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How to breathe when the air quality is hazardous

The air quality as I write this is sitting at “hazardous levels” which can feel quite alarming. So what is the best way to breathe when the very air around us feels toxic?! In yoga, our breath is an integral part of the practice. It not only helps us remain mindful of our present moment experience but there are numerous breathing practices to help shift our energy, our mood, to regulate our nervous system, to improve our immune function, our respiratory function, our digestive function, to help us sleep… the list goes on.  But taking deep, full breaths can feel counter intuitive when we’re worried about what it is we’re breathing in!

So the NUMBER ONE advice I can give for breathing in almost any situation is to breathe through your nose! Nose breathing is our body’s primary and preferred way to breathe. Our nose was designed to do just two things – breathing and smelling. Breathing through the mouth is mostly just an alternative for when we can’t use our nose to breathe. There are MANY reasons why nose breathing is the best way to breathe, and here are just some:

  • Our nose contains a filtration system that traps air particles that are of either no use or are hazardous to our health

  • Air is warmed before making its way to our lungs, which allows our lungs to process the intake of oxygen easier

  • Nitric Oxide (an important molecule which increases oxygen transportation throughout our body) is able to be inhaled easier through the nose

  • Nose breathing naturally slows our breathing, which regulates our nervous system, slowing our heart rate, aiding in digestion and more!

  • It’s easier to naturally access diaphragmatic breathing when nose breathing  

As I’ve said in many yoga classes…. As long as you can breathe you can practice yoga! My next sentence is always about the importance of nose breathing. At least for the inhale. There are some yoga breathing practices which involve an exhale through the mouth, and this can certainly be beneficial for releasing all your breath, allowing some tension to release and dissolve.

There are so many yoga breathing practices that are of benefit, but here’s just one to start with that’s a simple but very effective practice for anyone at any age. Ujjayi breath – what I usually call ocean breath (or Darth Vader breath depending on the age and interests of my students!) can take a while to get the hang of, but it can be fun trying too 😊

To start, take a long slow breath in through the nose, then open your mouth and exhale through the mouth with a whisper “haaaaaaaaa”. Repeat two or three times before inhaling through the nose but this time keeping your mouth closed but still attempting the “haaaaaaa” whisper. You’ll feel a slight constriction in the back of your throat and hear that husky, whispering, ocean (or Darth Vader!) sound.  It only needs to be loud enough that you can hear it “hmmmmm”.  Ocean breathing naturally slows down your exhale, which can have a natural calming effect on our nervous system.  You can use this breath to help stay focussed during a mindful movement activity (such as Yoga) or simply use it on its own. Try it and let me know how you feel and then if you have students or children teach it to them – I’d love to know how it goes!

Ocean breathing has the benefit of not only consciously practicing nose breathing, but can also help to calm and soothe anxiety over the current bush fire crisis we have in Australia.  

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