“If we could master breath, everything after that is going to be handled a bit better.”
That's a quote from James Newbury, an athlete who completed the entire 5-hour bike ride and 4-hour run of an Ironman race, breathing only through his nose.
“We’re going to live at a higher level.”
Living at a higher level sounds good.
Here is my nose:
Maybe you’ve been here:
Huffing and puffing through the first few poses in one of your first hot yoga classes, your face turning bright beet-red. The more you try to breathe, sucking air in through your mouth- the harder it seems to get.
From somewhere in the distance, you hear the instructor’s calm, encouraging voice:
“Close your mouth, breathe through your nose.”
You try it.
Nose breathing is the way
Many people have been taught or just naturally start breathing through their mouths while exercising, especially when it gets intense. But emerging research suggests nasal breathing (like we do for about 80 out of the 90 minutes in a Bikram Yoga class) is actually where it’s at.
That’s no big surprise for yoga practitioners, who have been harnessing the power of breath for centuries! (But we always love when science backs up what we do!)
Breathing by the nose helps athletes perform better
For example, this recent study looked at runners who used nasal breathing and found their maximum rate of oxygen consumption was unchanged compared to mouth breathing.
At the same time, their respiratory rates (breaths per minute) and ratios of oxygen intake to carbon dioxide output decreased, which means they didn’t have to work as hard to get the same amount of oxygen!
Researchers believe the lower breath rate caused by breathing through your nose (a much smaller opening for air than your gaping maw) allows more time for oxygen to get to the bloodstream.
That means you get more oxygen to your cells from each breath, which allows you to breathe less.
Wait a sec? Is breathing LESS a good thing?
Don’t worry: no one is telling you not to breathe. It’s about being efficient.
By breathing through your nose "you actually can perform your big physical tasks – running, cycling, things like that, you can perform them using less oxygen because you're not having to breathe as much to perform them,” says researcher George Dallam. “Which turns this not just into a health thing, but also into a performance thing too.”
Nose breathing helps with daily wellbeing too
I recently read a fascinating book called Breath, by James Nestor. In it Nestor “explores the million-year-long history of how the human species has lost the ability to breathe properly and why we’re suffering from a laundry list of maladies—snoring, sleep apnea, asthma, autoimmune disease, allergies—because of it.”
One thing Nestor did as part of this book was an experiment where he plugged his nose completely for 10 days, forcing himself to breathe only through his mouth. Spoiler alert: the results were disastrous!
Other spoiler alert: everything got better when he began breathing through his nose again.
Among other things, it turns out people who breathe primarily through their noses have:
Nasal breathing calms ya down
Breathing slowly through the nose is associated with the parasympathetic aspect of your nervous system, known as the “rest, digest and reproduce” state. (You probably know that one from yoga class!)
Breathing fast, through the mouth, or too much (hyperventilation) activates the sympathetic nervous system, putting you into a state of “fight, flight or freeze.” (You know that one from if you’ve ever been stressed out.)
That’s because nasal breathing activates the lower part of the lungs, which is associated with the parasympathetic nerves.
Oh hey, we made a video about that!
“You’re dealing with what is called a vagal response,” Dallam says. “You’re actually activating your vagal nerve to do the action of the lung itself when you breathe that way. That’s why a relaxation breath is a deeper breath. If you breathe deeply and activate the diaphragm well, and activate the lower portion of the lung, then you create some immediate relaxation.”
It ain't always easy, but it's worth it
As James Nestor and James Newbury found, breathing by the nose during physical exertion isn't necessarily easy.
The key, whether in a Bikram Yoga class or training for a triathlon, is to only challenge yourself as much as you can while maintaining nasal breathing. This means you may need to back off on intensity at first and be patient with the process.
(Helloooo, psychological benefits!)
When you breathe calmly through your nose, you take charge of your own nervous system
The more you practice, the better you'll get at nasal breathing and the more your health will improve as a result.
Don't take my word for it though! Try it in class today ;)
In 2009, I was diagnosed with spondylolisthesis, spondylosis and degenerative disc disease. I was told I would need to have a spinal fusion surgery or, eventually, lose all feeling in my legs. At the time, I was running marathons, extremely active and couldn’t fathom the thought of having surgery on my spine.
Understanding that running wasn’t going to be a long-term activity due to my diagnosis, and that I wasn’t ready to succumb to surgery, I began to explore more low-impact activities. It wasn’t until I tried Bikram yoga that I felt the physical challenge I was seeking in an activity that would not progress my diagnosis. In addition to the satisfying physical challenge, I found Bikram brought me significant mental clarity and focus.
As I began to increase the frequency of my practice, I found myself diving deeper to help manage emotional and mental health. At the time I started practicing I was struggling with various aspects of life and Bikram yoga gave me an outlet to support my emotional and spiritual well-being. I still don’t quite know what it is, but to this day when life feels draining I latch on to my yoga practice and begin to feel filled up again.
On the physical side, I haven’t yet had to resort to spinal surgery and still have all the feeling in my legs. In fact, each summer I go on a week-long 500-mile bicycle ride. Due to other commitments, I typically don't find the time to train. Despite this, for the past two years, I have been able to participate in these rides without significant struggle. Fellow riders are always shocked when I say I haven’t ridden my bike for more than 50 miles since the last year. I give credit to my consistent yoga practice for giving me the power, strength and mental agility to successfully participate and enjoy myself on these rides.
Today, despite numerous scheduling challenges, I make my practice a priority. I am proud of allowing myself to make the time and I (usually) don’t feel guilty about it. I now know, no matter how difficult it seems in the moment, each time I step out of the hot room I will feel more positive and be healthier than when I walked in.
HHY Founder, Yoga Business Coach, yoga-doer and life-lover, Kay Afif!