I never knew the way you breathed could affect you so much.
And yet, I've just finished reading 'Breath' by James Nestor, and it has completely changed the way I think about breathing (and as a yoga teacher I thought it was important anyway!). The ideas below have mainly come from his research and they resonated with me through my own yoga and breathing practices. If you would like to learn more about the research or quality of evidence behind the ideas below, I highly recommend giving his book a read.
How many of you are breathing through your mouth right now? Did you know, your body isn't designed to breathe unprocessed air for hours at a time, and mouth breathing is supposed to only be a back up system. And yet, modern humans tend to tend think of mouth breathing as the norm - with some horrible consequences.
The shift came when, way back in evolutionary history, we learnt to cook our food, and hence the larger availability of calories caused our brains to get bigger, leaving less room for the delicate structure of our airways and sinuses in our skull. Fast forward to the industrial revolution, and soft food with lots of processing required little chewing. All of this has meant our noses, mouths and passageways have all shrunk, teeth have become wonky, our face elongated and nose protruding.
Why does that matter? Because breathing through your mouth causes increased blood pressure, stress, anxiety, asthma and allergies, it decreases heart variability and athletic performance. It also increases the risk of respiratory infections, snoring and sleep apnea (stopping breathing in your sleep). Research has shown that nose breathing reduces or even eliminates many of these problems.
Can't breathe through your nose? Yeah, you're not alone. Use it, or you lose it. When I was investigating this, I started small and committed to nose breathing during a non-strenuous activity e.g. reading for a couple of minutes. Build from there! The structures in your nose actually contain stem cells which can create new bone (a phenomenon until recently which was thought impossible after your thirties) which means your passageways etc. can actually widen as you use those structures for what they were intended for. The use of nostril wideners and/or mouth tape to learn how to breathe through your nose are night are options for those interested too.
Mouth breathing can also cause us to over-breathe. This lowers carbon dioxide levels in the blood (which despite being a waste gas of respiration is very much needed in our bodies) - it signals for oxygen to be delivered to muscles working hard and to open up blood vessels. Breathe too much, and you're actually limited blood supply to the muscles that need it the most. In fact, anxiety could even have its origins as a breathing problem - as we mouth breathe shallowly into the chest, sometimes we 'forget' to breathe, the brain then panics (rightly so, it's just been starved of air!) causing a large mouth breath next, and so the cycle continues.
Five tips you can do right now to help you breathe better:
1. Seated and standing posture - this will involved a mixture (for most of us) of stretching the chest and shoulder area and strengthening the back can held posture long term. Willpower will only hold you upright for so long unless you actively build the muscles to support you! When you sit to do any breathing practice, lengthen the spine to create the space in your torso - prop up your hips, cushion your lower back as needed to create the space for your diaphragm to move.
2. Exhale. If you can't fully exhale, then your inhale will never be high quality. The longer and slower your exhale, the more your parasympathetic nervous system is activated, sending you to a state of rest, recovery, and relaxation.
3. Chew. Soft, processed food has contributed to a narrowing of all the structures for breathing in our skull. A jaw workout starts to stimulate the bone re-growth we mentioned earlier. Search for harder chewing gums!
4. Breathe more, on occasion. Even though we've just said over-breathing can be an issue, think of this like a workout for your breathing system. Clearly, running 24 hours a day non-stop would be bad for us. But a half hour run causes enough stress that the body adapts as it recovers, making us stronger and better able to cope next time we go for a run. It's the same with over-breathing techniques - we place the body under stress for a limited time meaning that for the rest of the day, breathing is more relaxed and of a better quality.
5. Hold your breath. Again, like the technique above, by placing a short term stress on the body, it learns how to adapt to that stress and breathe better the rest of the time. The goal is not to starve yourself of air until you're red in the face, but to soften into the retention and breathe again when you feel the first potent desire to draw breath. You can practice holding your breath in or out.
Please note, that with any breathing practice, you must make sure you are in a safe environment, not walking, driving or near water - depending on the practice there is a possibility of falling asleep or even passing out. If you have high blood pressure, have a heart condition or are pregnant, please get approval by your health professional before embarking on any breathing practice.
If you're interested in some of the breathing practices (many are ancient and originate from thousands of years ago), I've just shot a breathing series for our Member's Video Library. Get in touch to find out how you can join!
To finish, people, close your mouth and take a deep breath. Don't forget to inhale, and exhale.