Optimal Breathing

This week I was asked to write a response to questions for a natural health publication on yoga & breathing, here it is!
How can improper breathing patterns harm the body? How can yogic breathing help correct such patterns?
Optimal breathing has a direct link to our physical and emotional health.  Improper breathing, or paradoxical breathing (diaphragm moving up on the inhale, down on the exhale; marked by the belly going in on inhale, out on the exhale), stimulates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS)  or fight/flight/freeze response.  As paradoxical breathing activates the SNS, it sends a message of stress to the body and mind, causing a release of stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol.
Stress hormones each have different roles but over all they increase the blood pressure and heart rate, contract smooth muscles, send blood away from the digestive system, and over stimulate the immune system.  Continual stimulation of the SNS has been linked to a number of health issues such as mental stress, general tension in the body, poor digestion, autoimmune disease, and high blood pressure.
If working with a yoga instructor well versed in the anatomy of breathing, yogic breathing can offer tools to re-educate the body and mind toward optimal breathing and health.  In optimal breathing the diaphragm moves down on the inhale and up on the exhale.  This way of breathing is soothing and calming on the nervous system, therefore relaxing the body and supporting the individual on the path to learning how to regulate emotion and one’s response to stress via the breath.
Pranayama (breath control) offers many techniques to guide the individual in developing a deeper understanding of the energy that moves through them, the breath.  Full commitment exhale and three part breathing can support the practice and understanding of optimal breathing.  Nadi Shodana, or alternate nostril breathing, has been touted for centuries as a cooling and calming breath, a perfect antidote to the high stressed, over caffeinated culture of the West.  Because the breath has a powerful connection to the body, mind and emotions, it is imperative to learn pranayama from a skilled and knowledgeable instructor.

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