Our autonomic nervous system, which acts as a control system of the body, has two subsystems: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. (Some authors also include the enteric nervous system as part of the autonomic nervous system, but others do not. For simplicity’s sake, I will omit it from this discussion.)
Although the actions and interconnections of these two subsystems are quite complex, at a basic level the sympathetic nervous system is the subsystem that produces the flight-or-flight response, and the parasympathetic nervous system is the subsystem that produces the relaxation response that brings us back to normal functioning. While the actions of both of these subsystems are useful and important, the fast pace and high stress of our culture tends to overstimulate the sympathetic nervous system compared to the parasympathetic nervous system, which takes a physical toll on our bodies over time.
Fortunately, there are several ways in which the breath can be used to activate the parasympathetic nervous system to bring about a calming effect and to counteract the negative effects that overstimulation of the sympathetic nervous system has on our bodies.
The simple act of breathing through the nostrils is one way that the breath can help trigger the parasympathetic nervous system. Breathing through the nostrils has the additional benefits of warming, filtering, and moistening air before it reaches our lungs—benefits we miss out on when we breathe through the mouth. However, the simple act of the air passing through our nasal passages is one simple way to induce the calming effects of the parasympathetic nervous system in any situation.
In addition, the exhalation portion of the breath cycle triggers this calming response. The inhalation is activating, and the exhalation is calming. Obviously each breath needs to include both of these portions, but by extending the length of time spent exhaling compared to the amount of time spent on the inhale, we can generate a net calming effect. One way to do this is to inhale to a count of four and exhale to a count of eight. Adjust the counts used for the inhale and exhale to find something that is comfortable for you and does not cause your breath to become jerky or uneven, and be aware that the counts that are comfortable for you will likely lengthen over time as you practice.
The shallow breathing we normally use actually stimulates the sympathetic nervous system instead causing us great stress. Using a deep breathing that fully expands and contracts the lungs is another way to induce the parasympathetic nervous system. I will talk more about that in my next post, but I hope this one shows you that we have a marvelous tool in our breath—something we do all the time anyway—to counteract the stresses of our days without needing any fancy equipment or classes.
In yoga, it is commonly said that the breath links the body and the mind.
Our bodies are always in the present moment and in the present space. Our minds, on the other hand, spend most of the time somewhere other than the present moment and space. We spend so much time thinking about the past and the future, which automatically takes us out of this moment where our body is located.
The technique of training the mind to focus on the breath brings our mind back into the present moment to join our bodies as we place our attention on the feeling of the breath moving in and out of bodies.
Try it for a moment. Notice the feel of the cool air as it enters your nostrils. Notice the feel of the warm air on your nostrils as you exhale. Notice how your body expands to make room for each inhale and how it softens on each exhale. As your mind wanders, continue to gently bring your focus back to your breath and just be aware of each breath entering, filling, and leaving your body.
This focus on the breath is often the first step in developing a meditation practice because it induces mindfulness through its awareness of the present moment.
One of the eight arms of yoga is pranayama, the practice of controlling the breath. By controlling our breath in different ways, we can create different effects in the body.
One of my favorite of these breath techniques is alternate nostril breathing, or nadi shodhana (literally, the sweet breath). This is a very simple breath practice to learn, but it has a number of very positive effects. As with all deep, nostril breathing, it is calming to the mind, which can help decrease anxiety and stress levels. In addition, by actively breathing through the different nostrils in turn, we balance the two sides of the brain for clearer thought.
Research indicates that as we breathe in through the right nostril, we promote activity in the left side of the brain that tends toward logical, analytical thought. As we breathe in through the left nostril, we promote activity in the right side of the brain that tends toward creative, intuitive thought. Throughout a normal day, our breathing naturally switches from one nostril to the other every four hours or so. The practice of switching nostrils for each breath as this practice does provides a more immediate balance between the two sides.
To perform alternate nostril breathing:
- Gently curl the index and middle fingers of your right hand toward the base of your thumb. Place your thumb against the right side of your nose near the opening of the right nostril, and place your ring and little fingers against the left side of your nose near the opening of your left nostril.
- Gently press with your thumb to close the right nostril, and inhale deeply through the left nostril.
