written by Inner Fire Yoga teacher, Ken Kloes
What’s the big deal with taking a deep, controlled breath during yoga practice? Other than the obvious benefit of bringing oxygen into the lungs during inhale and eliminating carbon dioxide on exhale, the benefit is much more profound. Understanding some anatomy is key here. Your main breathing muscle is the diaphragm, which separates your lungs from abdominal organs. When you inhale this muscle flexes down into the belly expanding the lungs, filling them up with air. On exhale the diaphragm relaxes upwards squeezing the lungs and forcing air out, the deeper the breath, the bigger the movement of the diaphragm.
The other key component is the wanderer or Vagus nerve. The Vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve. It contains both motor and sensory fibers. Because it passes from the brain through the neck and thorax to the abdomen, it has the widest distribution in the body. It is considered to be the main nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system. Basically the opposite of “fight or flight.” This is the mechanism for “rest and digest.” Better yet think of “calm and peaceful.”
The Vagus nerve passes through the same hole in the diaphragm as the esophagus. When the diaphragm moves up and down it is essentially massaging the nerve. This is why when you breathe deeply in a yoga pose, whether it be Warrior 3, Handstand or Seated Spinal Twist, you are directly stimulating your nervous system to calm down, lowering the stress level in your mind, body and spirit. Basically what makes a pose Yoga, and not simply a stretch or strengthening position, is breath control.
In essence, your inhale is bringing in oxygen, the most important element your body needs to function in order to sharpen focus and perception in the moment. Your exhale eliminates the body’s metabolic waste of carbon dioxide and is essentially an action of relaxation, think of a sigh. This happens because of the stimulation of the Vagus nerve.
Bottom line, to maximize the benefits of yoga, take a deep breath using the diaphragm to activate your parasympathetic nervous system and experience the beauty of a focused and stress-reducing practice supporting you on and off your mat.
Want to learn more about how the breath helps us live more peacefully? Check out Max Strom’s workshops and 3-day Breathe to Heal event starting this weekend!