Conscious Breathing

The regulation of breath is at the very heart of yoga practice. This October I would like to delve into the the heart of the practice which literally and figuratively brings life into your movement on the mat and quality of life off the mat. This October we explore how we might develop a breathing practice that becomes a seamless part of our yoga practice through the conscious regulation of breath itself.

Cultural Concepts of the Breath

At a universal level, the breath is understood as the air that is taken into and expelled from the lungs, and breathing, the inhale and exhale process that takes place alongside it. The meaning becomes more layered when we expand into Eastern concepts of breath; sometimes interchangeably regarded as the all encompassing concept known as “life-force”. Prana (Hindu) and Qi (Chinese) are ancient concepts that relate closely within the Eastern view of of the manifestation of life, the flow of energy through both animate and inanimate objects and the harmonisation of those forces in order to maintain balance and good health.

People practicing thai chi in park
People practicing taichi in the park in the summertime

Each of these cultural traditions have developed their own health systems in order to bring balance to the individual – Ayurveda and yoga in India and TCM ( Traditional Chinese Medicine) and Qigong in China but at every step of the way, the many parallels suggest a broad appreciation of the breath as having a meaning much more expansive than airflow through the lungs. 

What We Know About Breathing and The Breath Through Western Science

At its most basic level, the Western scientific view of breath, breathing and respiration is explained as a biochemical exchange of gases and metabolic processes whereby the inhalation of oxygen precedes the exhalation of carbon dioxide and through this process, energy is produced which fuels the physiological functioning of the human body. 

When we exercise, pulmonary ventilation increases in order to meet the additional workload. When exercise produces a condition known as acidosis whereby CO2 (carbon dioxide) production exceeds tolerance levels, it can induce a number of physical responses including a rise in blood pressure, heart rate and breathing rates in order to regulate CO2 levels in the bloodstream. This may be experienced as shortness of breath and hyperventilation for the person undergoing the exercise.

Exchange of O2 and CO2 in the alveolus sac
Exchange of O2 and CO2 in the alveolus sac

Whilst biology textbooks explain CO2 as metabolic waste incidental to the respiratory process, sports science has hooked unto a different narrative in which increased levels of CO2 in the bloodstream may in fact positively impact on health and that it is the response to increases in CO2 levels in the body which is the problem – a concept understood as CO2 tolerance and widely explored in sport of free diving. Why this angle in my humble opinion is so worth exploring in this day and age is for this reason – 90% of the modern population have ventilation rates above the medical norm.  Higher than normal ventilation rates can result in a reduction of CO2 in the bloodstream (alveolar hypocapnia) which in turn reduces O2 transport to vital organs and muscle tissues. Apart from instigating O2 transport, maintaining healthy levels of CO2 in your bloodstream is essential to other normal bodily functions including muscle relaxation, bronchodilation and nerve stabilisation to name a few.

Normal minute ventilation (how much air you breathe in a minute) for a 70Kg individual at rest is 6L/min. Studies have shown that historically, ventilation rates have risen from the 1920s – 30s from below 5L/min to at least twice that from the 90s and beyond. The modern population is thus breathing at a rate 2 or 3 times greater than their counterparts from 70-80 years ago and at least twice as much as the medically accepted norm. Ironically as concerns around global warming and rising CO2 levels in the environment intensifies, its planet’s inhabitants may simultaneously be suffering the ill-effects of too little CO2 in their bodies due to an increase in ventilation rates. 

What is further compounding the problem is the lack of education and understanding around what entails healthy breathing. There is a mainstream misperception that hyperventilation is a medical condition suffered by those poor individuals with impaired lung function or emotional disorders such as anxiety attacks – you get the picture of the guy having a panic attack who has to breathe into a brown paper bag. 

Far from that, hyperventilation is a much less dramatic picture than the brown paper bag breather scenario.  In many ways it is an invisible condition when you consider that chest, mouth and over breathing are the three key characteristics contributing towards dysfunctional breathing. Hyperventilation is thus a much wider, hidden problem that afflicts the majority of the 21st century population and its escalation caused by a number of universally pervasive factors that are unlikely to be reversed in the near future. This  includes changes in lifestyle habits promoting fight or flight response, changes in dietary habits negatively impacting health and encouraging an increase in inflammation and chronic diseases, and interestingly enough, an absence of exercise routines promoting nasal respiration.  

Healthy breathing habits established through a conscious daily breathing practice can thus help counter these lifestyle and environmental influences that might be causing poor respiratory habits.

