That’s a question that I’ve been asked more than a few times, ‘Why do you always ask us to breath through the nose?”. Many people are used to breathing through their mouth for no physiological reason, just because they associate ‘exercise’ with exhaling through the mouth. Then, when they come to a yoga class and the teacher asks them to inhale and exhale through the mouth, it’s difficult to get out of that habit.
First of all, let’s clarify that it’s not ‘wrong’ to breath out of the mouth. In the majority of aerobic activities, like running, is recommended to inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth because you need to move a lot more air quickly in and out of your lungs.
So what’s the difference between yoga and other ‘exercises’?
In yoga, breathing is a crucial part of the practice. If we don’t pay attention to the breath we aren’t doing yoga, we are only creating shapes or doing callisthenics (which again, it’s not ‘wrong’, just not yoga). For thousands of years, yogis have claimed that breath is the essential link between body and mind, energising a ‘subtle body’ which connects the physical, mental and spiritual aspects of our being and the universe.
Doesn’t matter what style of yoga you do, breathing is always integrated in the asana practice and, depending on the class, also done separately (pranayama, the practice of breath).
There are many different types of pranayama (breathing practices) and you may use sometimes the mouth, the nose and different patterns between both. But in most studio or drop-in classes you will cover just one or two at most, especially in beginners classes. The simplest form of breath practice that a teacher will emphasise in a yoga class is the basic nostril breathing.
Why nostril breathing
The nose does much more than simply let the air in. Medical specialists can list nearly thirty distinct functions that it performs. It filters, moisturises, directs the airflow, warms the air, registers the sense of smell, brings in oxygen, creates mucus, provides a route to drainage the sinuses, and affects the nervous system. Let’s see only a few:
- It slows the breath because you are breathing through two small openings
instead of one big one… and that slow breath helps calm the nervous system. Even in the most physically active of yoga practices, like power yoga or ashtanga, the aim is to perform all the asanas with control and ease.
- On the other hand, mouth breathing (in and out) activates the fight or flight response. Mouth breathing is essentially an emergency function. It was needed to respond to acute stressors, such as going into battle or hunting. Nowadays, this response is engaged when preparing to give a speech, facing fear, and even some social situations that can trigger anxiety. If we activate the mouth breathing, our nervous system also may react as if we are in danger or under stress.
After many years working in performance, one thing I know for sure is that whenever we ‘activate’ a certain response in the body, the mind sooner or later catches up, ‘believing’ and triggering the feelings the body is merely ‘mimicking’… a version of ‘fake it till you make it’ if you will.
- Exhaling through the mouth is relaxing but it also depletes our energy. Sometimes, it’s used in yoga as a relaxing tool, you might have heard in a class: ‘take one big inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth’ (sometimes indicating ‘with a sigh’). May be used at the beginning of the class to relax, or after a particularly strong flow to recover. But not during the practice, because during the practice we want to conserve our energy, not throw it away or relax the muscles so much that we aren’t fully engaging.
- There is less delivery of Oxygen (O2) in mouth breathing, due to the loss of CO2. When we breathe through the nose, nasal resistance increases by approximately 200% helping in the release of Oxygen.
- Nose breathing increases the production of Nitric oxide (NO), a wonder-chemical your sinuses produce during nasal breathing, breath retention, and humming. Nitric oxide helps to explain why we feel so good after doing ujjayi breathing, and why the pranayama practices of bhramari or kumbhaka are so refreshing.
Finally, breathing through the nose can help us in developing a slower, more focused breath. Why do we want to breath slower?
- By elongating the breath, we can establish a more profound meditative state and inner gaze.
- According to the yogic tradition, slower breath equates to longer lives. In his book, ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’, Paramahansa Yogananda speaks of how certain species that breathe fewer times a minute tend to live longer than species that breathe a comparably greater number of times per minute. A dog takes about forty to fifty breaths per minute, and yet Yogananda observed that a giant tortoise only takes about four breaths per minute. Elephants only take four to five breaths per minute. He concludes that the range of breaths per minute is proportionally similar to that of the range of expected life spans.
What if I can’t breathe through my nose?
Some people may suffer from a physiological or even a psychological condition that prevent them from breathing through their noses. Also the time of day can make a difference in your ability to breathe. For example, you may be more congested or exposed to more allergens in the morning than in the afternoon. Of course, Yoga is flexible. Just breathe through your mouth and don’t worry for now; worry is always counterproductive. And slowly, slowly continue practicing nasal breathing, until eventually becomes comfortable.
Meanwhile if you’d like to practice some easy to follow yogic breathing exercises get here my…
“The mouth is for eating, the nose is for breathing”
For more information about Nitric Oxide, see the link below.
For more information about the effects of nasal and mouth breathing on the nervous system, see the article below.