Early yogis recognized that the rate of breath had a correlation with our health and how long we live. They believed that in order to live long, one has to breathe slow. To illustrate this idea, we can draw upon the animal kingdom. After all, humans fall in the taxonomic order under primates like monkeys and apes. We can train efficient breathing through the yogic practice of pranayama such as Anulom Vilom.
Don’t pant like a dog
Among vertebrates the giant tortoise is one of the longest living animals. Dogs are fast breathing animals and as such are on the other side of the spectrum having a much shorter expected life span. Dogs breathe at a rate of 20-30 times per minute and live for around 10-20 years.
The giant tortoise on the other hand breathes at a rate of 4 times per minute and lives up to 150 years. The oldest living tortoise in our age was believed to be 250 years old. Right now ‘Jonathan’ has reached the age of 186 years and is the oldest known living animal. From now on, whenever you notice you’re breathing fast, maybe it’s time to take a breather.
Breathe slow, breathe consciously
Most people take breathing for granted, since it’s one of the many things our body does on autopilot, like keeping our heart beating or regulating body temperatures. Controlled by our autonomic nervous system the breath is not something you need to be aware of 24/7 but it can help to consciously alter your state. The breath can be a tool that works on both body and mind.
A slower breath rate affects our mood positively, increases the immune functioning of the body, and turns off the chemicals created by a stress-response. Whenever we are stressed we usually have shallow, chest breathing, which can cause harm in the long run. When stress becomes chronic, we need to actively take control to prevent physical pain or illness. Having control over the breath is key to our physical and mental health.
Even when working out or during an activity like running (which is mostly endurance), it’s best to keep the mind calm and your tongue in. Focusing on breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth is the way to go on longer demanding tasks.
Breathing in and out solely through the mouth taps into our sympathetic nervous system triggering fight/flight response. This may be fitting when you need to pull a short distance sprint, moving as fast as you can, but other than that, mouth breathing on the long run will deplete the body’s resources.
Why slow breathing is healthy
On average humans breathe at a rate between 12-18 times per minute. This is what according to ‘First Aid regulations’ is considered a normal rate. In all fairness, around 12 is okay but once you hit 16, you could say your body is experiencing some sort of stress.
Among advanced yogis and other healthy active people the average breath rate is much lower and this contributes to a longer life. Lower breath rate reduces the load on the heart and keeps it going for more years. Adding physical activation while breathing normally stretches the body’s ability to cope with higher demands under stress, but the stress-response has to be limited. At a certain point it needs to stop, turning off the hormones that help you cope with the stress-trigger. Your body needs time to recover.
Pranayama for breathing efficiency
There are various types of pranayama to improve breathing efficiency; the most important one is Anulom Vilom. It consists of a breathing pattern with inhalation, breath retention and exhalation. Recommended ratio is 1 for inhalation, 4 for retention and 2 for exhalation. The breathing is done alternatively, starting through the left nostril and then through the right nostril, which is counted as one round of pranayama.
For beginners however, it’s better to start in a 1:2:2 ratio. As you get used to breath retention you can shorten the period for exhalation. The number of rounds and the duration of each round define the various levels of pranayama practice.
This process slowly brings about control of respiration. Breathing becomes deeper and slower increasing the efficiency of your lungs and decreases the strain on the cardiac system. Be mindful and start out slow with a practice of 5 minutes per session. After a while you can extend your practice to 10 minutes or level up to the classic 1:4:2 ratio.
Anulom Vilom – Basic Instructions
- Sit in a comfortable cross-legged or diamond position, back straight, neck long.
- Place your left hand in ‘Chin mudra’, index finger on thumb, back of the hand resting on your left thigh or knee, palm facing up.
- Place your right hand in ‘Vishnu mudra’, index and middle finger folded inwards. Close your right nostril with your thumb. Breathe out completely through your left nostril.
- Breathe in 4 counts through your left nostril.
- Then close your left nostril with the ring and little finger (both nostrils are closed). Hold your breath for 8 counts.
- Keeping your left nostril closed, breathe out through your right nostril for 8 counts.
- With the left nostril closed, breathe in through your right nostril for 4 counts.
- Close both nostrils once again for 8 counts.
- Keeping your right nostril closed, breathe out through your left nostril for 8 counts.
This completes one round. Continue this exercise for 5 minutes.
Sit in a comfortable position, back straight, neck long.
Place your left hand in chin mudra.
Place your right hand in vishnu mudra.
Close your right nostril with your thumb. Breathe in 4 counts through left nostril.
Close both nostrils. Hold your breath for 8 counts.
Breathe out through right nostril for 8 counts
Breathe in through right nostril for 4 counts
Close both nostrils. Hold your breath for 8 counts.
Keeping your right nostril closed, breathe out through your left nostril for 8 counts.
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