I will preface this by thanking my breathing teacher Steve Donald, for anyone interested in going deeper or learning more, there is a world of information out there!
Over the years the way in which I’ve approached breathing, and teaching yoga has dramatically changed. Let’s rewind to my early teen years, I was a seemingly healthy young person, except each year I became over taken by my seasonal allergies. A month of allergy medication would be followed by a week of hives, as well as feeling awful. I missed school a number of times, and sadly, the spring was not a nice time of year for me. Later in my early twenties I began to snore, and I noticed my anxiety levels rising. I was exercising and practicing yoga very vigorously, huffing and puffing through my nose and mouth from time to time, and wondering why my allergies were advancing. The snoring got worse, I couldn’t share a room with anyone, and I woke up in the morning feeling tired. A few years later, working with a Buteyko breathing teacher, I realized all of my experiences were symptoms of dysfunctional breathing.
I grew up practicing yoga, in the culture of deep breathing, and more is always better. I was instructed to take deep breaths through my practice, and for years I instructed this as well.
I understand the logic behind deep breathing, the problem is our logic and common sense aren’t really as accurate as we think. Logic tells us that oxygen is good, if we want more of it we should breathe in and out more air. Oxygen is good, we want to get it into our cells and tissues as much as we can, the problem is, taking deep breaths doesn’t really help us.
Most of us sitting around right now have around 98% oxygen saturation in our blood, this is an easy test breathing instructors use as well as hospital workers. If you imagine a glass, imagine what it would look like if it were filled up 98%, it would be pretty full. The problem is oxygen in our blood stream is different from oxygen actually making it into our tissues. Oxygen in the blood stream is similar to standing out in a hallway, when you really need to be in your room. Yes it’s good that you are in your building, but sleeping in the hallway would be weird, so you really want to be opening the door to your room. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the key to get oxygen out of the blood stream and into the tissues where it is useful. Just like you have a key to your room or apartment, we need to make sure we have enough CO2 to get our oxygen where it needs to go.
The more we breathe in, usually the more we breathe out. The more oxygen we take in, the more CO2 we push out. But remember, our oxygen glass is basically full, so do we really need to be taking in a lot more? Or are we pouring water into an overflowing glass?
The more we work on our breathing, and rehabbing the breath pattern the more CO2 we retain in our bodies. The more CO2 we retain, the more efficiently we can get oxygen into our tissues, without necessitating excessive breathing. It might seem a bit like reverse psychology, but in reality, the less we breathe, the more oxygen we stand a chance at “absorbing.”
There are many exercises we can do to rehab our breath, in the early stages we can notice how we breathe in daily life, and limit the times throughout our day when we purposely take deep breaths. I’m not talking about taking two deep breaths at the beginning of a meditation, I’m talking about taking deep breaths of an entire hour in a yoga class. Or pushing hard in the gym, and breathing through your mouth for an hour or two at a time.
In the world of breathing science, simply breathing through the mouth is seen as hyperventilating. Our noses have been designed to warm, filter and provide an appropriately sized valve to bring air into our bodies. Our mouths have been designed for other important bodily tasks. When we breathe through our nose we also maintain a more calm nervous system state, we don’t get so riled up, and in turn we might be able to go the distance while feeling better. When we nose breathe, we naturally suck air deeper into the lungs, where it’s best processed. Notice the moments throughout your day when you turn to mouth breathing, it could be as simple as when washing the dishes or running up a flight of stairs.
Working out, yoga, running or weight lifting is also a good time to focus on the breathing. After years of practicing functional breathing I’m able to participate in almost any type of movement, from heavy lifting to skipping and cardio, all breathing through my nose. This can be months or years in the making, but we have to start somewhere right?
In my teaching I no longer instruct students to take deep breaths. I encourage students to notice their breathing, and just breathe the amount of air they need in the moment, noticing how this changes over the course of a class. I encourage students to rest if they find themselves needing to breathe through their mouths. When we settle into relaxation I encourage students to watch how their breathing will become more quiet and gentle as their nervous system slows down.
Now that I know just how much is affected by breathing I feel that it’s almost irresponsible to tell people to take deep breaths. If someone in the room has asthma, allergies or anxiety, breathing deeply can in some cases do more harm than good. This message is important, but sometimes hard to understand because as a culture we are programmed to take a few deep breaths when things get hard.