The Physiology of Breathing in Yoga
Breathing is something we take for granted. It’s an autonomous process, like blinking, and therefore we go about our day not really paying much attention to how we breathe.
On the yoga mat, though, things are different. To develop an awareness of the breath with some integrity, we first need to understand the physiology of the breath. This section will look at the mechanics of breathing, and the role of the respiratory system in yoga.
Understanding the Mechanics of Breathing
Breathing is an involuntary process that involves the inhalation of oxygen and the exhalation of carbon dioxide. In yoga, the emphasis shifts toward conscious, deep breathing known as diaphragmatic breathing. The diaphragm is that dome-shaped muscle below the lungs. When we inhale, the diaphragm contracts and moves downward, expanding the chest cavity and drawing air into the lungs. As we exhale, the diaphragm relaxes, pushing air out of the lungs.
Our autonomic nervous system is comprised of three sub-systems: the parasympathetic nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system, and the enteric nervous system. Respectively, they are responsible for rest and digestion, fight or flight, and gut instinct responses.
In yoga, diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which induces relaxation. Unlike shallow breathing which can both result in and trigger a stress response, deep diaphragmatic breathing triggers a relaxation response, reducing anxiety and promoting overall well-being.
Proper breath control enhances oxygenation of the blood, improving energy levels and supporting bodily functions. During yoga practice, synchronizing breath with movement allows for better balance, stability, and endurance in various asanas, not just on a physical level, but mentally as well. When we are operating from a restful and relaxed state, we react more reasonably to external stimuli than we would if we were stuck in fight-or-flight response. This state is called out “window of tolerance”, a term coined by Dan Seigel in 1999.
The Role of the Respiratory System in Yoga
When we breathe, the lungs absorb oxygen from the air, which then enters the bloodstream and is distributed throughout the body. Simultaneously, carbon dioxide, a waste product, is expelled from the body through exhalation. This continuous exchange of gases sustains vital bodily functions and maintains an optimal balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood.
Pranayama exercises have a profound impact on lung capacity, respiratory efficiency, and overall lung health. Through specific breathing techniques like deep inhales and extended exhales, the lung’s capacity to hold and process air increases. Regular pranayama practice enhances respiratory muscles, allowing for more controlled breathing patterns.
Additionally, pranayama aids in cleansing the respiratory system, clearing out accumulated toxins, and promoting healthier lung function. All this contributes to keeping us in our Window of Tolerance, where we are calm, centered, and grounded
This is perhaps where the stereotype of the Zen yoga practitioner originated.