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Yoga-Based Breathing

Also known as 'deep diaphragmatic breathing'

The power of active breathing—voluntarily inhaling and exhaling to control breathing rhythm—calms the nervous system by reducing heart rate and activating the parasympathetic (calming) nervous system. In this way, bodies are calm and minds quiet. Individuals can breathe in to control and optimize brain function, leading to faster, better emotional discrimination and recognition, as well as to gain better memory. 

Deep diaphragmatic breathing

Research links types of breathing (rapid, intentional, attentional) and activation in regions of the brain involved in thinking, feeling and behaving. Deep diaphragmatic breathing can be used to help manage thoughts, moods and experiences.

Mindful breathing emphasizes not only the breathing component, but also the mental component of paying attention and becoming aware of mind, body and breath together. By observing one’s mind and feeling one’s bodies more clearly, individuals can regulate emotions and help gain more insight. 

Yoga breathing techniques

Along with posture and movement, Yoga breathing techniques—or pranayama (prana means life force and yama means control)—are essential to help clear and calm the mind and body. Examples of yoga breathing techniques and exercises:

Breath awareness: Noticing the patterns of one’s breathing—its sounds and feelings, its location in the body—can be enough to create a major shift in soothing the nervous system.

Lion’s breath: A powerful technique that helps individuals stop thinking and exist in their bodies, while releasing tension from face and jaw muscles. A practice example: With eyes closed, take a deep inhale through the nose. Exhale with the mouth wide open, stick out the tongue and make a “ha” sound.” Repeat for a few rounds.

Breath extension: A technique that moves stagnant energy in the body. A practice example: Inhale for 4-5 counts through the nose, hold for 4 counts. Exhale deeply through the mouth while making a sound. 

Sitali breath: A breathwork technique for cooling down the body and calming oneself down if feeling anxious, angry or emotional. A practice example: Form an O shape with the mouth and stick out the tongue, curling the sides up. Inhale slowly and deeply through the mouth, as if sipping through a straw. Close the mouth and exhale through the nose. Repeat for 3-5 minutes, until calm.

Breath of fire: A foundational technique to energize the body. A practice example: Sit cross-legged, with palms facing up. Touch the thumb and pointer finger together. Take a few deep, belly breaths. Breathe in and out, powerfully through the nose, pumping the belly in and out. Breathe this way for 1-3 minutes at a rhythmic pace, but not quickly. Return to long belly breaths and end by sitting quietly.

Integrating yoga breathing techniques and asana practice

Breath awareness is essential during asana (posture) practice. Especially as the mind wanders, linking breath to asana helps one to stay present and connected to the moment.

Physically, yoga keeps the body fit and healthy, improves flexibility, increases strength, boosts metabolism, reduces inflammation and improves heart health. It can also quiet the mind, reduce stress and anxiety and alleviate depressive symptoms. Spiritually, yoga can help individuals cultivate a sense of purpose.

How nasal breathing affects the brain

The olfactory “smell” system is linked to limbic brain regions that process emotion, memory and behavior—why, for example, a particular smell or fragrance can evoke strong emotional memories. A study, conducted by Northwestern Medicine scientists to understand how breathing affects memory and emotional processing, shows the act of breathing, even in the absence of smells, can influence emotions and memory. 

    • These findings show a system in which breathing in through the nose works like a remote control for the brain. In-breath directly affects the electrical signals in the “smell” regions, which indirectly control the electrical signals of our memory and emotional brain centers. 
    • The out-breath contributes to slow, steady breathing, which activates the calming part of the nervous system and slows the heart rate, reducing feelings of anxiety and stress. 
    • So while the in-breath specifically alters our cognition, the act of slow, deep breathing—whether inhalation or exhalation—is beneficial for the nervous system when wishing to be more still. 

Learn more about Mind-Body Therapies offered at CFI…



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