Shallow Breathing is Dangerous to our Health!

Anyone who has been in one of my classes or retreats will know that I placed a huge amount of emphasis on full yogic breathing. I talk frequently about the importance of breath control in our asanas,  and our ability to really connect to this life giving energy. But why?

Research is showing that breathing techniques used in yoga have positive associations with many measures of physical and psychological health.

For example, reduced inflammation, reduced measures of high blood pressure, reduced reports of both anxiety and depression, as well as improved heart rate variability. Good heart rate variability (HRV) is one indicator of healthy cardiovascular and nervous system function.

So why do yogic breathing practices have these benefits?

What is the mechanism that is happening in the body/mind? Studies looking specifically at one hypothesis for why yogic breathing might improve HRV. One hypothesis is that a part of the mechanism by which yogic breathing improves HRV, involves the influence of these breathing practices on the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is an important part of the parasympathetic nervous system and a key for keeping the nervous system in balance between activity and rest.

The research team conducting this research review on contemplative activities including yoga, observed that one thing almost all contemplative practices have in common is attention to breathing. They developed a model based on the compilation of other studies, which observed that regulation of breathing in a particular way stimulates the vagus nerve. The stimulation of the vagus nerve is part of what helps our body maintain a healthy balance in activity between the sympathetic and parasympathetic aspects of our nervous system.

The authors summarize research which suggests that by slowing and intentionally controlling our breathing we stimulate the vagus nerve, which in turn produces a whole cascade of the positive physical, mental, and emotional effects that we associate with yoga. Positive effects of vagus nerve stimulation included: increased heart rate variability; improved immune system function; reduced heart rate; and reduced blood pressure. The research also indicates that these positive effects are not just short-term, but are maintained to some degree over time.

Why is this so relevant to yoga practitioners?

The research summarized by stating that there is a scientific basis for describing yoga as first and foremost a breathing practice. They are suggesting that, while there are also health and wellness benefits to the postures themselves, breathing in the postures in a slow, even way, or with slightly longer exhales, is one mechanism behind why we experience the particular benefits that we do.

Photo courtesy of David Keil Yoga Anatomy