I am in a new committed relationship with yoga. In the thrice-a-week yoga classes, I can now do most of the asanas comfortably (spectacularly, if I may say) – be it Surya namaskar (and its variation, the warrior Surya namaskar), Sarvangasana (shoulder stand), and even Halasana - but at the end of every class, the yoga instructor tells me only one thing: “You are not breathing correctly. It is jerky and shallow.”
In a country which gave the world one of the most rejuvenating and ancient breathing techniques, the Pranayama, it seems ironical that we are mostly clueless about the science and art of breathing correctly. According to my yoga instructor, if all of us were to breathe correctly, the world would be a better place to live in. “There will be less fights and people will be overall healthy and in good cheer.”
Within the sylvan setting of SOUKYA, a 30-acre holistic health centre in East Bengaluru, its founder Dr Issac Mathai is the proponent of integrative treatments of Ayurveda, Homeopathy, Naturopathy and Yoga. Dr Mathai agreed with the statement that most of us don’t breathe correctly. “In an in-house research, we checked the lung capacity of a lot of people who are ‘normal’ and without any respiratory ailments. What we found was that these people’s lung capacity was about 10-15 years older.” It seems like the lungs have been struggling to take breaths which, in the times of Covid, is mildly alarming. According to him, it takes about two weeks to learn to breathe correctly, “at least the basic breathing” before one can proceed to do yogic breathing exercises including Pranayama, abdominal breathing, and vibrational breathing.
Basic breathing is simply breathing in (inhale) and breathing out (exhale) slowly. Dr Mathai said, “People talk of controlled breathing – wherein you breathe in for a count, hold the breath for a count and then exhale for a certain count – but without correcting your basic breathing, doing other breathing techniques is like learning diving before learning to swim. It will just over stress your lungs.”
Some ways to improve the breathing are by playing table tennis, badminton, or swimming. Most people breathe incorrectly because they sit in front of their computers with a bad posture or are looking down at their mobile phones. The spine is bent and the muscles of the neck and shoulders get tight. Which is why, activities that involve shoulders and neck will help in breathing correctly. In fact, one of the instructions to their clients at SOUKYA is to walk within the premises with their chest out to get the maximum benefit of breathing correctly. “I strongly recommend people who exercise at the gym to devote some time to do exercises which will reduce tightness in the neck and shoulders,” Dr Mathai said. “They could do cardio or aerobic exercises in the mornings and breathing exercises in the evenings or vice versa.”
Slow breathing, experts say, can help reduce blood pressure, regulate heartbeat and even reduce chronic pain. Slow and steady breathing means 12-20 breaths a minute. According to Dr Vasunethra Kasargod, Consultant - Pulmonology, Manipal Hospital, on an average, we take 10-14 breaths per minute. That’s about 20,160 breaths in a day. The muscles involved in breathing can be divided as inspiratory and expiratory muscles. Inspiratory muscles include diaphragm, intercostal and Parasternal muscles and the expiratory muscles are mainly abdominal muscles and the internal inter costal muscles. He pinpointed the benefits of breathing through the nose. “Controlled nasal breathing generates phase-locked oscillations in the areas of the brain that are associated with control over anxiety Interestingly, breathing through the mouth does not induce the same pattern of synchronization and is correlated with sleep disturbances, anxiety disorder and attention deficit hyperactive disorder.”
First, take a normal breath. Then try a deep breath. Breathe in slowly through your nose, allowing your chest and lower belly to rise as you fill your lungs. Let your abdomen expand fully. Now breathe out slowly through your nose.
Dr Kasargod suggested finding a quiet, comfortable place to sit or lie down and first, take a normal breath. “Then try a deep breath. Breathe in slowly through your nose, allowing your chest and lower belly to rise as you fill your lungs. Let your abdomen expand fully. Now breathe out slowly through your nose. Once you've taken the steps above, you can move on to regular practice of controlled breathing. As you sit comfortably with your eyes closed, blend deep breathing with helpful imagery and perhaps a focus word or phrase that helps you relax.”
Dr Shyam Bhat, founder, Nirvikalpa: The Mind-Body Centre, explained the benefits of slow breathing on mental wellbeing. According to him, stress and anxiety are heightened fight-flight response in the brain which often manifests as rapid and shallow breathing at rest. “However, intentionally slowing down and deepening your breath can help restore a sense of calm and relaxation by counteracting the brain's stress response. One easy way to do this is to practice deep breathing exercises, inhaling for 4 seconds, holding for 7 seconds, and exhaling slowly through your mouth for 8 seconds, while focusing on the sensations of your breath. Even just a few minutes of this practice can boost mental rest and overall wellbeing.”
With controlled breathing, the parasympathetic tone in our body increases. Dr Kasaragod emphasized that the parasympathetic tone is responsible for bringing our heart rate down and regulating metabolism too. Hence the stress levels in the body reduce thus improving our overall health. Controlled breathing techniques include diaphragmatic breathing and Pranayama which, according to the experts consulted for the article, has been scientifically proven to help improve our health status.
Which brings us to the Pranayama techniques taught by yogis. There is the Bhastrika pranayama, or bellow breath, Kapal Bhati pranayama, or skull shining technique, which, according to my yoga instructor, is a way to clean the inner organs and detoxifying the body, and the Nadi Shodhan pranayama, or alternate nostril technique, believed to centre the mind. “It’s all about practice,” said my yoga instructor. “The more you practice, you will feel better, mentally and physically.” No amount of body twisting, it seems, can impress the yogi as much as the correct art of breathing.