23 May Breath
Breath, by James Nestor
I just finished reading a book called Breath by James Nestor, which tells the informative story of one man’s years long process of understanding breathing. Let me tell you, if you’re a mouth breather the book will feel shockingly grim.
Nestor’s well researched main ideas about breath in the first half of the book are simple. Breathing through your mouth is awful for you. It causes and exacerbates cardiovascular, memory, stress, and autoimmune issues and sleep apnea, among a litany of other deleterious effects.
So, breathe through your nose
Your nose warms, filters, and pressurizes the air that enters your body. It effects the shape of the bones in your head and can therefore reduce or eliminate apnea. It can clear away bacteria that leads to sinus infections. It can also bring you into a state of physiological relaxation, reducing the many negative effects of chronic stress.
Next, breathe slowly and exhale fully
Slowing down the breath and lengthening into complete exhales helps you to balance the oxygen and carbon dioxide in your body. It’s the level of carbon dioxide your brain senses that tells you when to take an inhale. You’ve got less efficient oxygen exchange when breathing quickly, so your brain registers the increased CO2 level and tells you to inhale again and again, often before you’ve exhaled all the spent air out. Breathing quickly makes you keep breathing quickly, which sounds an awful lot like chronic hyperventilation (which is, in fact, very common).
So, breathe slowly and exhale fully, all through your nose.
There’s so much more. Read the book!
The book goes on to explore a lot more about breathing and, interestingly, chewing hard foods. He touches on the ancient breath practices of monks and yogis, techniques of Olympic trainers and gold medal athletes, and body hackers who enjoy ice baths and running marathons barefoot in the snow. If you’re interested, I recommend the read. There are also about one million articles written about it, so a quick “James Nestor Breath” googling will turn up lots of goodies.
Yoga has it figured out
Since this is a yoga blog I like to make it about yoga, so I’ll start with a rhetorical question: Who doesn’t like to be validated?
Breathing is such a huge component of the practice. For many people, the focus on breath is what makes a yoga workout different from other kinds of exercise. As a reader of this newsletter you are already well aware that yoga isn’t really about working out, but the fact remains that many (most?) people step into a yoga class to get their body moving and stretching and to relax. It’s exercise hour with a lot of bonuses. The bonuses are what keep people coming back.
A little freaked out with the feeling
I was talking to a newer yoga practitioner a couple week ago who asked me a question about a feeling he got during a vinyasa flow class, where the instructor was guiding the students to inhale and exhale in a coordinated way with their body movements throughout the entire class. He told me that at one point it was like his mind stopped thinking and he was just breathing. He dropped into this state of…something…he couldn’t put his finger on it. It was actually a little scary, and he wasn’t sure about it. Is this normal? Is it okay?
What a treat
I told him it sounded like samadhi, which is like yoga nirvana (but different). When the seer exists in its own true nature. When the knower is one with the act of knowing and what is known. When the mover is one with the act of moving and the movement itself. It’s the kind of treat that yoga gives us early on in our practice, that keeps many of us coming back for more.
Personally, it took my six years of practicing more dynamic physical forms of breathing-and-moving yoga before I came more seriously to the practice of pranayama, or yogic breathing.
Pranayama is like taking all the movement we do on the outside and instead, doing it on the inside in order to manipulate our breath rhythm, rate, and pattern.
Pranayama is a bit more subtle. It’s like, instead of consciously lifting and lowering the arms, it’s lifting and lowering the diaphragm.
The gross begets the subtle. The progression is built right in. Gross awareness of the gross. Subtle awareness of the gross. Gross awareness of the subtle. Subtle awareness of the subtle. It’s a practice of refinement. I think it’s super fun.