Why is nasal breathing particularly important for athletes and fitness enthusiasts? Read on to find out
“The nose is for breathing, the mouth is for eating” – this is well understood in the yogic circles.
And yet many contemporary yoga practitioners, fitness enthusiasts as well as amateur athletes extend their respiratory process to the mouth. While inhalation in most cases does happen through the nose, many practitioners consistently exhale through their mouth. And as I understand, they are not to be blamed.
YouTube is inundated with zillions of yoga and fitness videos from all corners of the globe. Almost everyone with a teaching certification is now a self-appointed fitness expert and if you have millions of followers, everything that you do sends out a message. Even if that message is partially incorrect.
Interestingly, there are many articles in popular and mainstream magazines that have validated inhalation though the nose and exhalation through the mouth. The message this gives out is that this is the normal way to breathe. That it is the normal way to release stress and anxiety. And yet research and science journals have something else to say lately.
While a deep exhalation and sigh does feel great especially on difficult days, in challenging life situations or when the common cold bums us out, it is a good idea to limit it to such occasions only. Let me go out on a limb and stress on the importance of NASAL breathing – Breathing in AND out through the nose. In this article, I will share why this is critical for our physical as well as mental health.
Every traditional lineage of yoga has emphasized on the importance of nasal breathing. Of the several types of Pranayama techniques (breath regulation techniques), only two involve the mouth and are to be used for specific purposes. All the remaining techniques emphasize on keeping the mouth closed and opening up the right and left nostrils so that our nervous system can be more balanced.
Recently modern sinus specialists are also coming around to the fact that breathing in and out through the nose is extremely crucial for overall wellbeing. Let us understand why this is important and how it benefits us.
Yoga’s take on nasal breathing
Yogic science has a depth of literature on the significance of nasal breathing. There are several books written that explain the physiology of the nose from a yogic standpoint. This science states that the nostrils are control mechanisms for the flow of breath as well as pranic energy that flows through subtle energy channels within the body. It is the prana contained in the breath that keeps us alive and the nostrils are designed to receive this prana very efficiently. Why do the nostrils have this privilege? Because they have a direct connection to the brain and are doorways to the total mind-body system.
Let us see a few benefits of nasal breathing:
Why inhale through nose?
The two nostrils are designed for air to enter and leave the body. They are lined by coarse hair which act as an initial barrier against dust and other foreign objects.
The nasal septum and bones attached to it work on the incoming air, allowing the warm and moist mucus membranes to clean, humidify and regulate the temperature of air that enters the lungs. Simply put, this is the “air-conditioning” function of the nose – purifying, warming and humidifying the inhaled air without which the lungs would dry out, clog with dust and be susceptible to disease.
Moreover, nasal breathing releases nitric oxide, which is necessary to increase carbon dioxide in the blood. This, in turn, is said to release oxygen. On the other hand, mouth breathing does not effectively release nitric oxide, which means the cells are not getting as much oxygen as through nasal breathing, causing loss of energy and stress.
Why exhale through nose?
It is understood that there is a certain amount of energy expended to condition the inhaled air depending on the climatic conditions our body is used to. However, roughly 30% to 40% of the expended energy is recovered by exhaling through the nose. It is a well-known fact that, in addition to inhalation, lungs extract oxygen from air during exhalation and since nasal passages are smaller than mouth it allows for more time for the breath to pass out of the body thereby allowing more oxygen to be recovered.
My personal two bits on this – to me it makes complete sense to let the breath flow out from where it originally entered the body, as a clear pathway is already established for this movement of breath. Inhaling and exhaling though the nose is slower than when we use the mouth to exhale and this slowdown in completing each cycle of breath is essential for the body to feel and experience each breath cycle fully.
Other important benefits
There is some research being done on how nasal respiration plays an important role in controlling brain temperature. But even without this specific research, it is now widely known the role the two nostrils play in controlling, regulating and balancing the nervous system. The left nostril is connected to the right brain and the parasympathetic nervous system (relaxation response) and the right nostril to the left brain and the sympathetic nervous system (stress response).
By breathing in and out through the nasal passages consistently, we constantly communicate with the two brain hemispheres and regulate the rhythm of various organ systems within the body that are controlled by the complex central nervous system.
This is the foundation on which the whole science of Pranayama was developed, where one learns to alternate breath between both nasal passages and bring the body and mind into a state of balance.
Why is nasal breathing particularly important for fitness enthusiasts?
There is an interesting piece on Fitbit blog, where ultramarathon legend Scott Jurek encourages nasal breathing to enhance endurance and stamina.
Mouth breathing can cause dehydration and particularly during sports-related performance it can cause oxygen uptake in the lungs to reduce.
This has been further validated by a recent study published in the International Journal of Kinesiology and Sports Science, where 10 male and female runners were monitored. They implemented nasal-only breathing for six months while exercising.
The study concluded that the runners’ respiratory rate, which are breaths per minute, and ratio of oxygen intake to carbon dioxide output decreased during nasal breathing.
Simply put – their bodies did not have to work as hard to get the same amount of oxygen. It is believed that the lower breath rate used during nasal breathing allows more time for oxygen to get to the bloodstream compared to mouth breathing.
While we all understand the criticality of breathing through the nose, let us also acknowledge that it is not necessarily that easy for many people. Most of us leading the urban, fast-paced life suffer from nasal congestion either due to the constant exposure to air-conditioning which is not normal for our bodies or because of the pollutants that are constantly around us. With many suffering from dust and smoke allergies, breathing through the mouth has become a norm.
What can we do to allow regular nasal breathing?
Neti: One of the best and most effective ways to open up the sinuses and nasal passages is Jala Neti or Sutra Neti. Here either warm and salty water or a specifically designed tube is used to unblock our nostrils. While Sutra Neti may be challenging for most, Jala Neti (water) is highly recommended. Neti pots are available freely in many chemist stores as well as ayurveda shops. Consult a certified yoga teacher to demonstrate how to practice this technique.
Steam inhalation: Inhaling steam from boiling water is one of the age-old and time tested techniques to unblock the respiratory system. Highly recommended to be done on a daily basis, especially after a long day of external activity.
Yogic breathing techniques: One can include simple breathing techniques in your daily workout plan. Start with deep abdominal breathing to understand the basics of breathing fully and then progress slowly to kapalabhati (active exhalation) and alternate nostril breathing (pranayama).
Refer to Prana & Pranayama by Swami Niranjananda Saraswati from the Bihar School of Yoga, Munger for information on this subject.