We are constantly told to ‘focus on the breath’ but rarely are we offered the tips and techniques necessary to maintain such focus and breathe in a way that maximises our mental and physical health.
This is a shame, because it’s actually very simple. All you have to do is inhale through the nose slowly, and exhale through the nose at an even pace, and repeat. Whenever you remember to. Whenever you choose to consciously control the breath. And especially whenever you practice Yoga, throughout the entirety of the class. Teachers should constantly remind students not just to come back to the breath, but to come back to the nasal breath.
Nasal breathing is effective for a multitude of reasons, here are just a few:
- Oxygen efficiency: Firstly, it causes roughly 50% more resistance to the airstream than the mouth (because it’s a smaller passage). This resistance slows down the back flow of air – and oxygen – that travels into the lungs during the exhale. This gives the alveoli more time to extract oxygen from the air we’ve already taken in (the nose lining is an extension of the lung lining)! Specifically, the lungs can extract up to 20% more Oxygen vs mouth breathing (Cottle, 1972). More Oxygen per breath means more energy, amongst a list of physical health benefits too long to mention.
- It literally slows down your brainwaves, bringing you into a more meditative state: A slower breath from the resistance to the airstream has the dual effect of reducing stress and calming the mind. The New Scientist explains how the slower nasal breath stimulates the nerves inside the nose, which start firing in a similarly slow rhythm, prompting parts of the brain to do the same (since brainwaves are the result of large groups of nerve cells firing rhythmically). In a test, people who did Yoga with slow nasal breathing seemed to enter a deeper meditative state than when they did so breathing at the same rate through their mouths. Control the breath…control the mind!
- It’s good for your heart! The nose is also full of reflexes. Sneezing, for instance, is a purely protective reflex. Others coordinate with important physiological functions. By stimulating these reflexes, nasal breathing can have a positive impact on such functions such as the efficiency of the heart and a reduction in blood pressure.
Most people breathe at 10-20% of their full capacity. Maintaining a healthy nose and regularly practicing nasal breathing can go a long way to improving your mental and physical health.
Ujayyi pranayama – a nasal breath technique I teach in my Yoga classes helps slow down the breath even more on the exhale by constricting the back of the throat.
But technical terms aside…remember, all you have to do is inhale through the nose slowly, and exhale through the nose at an even pace, and repeat.