“Sometimes the best thing you can do is not think, not wonder, not imagine, not obsess. Just breathe, and have faith that everything will work out for the best.”
When I first started yoga I focused solely on the poses (or asana) and didn’t care about my breath at all. During this time, I found my mind drifting to my to-do list – errands that had to be done, emails that had to be written, and dinner that had to be cooked. Not surprisingly, I had a difficult time enjoying my practice. I would look at the clock and think to myself “how much longer until this is over so I can get on with my day?”
Far too often various yoga poses are completed without incorporating the breath, or pranayama. Once I started incorporating the breath into my poses I found myself staying more mindful in my practice. Ultimately, this resulted in me getting much more out of my practice. My mind quieted and I was more relaxed not only while I was doing yoga, but this feeling continued into the rest of my day as well.
So why am I talking about this now? Look at our lives right now. Every time you look at the news we hear about more and more people dying from coronavirus. You go to the store wearing face masks hoping that they have the items on your list so you don’t have to venture out for the next couple weeks. You’re spending more and more time at home isolating yourself from your family, friends, and coworkers to avoid spreading this awful virus. Maybe you’re a healthcare worker or other essential worker—I hear you. I stand with you. After a full day of wearing a mask and face shield, it feels good to just take it all off and breathe.
A study completed in 2018 evaluated the effectiveness of breathing exercises in a 12-week period for “healthy” individuals1. What they found was that after 12 weeks heart rate, blood pressure (both systolic and diastolic), and perceived stress significantly reduced. And this is in healthy individuals! So if incorporating the breath and breathing exercises are beneficial for “healthy” individuals, they must be beneficial for individuals with medical limitations too, right? Right. Focusing on the breath also has been shown to have several benefits for individuals with various medical diagnoses (with physician clearance, of course).
A systematic review was completed last year looking at the effects of yogic breathing on individuals with respiratory disease, malignant diseases (i.e. cancer), and cardiovascular diseases2. What they found was very interesting. Beginning with respiratory disease, when medication was combined with yogic breathing for individuals with asthma for 12 weeks, study participants demonstrated improvement in pulse, blood pressure (both systolic and diastolic), respiratory rate, and the amount of air exhaled following a deep breath (i.e. forced vital capacity)3. After just 12 weeks! Similar results were demonstrated when the effects of yogic breathing was studied for individuals with hypertension. Individuals with hypertension demonstrated improvement in blood pressure (systolic and diastolic) with studies reported lasting six weeks4, and three months5.
In addition to physical medical diagnoses, breathing exercises are also beneficial for psychological diagnoses. As demonstrated in a study out of Canada in 2012, individuals diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder demonstrated a statistically significant reduction in overall anxiety levels after completing breathing exercises for just five days6.
Long story short- the beneficial effects of breathing exercises have been proven time and time again, with the studies included in this post just a few of many studies available. Take a minute to reflect on your yoga practice right now. Do you focus on your breathing? Do you incorporate the breath as you transition between poses? If you don’t, I challenge you do this next time you step onto the mat. It’s a tough transition to make to focus solely on poses to incorporate your breath into the process, but I promise it is worth it.
Try these poses while focusing on your breathing:
Child’s Pose (or Balasana): Begin on hands and knees. Slowly lower your hips down and back towards your feet, leaving your arms stretched above your head. Relax your head and neck, feeling yourself lower closer to your mat the longer you hold the stretch.
Cat/Cow (or Marjaiasana/Bitilasana): Begin on your hands and knees. Your hands should be shoulder width apart, with your knees hip width apart. Exhale and begin to arch your back, leading with your pelvis. As your back arches higher and higher, relax your neck while your head begins to point towards the ground. Inhale, and gently flow towards moving your stomach towards the ground (again, leading with the pelvis) while gradually lifting your head up.
Downward Dog (or Adho Mukha Shvanasana): Begin on your hands and knees. Your hands should be shoulder width apart, with your knees hip width apart. Exhale, and begin to lift your knees off the floor. Slowly continue to lift your hips upward extending your knees. Keep your hands placed in their starting position, though you may walk your feet backwards until a gentle stretch is felt along the back side of your body.
For additional information on various types of breathing techniques, read my post here.
- Sunil Naik, G., Gaur, G.S., & Pal, G.K. (2018). Effect of modified slow breathing exercise on perceived stress and basal cardiovascular parameters. International Journal of Yoga, 11(1), 53-58. doi: 10.4103/ijoy.IJOY_41_16
- Jayawardena, R., Ranasinghe, P., Ranawaka, H., Gamage, H., Dissanayake, D., & Misra, A. (2020). Exploring the therapeutic benefits of pranayama (yogic breathing): A systematic review. International Journal of Yoga, 13(2), 99-110. doi: 10.4103/ijoy.IJOY_37_19
- Bhatt, A. & Rampallivar, S. (2016). Effect of pranayama on ventilatory functions in patients of bronchial asthma. Journal of Evolution of Medical and Dental Sciences, 5(28), 1453-1455. doi: 10.14260/jemds/2016/341
- Goyal, R., Lata, H., Walia, L., & Narula, M.K. (2014). Effect of pranayama on rate pressure product in mild hypertensives. International Journal of Applied and Basic Medical Research, 4(2), 67-71. doi: 10.4103/2229-516X.136776
- Mourya, M., Mahajan, A.S., Singh, N.P., & Jain, A.K. (2009). Effect of slow- and fast- breathing exercises on autonomic functions in patients with essential hypertension. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 15(7), 711-717. doi: 10.1089/acm.2008.0609
- Katsman, M.A., Vermani, M., Gerbarg, P.L., Brown, R.P., Iorio, C., Davis, M., Cameron, C., & Tsirgielis, D. (2012). A multicomponent yoga-based, breath intervention program as an adjunctive treatment in patients suffering from generalized anxiety disorder with or without comorbidities. International Journal of Yoga, 5(1), 57-65. doi: 10.4103/0973-6131.91716