One of the most valuable nuggets from our anatomy sessions so far comes from understanding how breathing patterns affect the body. Breathing can:
1) Switch the body between activating the sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous system by changing the heart rate.
2) Improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the lungs in promoting the diffusion of oxygen into the blood and the expulsion of carbon dioxide into the air
3) Change the acidity level of the blood, thereby impacting blood pressure
4) Alter the hormonal balance of the endocrine system
5) Affect muscular performance through engaging in aerobic or anaerobic respiration
6) Impact cardiac performance by all of the above
The average person takes in about 15 breaths per minute, which means a breathing cycle (inhalation and exhalation) of 4 seconds. To optimize the above, one should retrain the body to normally and unconsciously engage in deep, slow breathing. One should inhale and exhale for at least 4 seconds each, equivalent to an 8 second breathing cycle, reducing the number of breaths per minute to 7. A 12 to 16 second breathing cycle would be even better but this requires conscious focus.
I can now appreciate how Ashtanga yoga presents a wonderful method to retrain our breathing habits. Pranayama and Ujjai breathing train the lungs and heart to work more efficiently to send oxygen throughout the body. Regularly practicing these two techniques will make it easier to create a habit of deepening the breath. Certain asanas, especially backbends, deep twists, and inversions, improve breathing by developing the muscles associated with breathing – the intercostal muscles around the rib cage and the diaphragm. In addition, the flow of the sequences provides instruction on the inhalation and exhalation for each movement to train the body to lengthen and deepen breathing, which promotes the aerobic rather than anaerobic respiration in the muscles.
Therefore, by mastering the breath and the asanas, the Ashtanga yogi maintains a constant state of calm which comes from:
1) Remaining in a parasympathetic state with a slow heart rate
2) Very efficient and effective lungs in terms of oxygen intake and carbon dioxide release
3) Slightly alkaline blood from good decarbonisation (very healthy pH range)
4) Healthy endocrine system – balanced hormones
5) Muscles efficiently performing in the aerobic state
6) Healthy and stable cardiac performance (high stroke volume, slow heart rate, low blood pressure)