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Until recently, even moderate exercise was a strain for Laurie Neilson Lee. If she walked for just 20 minutes, she’d feel exhausted the following day. “I never felt I got enough oxygen in my lungs,” she says.
But a year and a half ago, Lee, a 59-year-old retired lawyer in Lake Oswego, Oregon, learned a new way of breathing that’s transformed her experience of exercise. An ayurveda”>Ayurvedic practitioner named Richard Haynes trained her to inhale and exhale through her nose while she walked, even after she was warmed up and her heart was pumping fast. He had her wear a heart rate monitor, too, so she could track her progress after she began using the technique. Lee was astounded by how much slower and steadier her heart rate became.
These days, exercise has become an integral part of Lee’s weekly routine. She walks briskly or works out on an elliptical machine for an hour each session, roughly three times a week. And she practices yoga and Pilates to build strength and improve her balance, which is compromised by multiple sclerosis. “I feel much more relaxed now, when I’m exercising and afterward,” Lee says. “And I can exercise longer and faster—without getting my heart rate up really high.”
Lee joins a growing number of people who are finding that yogic breathing offers benefits beyond the studio. In a time when many people struggle to stay active, they are demonstrating that deep nasal breathing—by connecting mind, body, and soul—can make exercise easier and more fun.
Much of the credit for this goes to John Douillard, the author of Body, Mind, and Sport and a former professional triathlete who practices Ayurvedic and chiropractic sports medicine in Boulder, Colorado. Decades ago, an Indian meditation teacher inspired him to start meditating and paying attention to his own breath. Since then, he has taught deep nasal breathing to many everyday exercisers hoping to get more fit as well as to professional athletes, including former tennis stars Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King, and Jennifer Capriati.
“I think we can be best in the world—whether training for the Olympics or taking a jog—when we’re coming from a place of calm instead of ‘mind over matter’,” Douillard says. “You’re going with the current versus against it. You take the power of yoga and bring it into athletics.”
On a physiological level, Douillard says, diaphragmatic nasal breathing makes us breathe more efficiently by pulling more air into the lower lobes of the lungs. Chest breathing through the mouth fills the middle and upper lungs but tends not to engage the lower lobes, which host many of the parasympathetic nerve receptors. Getting air into the lower lungs isn’t just important for delivering oxygen to the blood; the parasympathetic receptors are crucial to calming the mind and recharging the body. When we’re in parasympathetic dominance, our heart rate slows down and our adrenal glands slow the production of stress hormones.
Several years ago, Douillard and a team of researchers measured the effects of nasal breathing on a group of volunteers who learned the technique and used it over a 12-week period while they exercised. The researchers then measured brain wave activity during two stress tests: one as the volunteers bicycled while chest breathing through their mouths, and the other while they did nasal breathing. During the nasal breathing workout, the cyclists’ EEGs showed brain wave patterns indicating relaxation; the volunteers’ breath rate, heart rate, and perceived exertion were lower during nasal breathing, too.
While Douillard, Haynes, and others are sold on the technique’s benefits, some researchers aren’t so sure. Breathing through the nose filters and humidifies the air we breathe, of course. But besides that, its physiological effects, particularly on aerobic or other athletic performance, are unproven, says Ralph Fregosi, a physiology professor at the University of Arizona who’s studied exercise and breathing extensively. “You can take a deeper breath through your mouth or your nose and the effect on the lungs will be precisely the same,” he says.
Fregosi does agree that nasal breathing can have a positive psychological effect on athletic performance as well as on general well-being. “It helps us focus our mind, and that can be beneficial in many ways,” he concedes.
Despite the scientific uncertainties, athletes who weave nasal breathing into their exercise regimen say its benefits are both psychological and physical.
Tara Sheahan is a professional Nordic skier and longtime yoga practitioner who lives with her husband and two teenaged sons in Boulder and in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. She read Douillard’s book a couple of years ago and began practicing nasal breathing when she trained. It took about six weeks to fully incorporate the technique into her workouts and competitions. Now Sheahan says she nose-breathes even when racing; she switches to mouth breathing only when she’s pumping at full throttle at the top of a hill.
The technique, she says, has helped boost her athletic performance as well as her enjoyment of training. “Nose breathing makes me mindful,” she says. “It makes my body feel awakened.”
And the technique isn’t just for über-athletes. Haynes, the Ayurvedic practitioner in Oregon, works with many clients, like Laurie Neilson Lee, who simply want to get comfortable with exercise.
Haynes himself came to the practice the hard way, after a plane crash in 1981. Both of his lungs collapsed, and even after spending six months in a hospital, he could hardly breathe. Even now he inhales audibly and pauses frequently as he speaks, due to residual scar tissue on his trachea. But his breathing would be far more constrained, he says, if he hadn’t met Douillard in the late 1980s and started learning nasal-breathing techniques.
For Haynes, making exercise easier for people is part of the spiritual path. “The purpose of all activity is to be happy,” he says. “We’re happy when we’re fully in the present. And when the body connects to the soul, life is full of juice.”
If you’d like to feel more relaxed and energetic while you exercise, nasal breathing might be the ticket. But no formula works for everyone, so use these tips, from Ayurvedic specialist John Douillard, simply as a starting point. The idea is to make exercise less stressful, so this is one training technique you needn’t worry about overdoing.
Before working out, do five Sun Salutations employing Ujjayi Pranayama breathing. Inhale and exhale deeply through your nose and, as you exhale, slightly constrict your throat and stomach muscles, making a quiet “haaa!” sound through the full exhalation.
For a few minutes, just walk. Count 1-2-3 steps as you inhale, then again as you exhale. Maintain the slow, even, deep nasal breath. Repeat this exercise, adding a count each time until you expand your breath count to 10 steps on the inhalation and 10 steps on the exhalation. (The goal is 20 and 20.) Try to count, and walk, at a steady pace. This may take a few weeks to accomplish.
Start jogging (or cycling, or whatever activity you select) slowly. Repeat the same counting process as you deeply inhale and exhale through your nose. When you start breathing through your mouth, slow down so you can resume nasal breathing at a relaxed rate.
Pick up the pace while maintaining the yoga breath rate for 10 to 20 minutes. Listen to your body; if you need to revert to mouth breathing, do so for a minute, but slow down until you can resume nasal breathing. Try to slow your pace when the nasal breath shortens so as to avoid emergency mouth breathing. To learn more, check out Douillard’s book, Body, Mind, and Sport.
To learn more about yoga for athletes, see the www.yogajournal.com/cross_training.
Susan Moran is a writer in Boulder, Colorado, who also contributes to the New York Times.