- Release the pressure on the right nostril, and gently press on the left nostril with your ring and little fingers to close the left nostril. Exhale completely through the right nostril.
- Inhale deeply through the right nostril.
- Release the pressure on the left nostril, and gently press on the right nostril with your thumb to close it. Exhale completely through the left nostril.
- Inhale deeply through the left nostril.
- Repeat steps 3-6 until you have completed the desired number of breaths, then remove your hand from your nose and allow your breath to return to normal.
To start with, aim for repeating the full cycle (steps 3-6) 5 to 10 times. Remember to breathe slowly and deeply to completely fill the lungs on each inhale and to exhale slowly and fully to completely empty the lungs each time. If possible, keep the length of the exhale as long as or slightly longer than the inhale, and only continue for as long as the breath remains slow and even. If at any time you are struggling to maintain an even breath, take a break.
I find this breathing technique to be a great help when I’m facing a stressful situation and need to calm and focus my thoughts. In addition, the calming focus on the breath can also be a great way to help me prepare for meditation. I hope you find it as helpful as I have!
For more information on this practice, read more at The Yoga Site.
The Yoga Sutras are a series of brief sayings (sutra means thread) that were written down by a yogi named Patanjali about 2500 years ago as a means of recording the basics of what the yogis at that time had learned about yoga and the yogic way of life. There are numerous translations from the original Sanskrit into English, and most of these translations come with their own set of commentaries on these short threads of insight.
One of my favorites of these sayings is Yoga Sutra 1.2 in which Patajali gives the definition of yoga. I’ve seen numerous long-winded and eloquent translations of this, but the one that is most meaningful to me is “Yoga is the ability to quiet the chatter of the mind.” What a simple definition, but what a challenging task for each of us to learn!
Although most people think of the physical postures when they think of yoga, it’s all really about learning to quiet the chatter of the mind. I can’t count the number of times I’ve wished that I had a switch on the side of my head where I could just turn off my mind for a little while to gain a little peace and quiet—just a moment of stillness away from the rushing whirlwind of thought that barrels through my head every waking minute. So what a gift it is as I grow into my yoga practice to catch glimpses of this ability to quiet the chatter of the mind.
I still have a long way to go, but as I come back to my mat again and again to practice the postures, linking body and mind through the breath, I increasingly catch the spaces between the thoughts. I find more ability to notice them and let them fly on by without engaging any energy in them. I am more and more able to be present in this moment, in this space, in my body. I am able to take that step back and be a witness of my own thoughts.
This freedom from the tyranny of the mental chatter is what keeps me coming back to the mat, coming back to learn the ability to quiet the chatter of the mind.
Our breath is critical to life. Humans can go without food for a few weeks, without water for a few days, but without breath for only minutes. In fact, checking whether someone is still breathing is one way that we often check to see if someone is alive.
Given this crucial nature of breath to life, it is not surprising that humans have tended to think of breath as being like spirit as an animating force within us. The Hebrew scriptures used the word ruach, or breath, for spirit. Likewise, the Greek New Testament uses the word pneuma, again meaning breath, for spirit. And yoga speaks of prana as both breath and as vital life force, which could be thought of as another way to speak of our spirit. Each of these ancient traditions speaks of this same connection between our breath and our spirit.
In yoga, this connection between breath and our vital life force tends to be given greater emphasis through the discipline of pranayama, the science of controlling or disciplining the breath. By controlling our breath, we are able to also control the state of our vital life force, or spirit. There are breathe exercises that help to energize us, exercises that help to calm us, exercises to help balance us, and exercises to bring greater health and wholeness. The breath can also be used as means of focus during meditation.
We coordinate the breath with our movements during our asana (postures) practice by inhaling as our body expands and exhaling as our body contracts. In this way, our breath supports our movements and our movements facilitate deeper and fuller breathing. As we do this, the condition of our breath can inform us about whether we are moving too aggressively when our breathing becomes strained, and in this way it helps us to remain present to our own body’s needs in that moment.
As a beginning yoga student, I remember often ignoring the breathing cues that my teacher gave as we progressed through our asana practice. My focus was entirely on trying to master the postures. However, as I’ve grown into my practice over the years, I find that the coordination of breath and movement deepens my practice and makes it more fruitful.