I had a yoga instructor once remind me:
“If you aren’t breathing, you’re not doing yoga. That’s just glorified stretching.”
The breath is indeed a powerful element of the practice. It sets the pace and tone for our practice, oxygenates our muscles, and brings us back to the ritual practice of riding the expansion and contraction of Spanda, the energetic pulsation of all living things.
Turns out, this anecdotal evidence that breathing is an integral and inseparable part of the practice is confirmed by empirical literature. If you aren’t breathing, you certainly aren’t getting the many health benefits of the practice. Stress reduction, parasympathetic nervous system activation, decreases in blood pressure, and many other health-enhancing effects of yoga are directly related to the pace and quality of respiration.
The health of your respiratory system directly affects the overall health of the body system as a whole, and the overall health of your body as a whole also informs how well you are able to breathe. Thus overall health and respiratory health are intricately interwoven to support your ability to live well.
Your lungs depend on muscular contraction and expansion of the diaphragm muscles. In order for this to occur, the chest cavity must be free and clear to allow for the shifting of musculature and fascia. However, if you are frequently sedentary, have gained sudden or significant weight, or you have suffered from periods of inactivity or developed poor posture, your diaphragm muscles may not be functioning at their optimal level, or the chest cavity may be beginning to grow less toned and more narrow.
Your respiratory system also relies on the circulatory system to carry out its ultimate purpose of nourishing every cell of the body with fresh oxygen, and sweeping away bi0products like carbon dioxide which no longer serve out wellbeing.
Failures in the respiratory and circulatory systems can result in chronic and acute health problems from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease to heart attack or stroke.
Respiration also directly affects arousal and the nervous system, as the diaphragm muscles inform and are in constant communication with the nerves and brain. Your brain subconsciously tracks and moderates your oxygen and carbon dioxide levels from moment to moment in order to alter the rate and depth of your breathing to match the demands on the body for energy in accordance with the activities you engage in.
Chronic stress causes dysregulation of the respiratory/nervous-system lines of communication by over-initiating shallow, quick-paced breathing. This in turn results in less expansion and contraction of the diaphragm. If the diaphragm is not regularly expanding and contracting to fill the chest cavity, facia can begin to build up and fill that space, making it narrower and more stiff. Poor posture, particularly in the upper body (which is typical of someone who is frequently sedentary as well as someone who is drawing inward in order to cope with stress and hyperarousal) can add to the decline of respiratory wellness as it restricts the chest cavity even further (Bell, 2016).
As we age, there are a number of typical bodily changes that occur which may cause a decline in lung capacity and overall respiratory wellness muscles surrounding the chest cavity and spine, and even the diaphragm can begin to weaken. The tissue of the lungs which keep your airways open can lose elasticity, causing narrowing of the airways. Additionally, the bones of your rib cage may begin to get smaller which leaves less room for your lungs to expand. Additionally, environmental toxins may begin to build up in the lungs after years of use, and habitual deep breathing throughout the lifespan helps to rid the lungs of toxins and debris (American Lung Association Scientific and Medical Editorial Review Panel, 2019).
Given the many ways our respiratory health can be negatively affected causing health complications or the overall decline of our ability to breathe well, it is obvious that it is important to stay grounded in a practice which helps to reverse lifestyle and age-related declines in lung and respiratory health.
Given the intricacy of the respiratory system and the many ways its health directly relates to the optimal function of our whole body, it begins to become more clear why my instructor was so adamant I cultivate mindfulness around the filling and emptying of my lungs.
Yoga’s care and attention to the breath is part of what differentiates it as a practice and is a crucial piece of what makes it a powerful holistic health practice.
Yoga helps us to tone not only our muscles, but our nervous system, and brain as well.
Asana, pranayama, and meditation practices all help to promote respiratory health and to deliver all the wellness benefits that go along with breathing well. Asana practices, particularly heart openers (such as cat/cow, downward and upward dog, bridge, and wheel pose) can help to improve the strength and flexibility of the chest cavity, opening up space for the lungs to fill with fresh air. Asana also helps to stretch and open restricted areas of the body, particularly the chest which can help to re-establish postural patterns that have been lost due to injury or lack of use. Asana and breathing practices exercise the muscles, connective tissues, and even the bones which house the lungs keeping them toned and helping to sustain healthy breathing, thus preventing respiratory decline, the shortening and shallowing of breath, and postural caving of the deep front line and upper body muscles (Bell, 2016 & Oleson, 2019).
Asana and pranayama practices can also be used to improve lung capacity by lengthening the inhalation or exhalation. Lengthening of the exhalation helps to encourage communication between respiratory muscles and the nervous system, letting the brain know it is time to engage the parasympathetic nervous system and to begin the relaxation response.
Yoga practices also support a healthy cardiovascular system by sending more oxygen into the lungs and thus into the blood, where it can be portioned out to billions of cells. Healthy respiration also helps to pace the beat of the heart and regulate blood pressure.
By spending more time in a state of relaxation in order to counteract hyperarousal which accompanies today’s fast-paced environment, yoga provides an effective stress-management technique which exerts influence on respiration. Regularly engaging the bodies relaxation response can help to rehabituate your body’s sensory input and output to and from the brain. This reestablishes slower and deeper more healthful breathing patterns.
Yoga as stress management helps to support the immune system and ward off respiratory infections including sinusitis, bronchitis and pneumonia.
Yoga has also shown benefits for those suffering from asthma and allergies by relaxing the body overall and especially the bronchial tree and allowing air to flow more freely and easily to the lungs. This being said, always consult your physician before adopting a yoga practice for a specific health condition (Bell, 2016).
Yoga in general and meditation practices in particular serve to support mindful breathing and attention to quality of respiration which practitioners can take off the mat and apply to a variety of settings in daily life. Research shows that yoga promotes more mindful health behaviors overall. One study found that yoga practice actually develops the sense of self-awareness and in doing so provokes practitioners’ desire to follow through in adopting more healthy behaviors — including quitting smoking (McIver, O’Halloran, & McGartland, 2004)!
If that isn’t enough to motivate you to grab your mat and head on down to the studio, then I don’t know what is!
Better Breathing, Better Living
In a very simple vital sense, every one of us needs to breathe well to live well. Employing yoga practices to support the optimal functioning of your respiratory system and the interdependent systems with which it is connected will provide benefits for your overall health. Thus my instructor was right in reminding me to go above and beyond “glorified stretching,” it seems respiration is a vital element not only to the practice of yoga, but to a lifetime of wellness both on and off the mat!
Bell, B. (2016). Practical Pointers: Your respiratory system is more than just a pair of lungs. YogaUOnline. Retrieved from: https://www.yogauonline.com/yoga-anatomy/practical-pointers-your-respiratory-system-more-just-pair-lungs
McIver, S., O’Halloran, P., & McGartland, M. (2004). The impact of Hatha yoga on smoking behavior. Alternative therapies in health and medicine, 10(2), 22.
American Lung Association Scientific and Medical Editorial Review Panel. (2019). Lung capacity and aging. American Lung Association. Retrieved from: https://www.lung.org/lung-health-and-diseases/how-lungs-work/lung-capacity-and-aging.html
Oleson,L. (2019). Yoga poses for promoting lung health. Advocate Aurora Health. Retrieved from: https://www.ahchealthenews.com/2018/08/24/yoga-poses-improve-lung-health/