Breath: a life’s work

When Nadal, Sharipova or Azarenka make those grunts and wails on the tennis court they are doing something that is evolutionarily correct. Believe it or not!

Two things are happening:

  1. Most people who lift weights and probably most people in physical trades know that you exert the most power on the out breath. So these tennis players are channeling the most energy they can and also preparing for the next inward breath to wind them up for the next shot.
  2. Less known is that the use of the voice (grunting or wailing)  is creating a constriction in the throat that slows the out breath down and lengthens the breath overall. If the player just pushed the air out without sound then it’s gone before the stroke has finished.

Some interesting things happen when this constricted out-breath occurs – this is an activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS is the “rest and digest” counterbalance to the get-up-and-go “sympathetic” nervous system. The PNS (via the vagus nerve and many other mechanisms) is helping you calm down and recover from stress. So with each tennis stroke and out-breath players are (trained or not) healing themselves.

Everybody knows the simple delicious feeling of a bloody good SIGH. This is the PNS activation in a (mostly) unconscious or therapeutic context.

Unsurprisingly, the slowing and extension of the out-breath is already part of several wisdom traditions – one is Ashtanga.

Ujjayi breath

When I started Ashtanga, I didn’t comprehend what was important about “Breath, Bandhas, Drishti” (together known as Tristana). The breath part involves making an ocean-like sound in the throat through only the nose with the lips sealed.

This ancient tradition understood many things about physiology and its science came from observation and practice – as a westerner, it has to taken some time accept these observational wisdoms.

The physiological effects are summarized as:

  1. breathing through the mouth will stress you (more on this later)
  2. breathing through the mouth means you’ve lost the regulatory control of the yoga practice.
  3. Because the nasal passages are smaller than the throat, therefore breath is extended – slowing the whole cycle down (more on THAT later!)
  4. Breathing through the nose moistens the air, heats or cools it towards the body temperature thus reduces that conflict.

When you add modern science to these assumptions you learn:

  1. breathing through the nose create Nitric Oxide***, this is a vasodilator that aids the absorption of the oxygen in the lungs.
  2. The nasal breath creates turbulence which apparently helps penetrates deeper into the lungs.
  3. A longer breath (not a “bigger” breath or “deeper” breath) enhances oxygen and carbon dioxide transfer.
  4. A longer breath encourages a belly breath (diaphragmatic breathing) which increases the saturation at the bottom of the lungs. This is where the alveoli are most dense (probably due to gravity**) 
  5. diaphragmatic massages the vagus nerve and sends relaxation messages to the body.
  6. a slower out-breath increases Carbon Dioxide in the system.

CO2 is not your enemy

The biggest epiphany in Olssens book (see below) is that CO2 is an essential part of oxygen absorption in the system – the evolutionary machinery depends on it to maximise the transfer via the alveoli. The book refers to many studies where CO2 has myriad positive inflammatory impacts.

CO2 dilates the airways, if this is too low, the smooth muscles will contract and it becomes more difficult for air to pass in an out of the lungs. Therefore MORE breathing is not good – we should be aiming for deep and slow/long. People with respiratory problems like asthma tend to take more breaths and too much volume.

Nitric Oxide (NO) is your friend

As mentioned above Nitric Oxide is a vasodilator – which is to say it opens the blood vessels. When you breath in through your mouth, you are not getting any NO. When you breath in nasally, NO is added to the air and is carried to the lungs, facilitating the transport or O2 and CO2.

The benefits of open blood vessels is manifold and yes gents Nitric Oxide is the same compound that is boosted with drugs like Viagra and Cialis.

