mind: The Practice of Nadi Shodhanam (Alternate Nostril Breathing). Yoga International. https://yogainternational.com/article/view/joyous-mind.
Cover photo by nine koepfer on Unsplash.