Yogic Breathing in Vinyasa and its Role in Raising CO2 Tolerance Levels

Let me share with you from a personal standpoint why vinyasa yoga is such a powerful tool for helping develop good breathing habits and consequently, for improving cardiovascular function.  In particular, a developed breathing vinyasa practice encourages CO2 tolerance and  VO2max  – both fundamental indicators of fitness and performance. VO2 max measures the maximum amount of O2 that you can utilise during exercise (the fitter you are the more oxygen your body can utilise) and is measured in terms of millilitres of oxygen consumed in one minute per kilogram of body weight (ml/kg/min). 

I have been a yoga practitioner since my mid 30s. My early exposure to yoga was mostly Iyengar and Hatha based practices. For those unfamiliar, in this type of practice,  practitioners move from one static pose to the next, mostly supported by props at a slower pace, with emphasis on good alignment. Though my flexibility was improving and the gentler pace along with the breathing encouraged a positive mental disposition through relaxed breathing, the practice did not really have any real bearing on my cardiovascular wellbeing. In my mid 40s I encountered a style of vinyasa yoga called Ashtanga and since then I can positively identify major improvements in cardiovascular fitness marked by improvements in resting heart rate and consequently,  VO2max levels.

Key characteristics of Ashtanga practice is the fluid and dynamic execution of postures through the conscious integration of rhythmic breathing. The continual flow of movement, sometimes for up to a couple of minutes at a time, interspersed with the holding of postures for a count of 5 breaths creates an interval-training like environment where the heart rate is raised for a period of time and then lowered again during the holding of poses in a ever repetitive cycle that can last up to 90 minutes. When I started Ashtanga my resting heart rate was somewhere in the region of mid 70s heart beats per minute.

Resting Heart Rate Chart

Today my resting heart rate is 58 bpm. For a woman in her mid 40s, a resting heart rate of anywhere between 74-77 is considered average and for the 50 plus age group, anywhere between 54-60 bpm, an athletic range. Similarly improvements in VO2 max followed from 34ml/kg/min in my mid 40s to <43 ml/kg/min today which puts it in the  superior category for a woman in the 50 plus age category; thus also proof that VO2 max is something that can be improved at any age.

VO2max chart (ml/kg/min)

I know that my Vinyasa practice was wholly responsible for the physiological changes and transformation in my body as I did not engage in any other type of exercise other than the Ashtanga practice which I practiced daily during this time.  Ashtanga is a demanding practice that gobbles up your time if you are desirous of progressing. As such I can attest to the transformational power of this type of yoga practice in improving key markers of cardiovascular fitness. Other than my own anecdotal experience, there are also a number of published studies that support the theory that a one hour of daily yoga practice for a period of at least 3 months can positively and significantly impact on VO2max rates. I did come across one study which concluded that yoga had no significant impact on VO2max but this, I surmise is more a reflection on the lack of clarity around the type of yoga practice that was done in that particular study. There was no clarification at all on the type of yoga undertaken by the subjects and in this case, the type of yoga is really key. It is very possible that the type of yoga practiced by the subjects was more of a Hatha style practice rather than vinyasa. 

Additionally, the unique breathing techniques employed in vinyasa – the practice of strict and steady nasal breathing along with continuous muscular contractions caused by body weight resistance encourages the practitioner to slowly experience how to find a place of comfort in a place of discomfort whilst increasing oxygenation of muscle tissues and vital organs. As Ashtanga practitioners continue to breath nasally through increased workloads by practising mental calm and focus, this plays a key psychological role in minimising panic and the instinct to hyperventilate through the mouth as CO2 levels in the body start to rise. Beyond personal fitness, it goes without saying that this type of training has profound benefits for stress management beyond the mat.

Our Practice this Month

With all the positive benefits that may be reaped through vinyasa yoga, my focus this month is to create a framework whereby you can lift your internal practice by integrating a more regulated and conscious pattern of breathing as we work through our sequences. By employing traditional techniques and principles underlying the practice of vinyasa, along with the prioritisation of the quality of breath and movement over volume of movement and postures, we will make make breathing the focal point of our practice and in so doing experience the transformational power that conscious breathing can bring to us every single day.

Teaching Vinyasa Level 1 Fridays 6:45am – 7:30am, Vinyasa All Levels Sundays 9:30am, Yin Yoga Tuesdays 7:30pm all at The Taiji Centre 40 St Benedicts St, Newton. Additionally, Vinyasa All Levels at Next Generation Parnell Mondays 6:00am and Sundays 3:00pm

I am a yoga teacher based in central Auckland. I teach a Yoga Fundamentals Course which runs twice yearly as well as yoga classes in the central Ponsonby area. For more details on time, venue and type of classes please refer to the Upcoming Events Page of this website. You can view my work on instagram also by searching for "ewabigioyoga". Contact me at ewalyhb@gmail.com

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