Don't follow Win Hoff's breath practice

Wim is cool. Everybody loves Wim. Wim’s practice wants you to get a quick result fast and the extreme saturation of oxygen (at least in the short term) gives you experiences which are transformational. But the problem is that many breathworks (even those that claim to avoid hyperventilation practice e.g Stanislov Grof’s Holotropic breathing) are depleting the body of CO2. This is fine for short experiences but  long term work may be altering your O2::CO2 balance and that leads to PH balance problems in your blood system. NOTE 1: I’m all for cold water practice and I’ve discussed the benefits here, here and here. NOTE 2: Wim’s practice borrows heavily from Tibetan Tummo so it has a deep traditional precedent, so you may want to explore Tummo to see what he has stripped away (like many Western practices do).

Mouth Breathing as a disease

The picture above shows some very broad noses, the faces are full and well developed. According to books I’ve recently read: “Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art” (James Nestor)  and “Conscious Breathing: Discover The Power of Your Breath” (Anders Olssen), mouth-breathing is a relatively recent western development with faces being long and narrow, teeth crooked and jaw shape deformed.

If that sounds a stretch, I was recently at the orthodontist (crooked teeth) and they said it was cause by mouth breathing as a child – it seems common knowledge in that profession.

BTW: Animals don’t tend to have crooked teeth. (only dogs breath through their mouth to regulate temperature). 

For decades I’ve always got colds and flus starting in the throat and also whenever I did running the throat would become inflamed. This inflammation overtime has led to gastic reflux and GERD-like conditions – its possible that the inflammation from mouth-breathing may have been a contributor. Living in cities with dust and pollution can only compound the negative inflammatory impacts of mouth breathing.

Once again the western environment seems to have created conditions for a disease. We need to detect in ourselves and our children if mouth-breathing is prevalent and commence practices to return to nasal breathing.

The good news is that in the “use it or lose it” way – the body adapts – the more you nasal breath, the more this opens airways.

Deviated Septums

I waited until I was 40 to have an operation on my left nasal passages that had been there since childhood. This meant that most of my life, especially under exertion would result in mouth breathing. Sleeping was also predominantly mouth based breath.


Ironically (for my situation) having the left nostril blocked, according to yogic traditions such as pranayama, is also blocking the PNS relaxation. Having clear breath through the left nasal passage is supposed to be very calming.

In Yoga/Ayurvedic technical terms (for those who believe in chakras), the the Ida and Pingala nadi’s commence at the nostrils and wrap around the Sushumna nadi and descend down the spine through the chakras.

Western skeptics will recognise 2 things:

  1. This bears a strong resemblance to the Caduceus in western medicine
  2. That we know that the body’s redundancy system has the right hemisphere relating to the left part of the body (including the nostril).

Nasal Breathing practices

If you have nasal blockages:

  • sleep with Breath-right strips or similar
  • mouth taping (bizarre but incredible good for improving sleep quality, eliminating mouth dryness and snoring)
  • work with alternate nostril pranayama exercises.
  • particularly if you left nostril is often blocked try opening and breathing through your left nostril before sleeping (or trying to get back to sleep).

Generally (for everyone):

  • slow your (over-breathing down). You should be breathing when sitting <10 breaths/minute. During meditation this will drop to 3-8 breaths.
  • Explore HRV Apps with breathing exercises on your phone.
  • Explore getting a device that measures HRV
  • Try exercises that extend the out-breath
  • Question any mindfullness practice that only treats the breath as an attentional object.


It always seems that the greatest truths are hidden in plain sight. Society cooks up lots of complex treatments, gadgets and explanations – this is the good and bad of a science based society. But it seems that paying attention to what is right-in-front of us there is plenty to observe and learn:

  • How do animals behave?
  • How do children behave?
  • What practices from ancient cultures can be considered as useful and not just superstition or cargo-cult?

If nothing else the attention to how we are breathing is a terrific barometer for where we are “at” in ourselves – I have found that multi-tasking, email switching in my workday is a huge contributor to holding the breath and taking small sips of air rather than rhythmic full belly breaths. 

Other links on breath:

** note that yoga includes several inversion practices that reverse the effects of gravity – also varicose veins are apparently reduced with inversion – certainly any leg/calf exercise in yoga is also helping without the need for compression socks 🙂