Prior to starting Kundalini Yoga in 2014 I was a mouth breather. I know this, because my very first Kundalini Yoga class included a pranayama breathing technique. Pranayama practices are meant to be a really nice relaxing process, calming the nervous system. However, as a mouth breather, that just wasn't the case. I was either gasping for breath, or blowing snot bubbles, it wasn't pretty, and it was not relaxing. Fast forward 6 years, and hundreds of Kundalini yoga classes in the studio, and a dedicated home practice, I nose breathed quite happily. When I reflect back on those days I don't know if I was a nose breather throughout my days, or if I was only a dedicated nostril breather during a Kundalini yoga class - I'm really not sure.
Then, on 30th October 2021, my life changed, and I found myself in the hospital for 2 & 1/2 months, not allowed to move. With blood around my lungs, 12 broken and displaced ribs, 9 broken vertebrae and 2 broken and displaced shoulder blades, breathing was not a function I enjoyed, nor undertook with ease. Each breath was painful and I fought for each one, I wasn't near death, I was just in a lot of pain. Part of my therapy involved taking deep breaths to ensure the ribs moved - apparently, that helps the suckers shift back in place (cool eh...). Kundalini yoga was still a part of my world, but in a small, controlled way, and there was definitely no pranayama taking place.
When I had half of my thyroid removed in September 2022, I had difficulty after the surgery with oxygen levels, and I was asked repeatedly to breathe through my nose. It was at this point that I realised a couple of things:
a) I was now a born-again mouth breather
b) Nose breathing was apparently quite crucial for my oxygen levels in hospital
But why is breathing through your nose not the same as breathing through your mouth?
Like any part of your body, the old adage "use it or lose it" is also true for your nose. According to the Mayo Clinic, breathing through your nose is important as you have hairs lining your nose which serve as the first line of defence, filtering particles and pathogens from the air you breathe. Nostril breathing warms and humidifies the air taken in creating better conditions for respiratory health. Nitric oxide is a stimulant of the cardiovascular and immune symptoms which is then transported throughout your body.
Breathing is an automatic function, your body just naturally breathes. Prior to starting my Kundalini yoga practice, I don't remember putting any effort into how my body dealt with breathing. My issue was caused by a serious accident, however, faulty breathing patterns can occur due to many reasons, such as a sinus infection which then leads to a habit you are not even aware of.
Faulty breathing patterns to watch out for;
Mouth breathing (we've touched on that one above).
Upper chest breathing is another new breathing habit of mine. With yoga, I knew to breathe into the diaphragm, and even when I thought I was, I apparently was not.
Breathing too fast is also a new breathing habit of mine (yay me). Once again, I was not even aware I was doing this, but whenever I went out in public I was having what I was describing as panic attacks. But, the breathing specialist pointed out that I was likely concerned about my safety (such as the fact that if I fell down; a) it would be extremely painful and b) I wasn't always sure I could stand back up). These concerns weighed on my mind in public, and I would start to shallow breathe (breathe into my chest) and then breathe too fast.
Hyperventilation is holding too much air in the upper chest. This breath hold causes tension and breath stacking. For me, I would unknowingly use this breath during concussion therapy sessions creating many cognitive issues.
An erratic breathing pattern, including intermittent breath holding, different size breaths or forcing the breath out.
Optimal breathing patterns to aim for;
Nose breathing was impossible for me at the beginning, however, a sinus rinse such as a Neti-pot (see image below) has helped, and there are breathing strips (see image below) that are attached across your nose called "breathe right strips" that have been extremely helpful in retraining my body to nose breath.
Diaphragmatic breathing - also called "belly breathing". The diaphragm is our primary breathing muscle (remember the use it or lose it statement above?). If you are breathing mainly in your upper chest, the breaths are shallower, but the diaphragm is also not engaged, therefore, we haven't been using it.
Slow gentle breathing is known as a respiratory rate (RR). A normal adult's RR is 10 - 14 breaths per minute. I certainly never consciously timed my breathing previously, however, smartwatches such as the Apple Watch include a sleeping rate. Mine is anywhere from 16-20 meaning I was breathing too fast. It's also recommended to have a little pause at the end of each exhale. Apparently, your body knows how to do this, but habits can build that tear down your body's natural breathing patterns. What is left are faulty breathing patterns that can lead to issues that need to be addressed in your breathing patterns.
Rhythmically consistent breathing patterns are like a heartbeat, consistent and creating a consistent pattern with each breath.
Relaxed upper chest and neck are also important, and were pretty low on my capability radar. However, breathing out through your mouth "haaaa or paaaahhh" can help to relax the chest and neck muscles, which will aid in resetting your breathing pattern. Many times I was asked to relax, and breathe slowly which I found impossible, but I found that long sighs through my mouth helped to calm me down in these situations. The trick is to find what helps you reduce tension.
You can learn to equalise and normalise your breathing pattern in a resting position.
Practice the following for 10 minutes a day, twice a day.
Lie on your back or your side with a pillow under your head and under (or between) your knees
Start a relaxation awareness process:
a) Flex your ankles and feet - let it go
b) Roll and squeeze your knees and thighs together - let it go
c) Gently tilt your pelvis back and forwards - let it go
d) Tighten your tummy muscles - let it go
e) Shrug your shoulders while squeezing your shoulder blades together - let it go
f) Stretch your arms and hands - let it go
g) Give a small head/neck nod up and down while stretching your jaw - let it go
3. Place a small weight, such as a wheat bag on your tummy just above the belly button
4. Place your hands behind your head like you are relaxing on a beach. If this does not
work for your body, then either place your hands on your upper chest or down by
your side, whatever works and feels comfortable.
5. Inhale through your nose, feeling your tummy under the wheat bag rise. Work on
having your chest relaxed.
6. For the first 2-3 breaths, exhale out of your mouth, making an audible 'pah' sound, or
a sighing sound. Experiment to see what noise or sound allows you to feel more
7. Gently close your lips and continue breathing into your nose and belly. Gently exhale
out through your nose with a relaxed pause at the end of each exhale. Wait for the
body to breathe in automatically, without forcing the next breath or gasping for air.
8. Don't be concerned if your mind wanders, it's normal and ok, just notice the mind
wandering, and practice bringing your attention back to your breath. Check for
muscle tension that may return, notice the tension, exhale and let it go.
9. Continue for a minimum of 10 minutes making sure you get up slowly, as working on
a breathing technique could make you feel light-headed.
Please keep in mind if you need to embark on a nose-breathing journey, that it can take 6-8 weeks to change an entrenched pattern. Be kind and gentle with yourself and keep in mind you are learning a new breathing technique that may feel a bit claustrophobic at first. Air hunger is normal when retraining, as you are learning to breathe through your nose and slow your breath down.