Updated: Jul 30, 2020
Breathing is not only fundamental to sustaining life, but also has many health benefits. Pranayama is one of the 8 limbs of yoga and is often incorporated into many yoga classes. In vinyasa and ashtanga yoga, inhale and exhale cues are given throughout and matched with posture transitions (down dog exhale, upward facing dog inhale) and in hot yoga, slow breathing is practiced for the first 5 minutes of each class followed by postures. While there are several styles of yogic breathing, I’d like to focus on slow deep breathing for this blog.
Slow breathing is the act of prolonging each inhale and exhale to a duration of about 5 to 6 seconds each resulting in a breath rate of about 6 breaths per minute. This is half the normal breathing rate for most people as typically, at rest, we usually take 12-20 breaths per minutes (my students are often surprised to hear this as it's not something we pay attention to). Typically in slow breathing, long inhales are done through the nose followed by brief holds, and then long exhales are done through the nose or mouth depending on practice style. There are apps available that can guide you through this like Calm, which I’ve used myself, and others I haven’t yet tried.
Alternate nostril breathing (shown above) is another type of yogic breathing. For this, index and middle fingers tucked or placed above the nose (as shown above) and thumbs and ring and pinkie fingers are extended. First, the thumb is placed over the right nostril while you breathe in through the left to a count of 6, then the ring and pinky fingers are placed over the other nostril and the breath is held briefly, then the ring and pinky fingers are released from the left nostril while exhaling to a count of 6. It might take some getting used to at first, especially now when many of us are attempting not to touch our faces.
Just over a decade ago, the FDA approved a device that guides people through slow breathing exercises. Many studies have shown that this device lowers blood pressure, but the validity of these studies has been scrutinized because the device manufacturer funded most of them. The RESPERATE device is around $300 but some breathing apps and YouTube videos are free. You might not even need apps for this as you can look at a timer to time your 5 or 6-second inhales and exhales and practice for maybe 10-20 minutes per day on your own. A recent review even showed that yogic breathing is slightly more effective than using a device in lowering blood pressure.
Slow breathing promotes relaxation by decreasing the activity of the sympathetic nervous system or the “fight or flight response.” While necessary for several functions including making energy available and increasing blood supply to working muscles during exercise, the sympathetic nervous system can also have negative effects when activated too often. This can be the case during stressful periods in our lives like current times. The fight-or-flight response also plays a role in hypertension, kidney disease, diabetes, and other conditions and findings ways of lowering its activation can have pronounced health benefits.
Slow breathing may not relaxing for some and can even make people feel anxious. Our research team has lost research study participants due to this and because some people don’t like doing breathing exercises. Those who can tolerate or even enjoy it, can experience many health benefits including reduced blood pressure, improved blood vessel function, lower oxidative stress from free radicals, and lower blood glucose (sugar) levels. These benefits have even compelled the American Heart Association to recommend slow breathing as an effective alternative therapy for high blood pressure. There are a few types of slow breathing and if one doesn’t work for you, try another before giving up on it completely.
The Cardiovascular Physiology Lab, our lab, at Texas State is seeking volunteers for a 4-week slow breathing study in people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). If you're in the Austin or San Marcos areas and think you might qualify, this would be great opportunity to try a structured breathing program while getting paid to do it! Contact us using the lab link to get more info.
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