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breathing in yoga

What’s your breathing like when practicing yoga?

The way we breathe during a yoga class is affected by many parameters including the :

• our level of experience

• the style of yoga

• our familiarity with the sequence

• how tense we are on the day

• the phase of the menstrual cycle (in the 2nd half progesterone levels increase causing an increase in the pace of breathing)

 

Ref 1

 

If you have been practicing yoga for a while you may have noticed how your breathing changed with time. You may have also noticed that beginners and more advanced practitioners will be performing the same poses (even with the same technique/form) but following a completely different breathing pattern.

While experience is not the only factor to determine your breathing during yoga; in this article I will use that as a reference to suggest how to breathe during your asana practice.

 

HOW SHOULD NOVICE YOGIS BREATHE?

When one starts practicing yoga (especially in a group class), she/he has many challenges to face. I remember having to :

• perform poses on the limit of my flexibility, if not poses completely unaccessible to me

• hold poses for longer than my lactic acid tolerance allowed me

• learn the name of poses

• remember the alignment my teacher indicated

• breathe in and out based on my teacher’s queues

 

While the whole experience at the end can leave the novice student with a sense of relaxation, there is a lot to take in. For that reason I suggest if you are starting out now to follow the following 3 rules :

  1. If you are not feeling comfortable with the pose, make sure you breathe regularly. Things that will help are : remind yourself to breathe every so often & establish a slow breathing pattern.
  2. In poses that you are comfortable observe your breath. Usually the moment we observe our breathing it is slowed down. Refrain from trying to alter it – just observe it.
  3. To the extent that you do not feel suffocated maintain nasal breathing at all times. The best way to achieve that is to refrain from mouth breathing at all costs. This may not be accessible to you in the beginning due to chronic poor respiratory habits, but it is the foundation of any breathwork, so do not give up.

 

HOW SHOULD AN INTERMEDIATE PRACTITIONER BREATHE?

By the time you consider yourself to be an intermediate practitioner you should be switching to ujjayi breath throughout your yoga (asana) practice.

Ujjayi breath in my opinion is : SILENT • SLOW • INTENTIONAL

 

This description is in line with that of Timophy McCall (author of the book “Yoga as Medicine”) :

“When you first learn Ujjayi, you will breathe with an audible noise. But as you progress, the sound may become so subtle that someone sitting next to you would not hear it.” Ref 2 

 

Maintaining ujjayi breath at all times will allow you to :

• stay focused

• maintain good energy levels throughout the whole practice

• oxygenate your muscles and brain adequately

 

HOW SHOULD AN ADVANCE STUDENT AIM TO BREATHE?

As an advanced practitioner you can work towards gaining control of your breathing, independent of the asana or vinyasa performed. Breathing can support your concentration and help perform the yoga poses but it can also challenge them. Advanced practitioners can challenge their asana practice through breathing.

 

The 2 pillars of breathwork are : hypoxia and hypercapnia and they can both be practiced during any yoga class.

 

HOW GOOD IS YOUR BREATHING?

 

Your ability to breathe right during a yoga class is determined not only by your experience in yoga but also by your respiratory capacity. If you want to find out what is your respiratory capacity at the moment do the following 2 tests:

Controlled Pause

Breathlessness Test

 

Once you find your scores, email me the results and I will be happy to suggest which exercises you can practice to improve your respiratory capacity.

 

References :

 

  1. Saaresranta, T., & Polo, O. (2002). Hormones and breathing. Chest122(6), 2165-2182.

2. McCall, T. (2007). Yoga as medicine: the yogic prescription for health & healing: a yoga journal book. Bantam.

 

Cold exposure : 3 scientifically proven benefits

(Updated: 9th Jan 2019)

 

The popularity of cold exposure has increased over the last few years. Whether it is through cryotherapy or cold water immersion more and more people practice and hashtag: #coldexposure. In this article I will cover the benefits of cold exposure for those of us living a modern lifestyle.

 

How old is cold therapy?

The moment you ask this question you realise that cold exposure has been accompanying humans from the very start. As temperatures in nature constantly fluctuate, humans have been exposed to cold voluntarily or not for a long time.

 

As a form of therapy, cold exposure is listed in “The Edwin Smith Papyrus” dated 3,500 BC (Wang H et al., 2006). In certain parts of the globe (ie. Russia, Bulgaria, Scandinavian countries) cold exposure has been part of the culture, practiced in banya or plunge pools. In 2015 Wim Hof (a dutchman Guinness record holder of a few endeavours involving cold exposure) popularised cold training. Training in 2016 with Wim initiated my journey in cold exposure.

 

Cold exposure has been part of the yoga tradition as much of standard procedure in hospitals to prevent further damage in patients with cardiovascular (Ref) and neurological conditions (Ref).

 

1. Cold exposure improves Circulation & Cardiovascular Function

Think of cold exposure as a workout for the circulatory system.

Most people think of cardio when it comes to improving their cardiovascular function. Cold exposure though offers a unique way to strengthen one’s cardiovascular system (cvs).

Our cardiovascular system is surrounded by epithelial muscles which facilitate the circulation of the blood. At low temperatures the epithelial muscles surrounding the veins and arteries of our extremities constrict – preserving the blood and the nutrients carried in it for the more vital organs in the trunk and the head. When the body returns to higher temperatures the epithelial muscles in our extremities dilate again allowing for the blood to flow freely there. In a similar way that our biceps get stronger as they contract during bicep curls (or chaturangas) our cardiovascular system can get stronger through cold exposure.

 

 

Good circulation means no athletes foot, no cold extremities, better cognitive function, ability to heal/recover faster and perform better in sports.

