Transcript of: How does breathing technique in Ashtanga affect our nervous system?
Hey everybody! Welcome to this month’s question of the month. If you’ve got a question, go to yoganatomy.com/myquestion and I’ll get to it. I’ll answer it here on video just like I’m doing today. So this question is a really good one. It’s a little bit long, but it’s a good question. It’s from Louise and it’s about how breathing technique in Ashtanga affects our nervous system.
She says: “If, generally speaking, when we are belly breathing we are more relaxed, and if this type of breathing is more tied to a parasympathetic response but chest breathing is more connected to sympathetic arousal, is there a chance that our asana practice [DK: in this case, she’s referring to Ashtanga] can leave us feeling a little agitated or over-stimulated? Even though we slow and deepen the breath in the finishing postures we are still essentially chest breathing throughout the whole practice. We may return to involuntary breathing during savasana but is this enough to bring about balance?
Or, does the physical act of asana counteract the “fight or flight” effect of the chest breathing technique in Ashtanga? In my experience, I notice that a strong asana practice energizes me but can almost leave me a little anxious too and I feel I have to be mindful of this. I think I breathe quite well with inhalations and exhalations of equal length and tone. I realize there are often many factors outside of practice that will come into play but I’ve tried to factor these in when thinking about this for myself and still find myself wondering! I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Many thanks for all that you do!”
Alright! It’s a really good question. We’re going to have to be specific and then broaden out a little bit here. One is, let’s talk about chest breathing versus belly breathing. Louise is right. There is some general sense that abdominal, or belly breathing, is more relaxed. It’s what we naturally do when we’re not applying a particular technique. And therefore, that is correlated to a parasympathetic response. Parasympathetic, being rest, digest, right. That’s versus chest breathing, which has a general correlation with sympathetic arousal. But that doesn’t mean that just because you chest breathe, your sympathetic nervous system is flying off the charts.
That’s just like, just because you belly breathe, it doesn’t mean that you’re flatlining down into parasympathetic arousal. These are mild shifts and changes. And, there’s also the possibility that the general tone of your nervous system is creating sympathetic arousal regardless of what you do. And she refers to that, “there are other things outside of practice that can affect this.” So, sometimes it’s the nervous system being stimulated by other things which cause you to breathe in a particular way. Increased respiration, right? When you get scared: fight or flight. That whole mechanism is designed to increase your heart rate, change your breathing, dilate your eyes so you can see more clearly and further, etc.
Neither breathing is inherently good or bad
So we’re talking about a breathing technique in Ashtanga yoga practice, here. We’re not talking about running away from a saber tooth tiger or anything. The other thing to consider is there is also this idea, generally speaking, that belly breathing is good and chest breathing is bad. And I talk about this a lot in workshops. I do a whole anatomy of breath workshop where I talk about this. To give you the shortest version of it, there’s nothing wrong with chest breathing. We do it all the time.
Chest breathing as a technique
Chest breathing is typically done as a technique and just by virtue of it being a technique that’s being applied for a particular period of time, it’s neither good nor bad either. It’s trying to create a particular effect and it’s not good or bad. Both of these types of breathing, whether you’re breathing into your belly as we say—of course, we’re not literally bringing the air in and pushing it into our belly. Right? The belly is moving out because the diaphragm is descending. When we chest breathe or belly breathe, the air is getting into our lungs because our diaphragm is descending, generally speaking. There’s a change there though.
When we are using a chest breathing technique in Ashtanga, we hold our abdomen in, which changes some things anatomically which brings the air—well the air is always going into the lungs—but it prevents the abdomen from pushing out. So, not only does the diaphragm try to descend, but actually what happens is the ribs expand first to make the space, right? The diaphragm is actually restricted, not from contracting, but from descending, because you’re holding your abdominal contents in. There’s a very big difference between being blocked because it’s weak or too tight or because you’re applying a technique to hold your abdomen in and prevent it from descending, which then changes the dynamics of how the ribs function along with the diaphragm. That’s it.
Chest breathing as a pattern
It’s still diaphragmatic breathing, whether it’s chest or abdominal. The difference is when you’re at rest, not practicing, not applying a technique, and you’re chest breathing. Or worse, your neck muscles, see how they contract when I take a fast inhalation? If these are functioning when you’re at rest, that’s a problem. If you’re not breathing into your relaxed abdomen, not applying a technique, there could be a problem there as well. So if you’re chest breathing at rest, yes, this is something you should pay attention to. It can be causing sympathetic arousal or as a result of sympathetic stuff. Or it could be an anatomical problem. It could be diaphragmatic issues. That’s like a separate thing, but I want to kind of tease that out because it all relates to how we approach this idea of belly breathing versus a chest breathing technique in Ashtanga. Then we naturally tie that to sympathetic and parasympathetic.
The ebb and flow of breathing
I think the better way to think about all of this in terms of practice is—you know we have this natural ebb and flow between parasympathetic being on the bottom and sympathetic being on the top. We kind of ebb and flow between the two throughout the day. And when we practice and we kind of nudge things toward sympathetic and towards parasympathetic, depending on what we do. Maybe if we’re doing a resting pose, maybe things calm down a little bit. Then we lift up, jump back, and do a vinyasa. It’s possible in those moments that we, you know, push things towards sympathetic again.
This ebb and flow—the way I think about it, is that it’s exercise for the nervous system in the long term. Right? Instead of—and Louise isn’t doing this—but instead of thinking of one inhalation being associated with parasympathetic or sympathetic, or even a single practice being associated with this, it’s the long view. What is the accumulation of practicing and exercising that nervous system? Where does that lead? And I think that’s where we’re ultimately heading with this.
Take the long view of breathing technique in Ashtanga
So, even if your practice does make you feel agitated, or slightly more anxious or whatever, I would still hold the long view of where it’s all leading. And yes, that doesn’t mean you don’t look at an individual practice. Is the person holding their breath in places, which could create more stimulation, or you know, there are things to look at. You know it could be things like the amount of effort being applied, or lack of effort being applied. Or, general stress tendencies of performance or whatever, could also be mixing into this. So certainly, you would want to look at it. And, Louise is doing that. She’s taking as objective a view as she can of herself and trying to figure out what’s going on.
I’m just bringing it back to—we have to be careful with the most simplistic ways in which we tend to think about anatomy and physiology as well. You know, chest breathing, sympathetic arousal. Belly breathing, parasympathetic arousal. It doesn’t work that way. It just doesn’t. You could be doing a chest breathing technique in Ashtanga and be very relaxed in your nervous system, for sure. You could breathe without holding your abdomen in or do chest breathing and you could have sympathetic arousal going on. They’re correlated. They’re not causative necessarily. I think that’s a better way to think about it.
Okay. Alright. I hope that all made sense. You’ve got the individual thing, but then you’ve got to expand outward and take the long view. Alright everyone, whew, if you’ve got a good question like Louise’s, feel free to go to yoganatomy.com/myquestion and I’ll answer it.
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