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Don't Overtense, Don't Overstretch, Don't Overbreathe (Part II)

Veronika Polaskova

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This is the second article from this series and this time I would like to share with you a little bit more on why not to overbreathe in our yoga practice. If you haven't seen the first one about why not to overtense our bodies, you can find it here:-)

While we often try to keep the focus on our breath in a yoga class to steady our mind, it is best to keep the breath as natural as possible instead of forcing it to be anything else. There’s already so much happening in our yoga practice to pay attention to (like the body alignment, if we don’t create too much tension, listening to the instructions of the teacher etc.) that adding another element is often too much and may sacrifice other areas of our practice. One of my teachers, Simon Borg-Olivier, is a big advocate of keeping the breath natural throughout our yoga (asana) practice and working on the breath separately in pranayama (breathing exercices). Only when we have a solid asana and pranayama practice separately, then it may be time to join both together.

There is another pretty valid reason though why it is best not to alter the natural breath in our practice, and the reason is that most people when they do so, they overbreathe. This can lead to a fair bit of discomfort, like feeling dizzy, nauseous, but also leading to a headache or feeling emotionally imbalanced. Let me explain how overbreathing in class happens (and it is not only in those hard poses and sequences but generally throughout the whole class). An average adult takes 12-16 normal breaths per minute when relaxed. During that minute we also exchange an average of 6-8 litres of air. If we let’s say take an adult who takes 12 breaths per minute, it will mean that in each breath he/she will take in 0.5 litre of air (6 litres divided by 12 breaths). This also means, that he/she will fill the lungs only by 1/10 of its capacity in each breath in (YES, only 1/10), as the average lung capacity is 5 litres. Have you ever noticed when you are calm, that the breaths in and out are very minimal? You can even try it now. Take a natural breath in, pause and see if you can breathe in more…and usually we can breathe in quite a lot more. Try another thing…take a natural breath in and a natural breath out and pause..and then see if you can breathe out more…and usually we can breathe out still quite a big volume of air using muscles of forceful exhalation (intercostals and abdominal muscles).

What happens in a yoga class, with all the instructions of Ujjayi (yogic) breathing and instructing inhale/exhale before every pose/movement, is that we often have the tendency to take a big breath in and a big forceful breath out. And yes I hear you, we move so we need to breathe more and it is something that naturally happens and it is totally fine that the breath changes with the intensity of the practice…what I am trying to point out here though is that many times in yoga classes students are instructed to take long deep breaths and force the breath even in poses/movements where natural breath would be comfortable.

But let’s get back…If we were taking complete inhalations and exhalations in our practice, we would exchange the total of 5 litres x 12 breaths = 60 litres of air per minute which is 10 times more than normal. So can you see how easy it is to overbreathe in a class? Contrary to what one would believe, the more we breathe (and I mean when we change the breath consciously and take big breaths in and out, instead of when the breath changes naturally with the intensity of the exercise), the less air gets into the brain, lungs and tissues due to how the human body responds to excess breathing.

Overbreathing (hyperventilation) has one good effect on the body which is it makes it temporarily alkaline. This is good for the practice as when the body is alkaline the synovial fluid around joints and in between fascia and muscles gets less viscous (more runny) and allows these structure to move with less friction and the body feels less tense and more flexible (alkalinity of the body can be also achieved by eating more natural foods and a vegetarian diet, compared to eating foods derived from animals and eating processed foods). There’s a catch though…by making the body temporarily alkaline, it has a tendency to always balance itself out and if the body becomes too alkaline all of the sudden, we may feel a huge amount of great energy but we may also feel very hungry. And guess what the body will crave…it will be more acidic foods. Has it ever happened to you that you went to do some intense yoga class or any kind of intense exercice and after the class you were so hungry that you bought and ate something which was maybe not the healthiest option? Now you know that when the body is alkaline it doesn’t usually crave alkaline foods, like a nice veggie salad unless you eat this way all the time.

My teacher says that after a good practice you should feel good, relaxed and energized (but not overexcited), and not exhausted or hungry. The practice itself should be very nourishing for the body, as well as the mind, so you should actually feel less hungry after a good yoga practice.

Maybe you can try to keep your breath more natural in your next few practices and notice any difference after the practice in how you are feeling and your energy levels. Remember everything is a process and it all doesn’t have to happen in one class…as always, awareness is the key and the first step…being aware of how we breathe in our practice and being able to maybe slow down and soften just a little bit is a good way to start :-)