 

2. Cold exposure is a meditation technique

Those that practice cold water immersions for some time report a sensation of stillness in mind (usually 30 seconds to a minute after the initial exposure). A friend of mine Luke Wills (founder of the Optimal Health Method) said he reached the same state of mind in his 2nd ice bath, with that on the 7th day in a vipassana meditation retreat. Anecdotal evidence like this were confirmed to be valid in a study published in May 2018 titled “Brain over Body“.  In this study participants with no previous experience in cold exposure and Wim Hof, were interchangeably exposed to cold and neutral temperatures. One of the most striking differences between the inexperienced subjects and Wim was the Dutchman’s ability to reduce activity in the insular cortex part of the brain during cold exposure. Insular cortex is an area involved in emotional attachment to external stimuli and self-reflection. Activity in this part of the brain has been shown to be linked with meditation and control in emotional eating.

 

Meditation is the 5th of the 8 limbs of yoga.

 

3. Cold exposure helps overcome fears

Cold exposure is demanding on many levels; the adrenals, musculoskeletal system, circulation and the brown fat tissue are activated at low temperatures. Aside though the multiple biochemical adaptations in the rest of the body, our brain also changes when we are exposed to cold. The initial response is that of: “fight or flight” [2]. A small area of the brain called amygdala (Greek word for almond) – by activating the HPA (Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal) axis – signals a Stress response to the rest of the body. While this initial stage is universal the way one deals with cold thereafter depends on her experience and ability to use her breath.

By training the body to deal with a stressful situation (ie. a cold immersion) in a controlled environment (such as a shower or a bath) we can reprogram our mind to deal with stressful situations which are out of our control. Our main tool in this process is our breath. Dealing with fear was the focus of a workshop I gave in 2017 to a group of actors. You can see footage from it in the video.

Iyengar’s book “Light on Yoga” has the subtitle: “the yoga journey to wholeness, inner peace and ultimate freedom.” In our yogic journey (our journey to wholeness) we will have to ultimately face our fears. I believe that cold exposure offers a unique opportunity to learn how to do that.

 

Conclusion

The list above is not exhaustive of the benefits one can get from cold exposure; controlling pain perception [Ref], generation of Brown Fat [Ref], strengthening of the immune system [Ref], improved tolerance to cold [Ref] are also good reasons for modern humans to practice cold exposure.

 

Future workshops are listed here.

 

5 things I learnt from Wim Hof

It’s not every day that you meet a 20 times Guinness record holder. When you come to meet him though [ & you train under his supervision in the method he developed], the chances are you will get some insights. Wim Hof (the “iceman”) is a amazing person – like we all are. However there are 2 good reasons why you will hear this expression about Wim all the time:
i. he has stripped himself off what he calls: “the programming”. He doesn’t dress his true self with a politically correct behaviour (i.e. he encourages people to breath, breath deep – not caring which hole the air comes in) neither takes himself seriously.

 


 

ii. he didn’t hold back in life. He “went deep”. I cannot pay justice to the importance of this comment but basically what it means is he went where he didn’t feel comfortable.

 

1. Nature is the teacher

Nowadays, science is, unfortunately in my opinion, perceived as the only source of truth. Science started as an attempt for humans to systematically understand nature.

“Nature is the teacher.” ~ Wim Hof

 

science-then-now

 

He encourages students to go to nature and learn everything he knows.

“Nature is merciless but righteousness” ~ Wim Hof

 

2. Train your body to adapt not tolerate

Up until recently cold exposure was for me similar to weight training. I lift weights → I get stronger → I can carry heavier bags from the supermarket [ i.e. I expose myself to cold → I become more tolerable to cold → I am less likely to get sick in the winter (or something among these lines anyway) ]. While partly true there is a 2nd degree of benefits more significant.

We can moderate our body temperature whether we are exposed to cold or not. Cold offers feedback but the environmental temperature should not determine our body temperature. The day prior to the ascend of mount Snezka Wim told us: It will not be very low tomorrow* but you should go high.

* meaning the temperature will not be very low

 

3. Zorba the Buddha

Osho Rajneesh (1931-1990) spoke about how life should be a meditative practice, which should be equally enjoyed at the same time. Zorba the greek (according to Osho) is the foundation and Buddha is the palace, on top of the foundation.

“If everything goes according to me, every man will die as Zorba the Buddha. Between the Greek and the Buddha there is not much distance, but first you must be the Greek.” ~ Osho

Wim is such a model. The word joy is not foreign to him, yet every breathing practice and exposure to cold is an opportunity to go into meditation.

 


 

 

4. The body’s calling, pick up the phone

Have you heard the phrase holistic approach? Well I do all the time and I have become more allergic to it than dracula is to garlic. The reason is that while in principle the idea is good, it has become a marketing hashtag for pre-prescribed (usually expensive) protocols.

What’s Wim approach then: He gives you 3 basic tools (breathing, cold exposure, focus), encourages you to practice regularly and focus on the problem at hand. If you now think that’s one size fits all approach, I encourage you to go try some visits to a local cold lake or some deep breathing sessions. You will only go as far as you can. And why I am so confident about that?

These approaches are engaging. They are on the opposite end of the spectrum where drugs, vitamin supplements or massage treatments will deal with the problem without your participation.

 

change

 

5. Be humble to be great

Wim is a warm hearted man prior to be an iceman, in my eyes at least. I could list myriad examples I witnessed in 1 week which confirm that. Instead I would bring to your attention the reason WHY he does what he does: To empower people.

He is not competitive or tries to be an illusionist. In his own words:

“What I can do, everyone can do.” ~ Wim Hof

I remind you: 20 Guinness Records.

 

ps: Big part of the training was delivered by Kasper van der Muelen, a brilliant coach.