Focus on your breath…
Often said in the yoga studio but what’s going on here?
First off, some biomechanics on how the body works. Breathing is critical for pretty much every form of life. You inhale air, which is mostly nitrogen and some oxygen (and other stuff), into your lungs. After inhaling air, you exhale air, which at this point is mostly nitrogen and some carbon dioxide (and some other stuff). The major difference is that small swap of oxygen to carbon dioxide. The lungs are full of incredibly tiny little structures called alveoli, about 700 million of them. They act as little doorways for the outside world and the internal body. To breathe, the alveoli are critical for that oxygen to carbon dioxide swap. The other critical part is the blood.
Among other tasks, the blood in your body provides transport for energy, oxygen and waste removal for your muscles and organs. The muscles and organs need the blood to supply oxygen and take away waste. Arteries bring oxygen and energy to the muscles and organs, and veins take carbon dioxide and waste away. If the muscles and organs didn’t get this continuous flow of new blood with oxygen and a continuous removal of waste, everything would just stop working. When you exercise, this need for oxygen supply increases and more carbon dioxide waste is generated and needs to be removed.
Now back to the alveoli. These tiny doorways sit between air, which is a gas, and blood, which is a liquid. On one hand, it takes time for the alveoli to swap over the oxygen and carbon dioxide and when it’s rushed, it won’t keep up. On the other hand, a shallow breath will only change over some of the air in the lungs, meaning there’s old stale air filling part of the lungs, which the body can’t make use of.
Now, if only you could breathe a little slower and deeper, a greater amount of your little alveoli army would have significantly more time to fill your blood with oxygen and dump the carbon dioxide out of it.
Up until you decide to pay attention, breathing is entirely automatic. The body just does it. If you run, the breath gets faster, as the unconscious mind knows that more air is needed to move into and out of the lungs for this oxygen and carbon dioxide swapping task. But it doesn’t do a fantastic job. It’s doing just enough to survive, so the conscious mind can be recruited to enhance the process a bit.
When you decide to consciously take over the job of maintaining your breath, it’s surprisingly easy to come unstuck. Dolphins and other mammalian swimming creatures are consciously in control of their breathing, but people aren’t. The rate you need to breath at any given time has to be just right, otherwise you’ll either hyperventilate – too much - or hypoventilate - not enough. Too much and you might get dizzy and confused, too little and you feel faint and weak. Controlling the breath can be surprisingly tricky.
However, if you’re comfortably in control of a conscious breath, you can start to influence other aspects of the mind and body. We’ll get to the influencing part shortly, but let’s poke around some evolutionary biological behaviours and the sympathetic nervous system.
Just for a minute imagine you’re a caveperson. You’re running around the plains either chasing down dinner, or being chased down for dinner. More than likely a conscious breath is not exactly high on your agenda. The unconscious mind controls the autonomous nervous system, of which the sympathetic nervous system is a part. And it knows that lots of air is needed and most likely you’ll have a wide open mouth breathing hard – a big mouth gets the most air in and out the quickest. This is a fight or flight response and the body’s automatic reaction processes take over to give you the best chance of surviving the day.
Because these stresses are triggering each other on your Sunday evening dinner run, you can safely say that every single one of your predecessors survived enough of these situations to put you on the Earth. That means they are extremely potent processes. Run fast, breathe fast, think fast, react fast and stay alive. This happens to enable survival. Just as importantly, survival also requires having an off switch. The body can’t run at high levels of intensity for long, so there are processes available for calming the body down. That way you can enjoy your dinner, or tell a fun story around the fire when you get home.
The problem with this these days is we don’t have to run down a kangaroo or run from a crocodile. We do however, practice strenuous exercise. When you do strenuous exercise, the sympathetic nervous system has no idea that music is playing and your standing on a yoga mat. As the sympathetic nervous system registers an increase in muscle demand, it triggers an increase in heart rate and an increase in breathing. Probably fast shallow breaths - panting. This tends to be poor efficiency, but it is good enough for a quick sprint. When you try and maintain this higher level of output for longer, you either figure out how to breathe better, or you slow down due your body’s inability to get enough oxygen and remove enough carbon dioxide.
When you take control of the breath, you can deliberately highjack the fight or flight response and replace it with a calm response. This is the influencing aspect mentioned earlier. Slow breathing is a sign to the body that all is calm. It’s a triggering action. The unconscious mind is far stronger than the conscious mind - just think about staying awake for 3 days or avoid the toilet for 10 hours. The unconscious mind will however take requests from the conscious mind. The request that a conscious slow breath rate makes on the unconscious mind and the sympathetic nervous system is ‘please stay calm, I’ve got this’.
If you’re balancing your breath rate with the needs of the body, then you’ll be calm, even if you’re holding a very intense warrior 2 pose or doing a handstand. Why would you want to do this? Because yoga asana is all about quieting the mind! You can’t remove stress if the mind is running at top speed.
So what happens now? Take long slow breaths through your nose that completely fill your lungs each time, and then slowly exhale. Maybe a small pause at either end will feel beneficial. This takes a lot of practice as the balance between having a good rate of breathing and a bad one can have you collapsing out of breath or adding to the stress your body is already under. Neither of these situations is a good place to be if you’re trying to do a yoga asana practice. At first you might find that you can barely get through a basic sun salutation without panting through your mouth. This means you need to slow down and stop trying to push the physical poses as much! Of course you can do these physical poses, but the entire point of yoga is to build a better union of the mind and the body, the poses are just some of the tools. You’ll build an amazing body without pushing past your breath balance, it is literally the side effect of a good-body-mind breath balance. So find that balance.
You’ll get exactly the right level of physical and mental workout by balancing your asana with your breath. This is a good way you can tell if you’re working effectively (or hard) enough. Hard enough is working truthfully with your breath. If you are having difficulty keeping your breath under control, let go of it, slow down and rest. When your breath is consciously calm again, then you can continue the asana. Basically, you’re not doing yoga asana if you can’t control your breath, you’re doing something that simply looks similar and yoga is anything but a superficial activity. So, be honest with yourself – maybe you need to take it a little easier. Your practice will be better, your mind will be less stressed and your body will function better.
Taking notice of your physical output to balance it with your breath takes effort, focus and practice. It gives your mind something very important to do, instead of working out a mental shopping list or rehearsing an urgent email. This is the act of quieting the mind through asana. As you do a vigorous physical practice, you concentrate on your breathe. The breath will help control your nervous system and help keep your body calm.
When you have gained a high degree of control over your breath during asana practice, you’ll enjoy it a lot more and get more benefits. The unconscious mind is trying to keep you alive in a survival situation. Stay conscious of what your body needs and you just might be able to do a better job eventually. You’ll create a conscious union between your mind, body and breath. Which is why you want to have mind over body and the breath over mind.
Dave Van Damme