Yogic breathing – Is it worth all of the buzz?
Yoga includes much more than just asana (posture practice). One of the main aspects of yoga is breathing practices or pranayama. In yoga, there is an emphasis on diaphragmatic breathing.
So, what really does that mean? And what does it have to do with me and my mental health?
In order to understand why diaphragmatic breathing is worth your time, you need to have a basic understanding of your nervous system.
The nervous system works for us automatically; we don’t consciously choose when we are stressed, in danger, or safe. Our body has its own sensors and internal cues that signal the state of our nervous system.
The nervous system is called the Autonomic Nervous System and is regulated by two branches. One branch is the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) – which is activating, it prepares you for fight or flight (immediate needs), and stimulates your body to prepare for action.
Each time you inhale, you activate your SNS.
The other branch is the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) – which is de-activating, supports body functions to maintain your needs over time like digestion, wound healing, sleep, and sex. Each time you exhale, you activate your PNS. Both branches of the nervous system are vital to your well-being. The hard part is keeping them in a healthy balance.
Many of us who experience challenges with mental health, have experienced chronic stressors, traumatic events, or get stuck with an overactive Sympathetic Nervous System.
This may look like constantly feeling on edge, hypervigilant, agitated – or you may enter this state for so long that over time the nervous system experiences more of a collapsed state: you feel shut down or numb.
Take a moment to pause. Notice how your body informs you that you are stressed.
Do you experience feeling on edge, shut down, agitation, numbness, enter fight mode, flee, or something else? Do you take short, rapid inhalations? (Remember, increased inhale, without the balanced exhale, leads to increased activation).
Now, think about your body’s ability to down-regulate. How do you sleep? How do you digest and take in food? Do you experience nausea or challenges with elimination? How often do you intentionally lengthen your exhale? Could your Parasympathetic Nervous System use some support?
Here’s where the breath comes in.
Everyone has something called the Vagus Nerve. This nerve helps to activate signals in the body that activates the Parasympathetic Nervous System (Down-regulating).
The Vagus Nerve has many connections in the body, but one of them is connected to the diaphragm. What does that mean for you? Each time you practice diaphragmatic breathing, you send signals from the Vagus Nerve to the Parasympathetic Nervous System. Since your nervous system functions automatically, this breathing technique is your way have an impact on resetting your nervous system.
This means, that each time you practice diaphragmatic breathing with an emphasis on your exhale, you can support your nervous system to move out of an overactive or shut down state, and support your body to enter a more balanced state of well-being. D
Your breath responds to your autonomic nervous system. This means you have a natural breathing pattern already, which is linked to the state of your nervous system currently. Sometimes, when you intentionally change your breathing pattern, a state of anxiety or discomfort is common. Listen to your individual needs.
You may choose to stay with the discomfort, with an understanding that it takes time for your body to adjust to a new pattern. You may also choose to come out of the practice, recognizing this practice as something to come back to.
Practicing little and often is more helpful than flooding your experience and forcing something your body is not ready for. Embrace your own process without judgment.
Invite compassion for yourself as you explore your own connection of the breath and the nervous system. Each diaphragmatic breath you practice is one step you take in balancing your nervous system.
Twice a week I offer a 90-minute online yoga class called "Yoga for Mind Body Wellness". Would love to have you join me.
Dana Saad, LCSW, RYT 200
Key Therapy Counseling
About the Author
Dana Saad is a Registered Yoga Teacher and Licensed Clinical Social Worker. In addition to conducting private individual counseling at Key Therapy Counseling, she also holds weekly yoga classes (see list of classes here). She completed her yoga training at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health and has pursued additional training in Trauma-Informed Yoga (through Trauma Center Trauma-Sensitive Yoga) and Yoga Nidra (through the iRest Institute). Her Trauma-Informed Yoga classes incorporate a mindful approach to trauma processing, deep relaxation, and mind/body balancing intended to treat current symptoms related to an overactive nervous system.