I was lying in a recliner while an acupuncturist massaged my feet, a nurse took my pulse, and several other people hovered over me with worried looks.
It was an intensive pranayama workshop with a stellar teacher and amazingly kind, talented students. We were learning all sorts of fascinating, intricate pranayama techniques. But the combination of a lot of breathing, an overload of information, and a shortage of quality sleep had left me physically exhausted and mentally fried.
Just a few minutes earlier we had completed another lengthy, complicated pranayama practice.
At the end of the practice I got up to go to another room for a break when I realized I was dizzy, my heart was racing, and I was feeling a bit nauseous.
I’d blown a fuse in my nervous system.
I collapsed into the recliner. Someone brought me some water. People began to fuss over me.
After a few minutes I started to feel normal again (and nurtured – nothing like a room full of yoga teachers taking care of you!) But my exhaustion was more apparent now so I skipped the rest of the session that day so I could rest rather than continue to rev up my nervous system with more pranayama.
That experience helped me understand that pranayama is not harmless.
Anything that can deeply and directly affect your autonomic nervous system, needs to be treated with respect and caution.
When I studied in India, I had heard stories about the dangers of pranayama. In fact, I met a yogini at an ashram who told me that when she was younger, “Pranayama made me go crazy.” She told me that the other women in the ashram had taken her to the guru who corrected the mistake she was making in her pranayama practice and then she returned back to normal.
But back in the states, those stories were considered the stuff of yogic hyperbole. I witnessed lots of American teachers sharing nadi shodana freely with cure-all benefits for everything under the sun and others espousing and teaching the benefits of daily hyperventilation. But I had never had an adverse experience from pranayama until this training – which entailed a lot of breathing packed into a little amount of time.
After I finished that pranayama intensive, I felt like I needed to find my own way and figure out what I wanted to get out of pranayama and what I wanted to teach. One tip that helped me get started came from my teacher Gary Kraftsow.
It was this: NEVER push your breath.
It took me a long time to figure out what “pushing my breath” meant for me personally. That awareness came only through regular, daily, pranayama practice. Which, for me, increasingly became a practice of interoceptive exploration – what did my breath feel like? What was it telling me about my nervous system? My energy? My mood? My physiology? What did my breath want to do and could I allow that to happen without overly manipulating it?
Regularly and over time, through noticing and feeling my breath, my breathing patterns, and the various sensations of breathing I began to understand the benefits of practice. And while I still engage in formal techniques, this exploration has been more profound for me than any specific pranayama I’ve practiced over the past 30 years.
I’m so in love with interoceptive breathing that now, most of what I teach is basically just an interoceptive journey into the respiratory apparatus accompanied by some simple ratios.
So, you can imagine how excited I was to read this study which hypothesizes that the basic mechanism that underlies the value of pranayama, is, you guessed it, when you pay attention to the feelings inside your nose as you breathe.
There’s a structure inside your brain called the olfactory bulb that connects right into your nasal cavity through nerve fibers.
What this study theorizes is that slow breathing enhances autonomic nervous system, brain, and psychological flexibility through two things: paying attention to the sensations of your breath and the receptors in your nose that translate your slow breathing to your brain and tune your brain towards a parasympathetic (relaxation response) state.
Researchers have also demonstrated that puffs of air, coming into the nerve fibers that connect your nose to your olfactory bulb 5 to 6 times a minute increase vagal tone – which basically means activate the relaxation response. This 5 to 6 times a minute reference can be found in many studies and it basically translates to about a 5 count in and 5 count out breath.
This theory can help us better understand why the yoga tradition instructs us to breathe through the nose during pranayama and asana practice and why breathing slowly and paying attention to your breath is so important.
And it also can let you off the hook – you don’t necessarily need to practice or teach complicated pranayamas. But making time to get to know and fall in love with your breath – now that’s inspiring!