Benefits of Breathing Slowly
It is said that some great yogis could breathe so slowly through the nose during yoga that even the finest hairs inside the nose would not move. Imagine how physically fit you must be to breathe so quietly during exertion!
What are the benefits of breathing so slow? When and how do you do it? When I wrote my first book, Body, Mind, and Sport, on nose-breathing exercise, I coined a phrase, respiratory efficiency, which is achieved when nose breathing employs all five lobes of the lungs along with full diaphragmatic contraction and relaxation. The breath rate actually slows down instead of increasing as exertion increases!
In yoga and Ayurveda, there are slow and fast breathing practices, both with specific physiological benefits. One pilot study reported that breathing at a rate of just one breath per minute for 31 minutes caused a dramatic reduction of cardiovascular risk factors.
Cardiovascular Risk Factors Decreased by Breathing Once per Minute for 31 Minutes1,2
- stroke index
- heart rate
- cardiac index
- end diastolic index
- peak flow
- ejection fraction
- thoracic fluid index
- index of contractility
- ejection ratio
- systolic time ratio
- acceleration index
- systolic, diastolic, and mean arterial pressures
- left stroke work index
- stroke systemic vascular resistance index
The study included four healthy individuals highly skilled in yogic breathing. They each breathed with a slow inspiration for 20 seconds, breath retention for 20 seconds, and slow expiration for 20 seconds, for 31 consecutive minutes. They concluded that breathing at a slow pace with a breath hold could influence the brainstem’s cardiorespiratory center and be responsible for the cardiovascular benefits.2
Breathing this slow sounds impossible, right? But, with practice, a surprising level of respiratory efficiency can be achieved. Once you can master breath rates as slow as one to three breaths per minute at rest, you can begin to enjoy slower breath rates during the day naturally and spontaneously.
Practice Tip: Go for a walk and count how many steps you take for each inhale and exhale. You may count four steps for each inhale and four steps for each exhale for a total of eight steps. Slowly and comfortably, over time, try to increase your total steps to 10, 15, and 20 steps for one complete inhale and exhale.
Another study (with 17 subjects) reported a significant increase of baroreflex sensitivity, lower blood pressure, increased oxygen saturation, and reduced anxiety with slow breathing. The maximal decrease in blood pressure and anxiety and maximal increase in baroreflex sensitivity and oxygen saturation was at a breath rate of six per minute. Ujjayi was used for this exercise.3
How to Perform Ujjayi Pranayama
Ujjayi is a slow, gentle resistance pranayama known to calm the nervous system while enhancing self-awareness. The word ujjayi is said to mean “leading to success,” which may be one of the many reasons to practice this deep slow pranayama.4
Ujjayi has been reported to alleviate anxiety, depression, everyday stress, post-traumatic stress, and stress-related illnesses.7 The resistance created during ujjayi is key to its benefits. The slight contraction of the glottis in the back of the throat reduces airflow, therefore forcing the diaphragm to work hard and contract fully. During the exhalation, there is increased intrathoracic pressure, likely due to the slight contraction of the glottis and contraction of the abdominal muscles. During inhalation, the diaphragm is forced to fully contract to overcome breathing resistance, but this benefits happens only if both the inhalation and exhalation are slow and deep. While this technique is done slowly, the emphasis is on deep. It is this that results in intensified parasympathetic (rejuvenate, digest-and-repair) vagal activity.3
The mechanisms contributing to ujjayi’s induced state of calm alertness include increased parasympathetic drive, calming of stress response systems, neuroendocrine release of hormones, and thalamic generators.7
With a partial closing of the glottis in the back of the throat, breathe slowly and gently through the nose. The resistance created by contracting the back of the throat (glottis) creates an audible breathing sound (sounds like the ocean or sometimes called the “Darth Vader breath”). This sound is made during both inhalation and exhalation, with the mouth closed. During the inhale, the abdominal muscles relax and during the exhale, they contract, as they are secondary muscles of respiration.
Start by practicing a slow, long, comfortable inhale followed by a slow, long, comfortable exhale. Find a rhythm that you can maintain for 10-20 minutes. For example, a 3-6 count inhale and a 3-6 count exhale. Before adding any breath retention or kumbhaka, be sure you can comfortably maintain a rhythm of six breaths per minute (five seconds on the inhale and five seconds on the exhale).
Breathing slowly allows the body to balance the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood and tissues. Breathing at a normal pace of 18 breaths per minute slowly but surely builds excess oxygen and depletes CO2 [subscript] in the blood and tissues. The slower you breathe, the less CO2 you will breathe out, allowing the body to get used to higher levels of CO2 or a touch of air hunger.
Excess oxygen can have a stimulating effect on the nervous system, while CO2 has a powerful calming effect. Chronically low levels of CO2 can brew higher levels of worry and anxiety. Studies have found that breathing six breaths per minute will allow CO2 levels to rise comfortably, allowing the body to adapt to higher levels of CO2 without discomfort, air hunger, or the urge to breathe. Rising CO2 levels trigger the urge to take your next breath. We have been conditioned to react and breathe with historically low levels of CO2 and have become dependent on fast, shallow, and inefficient breathing.9
Slow breathing has also been shown to enhance respiratory functions. In one study, slow breathing (six breaths per minute) was found to increase the lungs’ vital capacity after two and five minutes, increase forced vital capacity after two minutes, and increase forced inspiratory vital capacity and peak inspiratory flow rate after two, five, and 10 minutes. They concluded that slow deep-breathing exercise, even for a few minutes’ duration, is beneficial for lung function.5
Slow breath has also been shown to support healthy cardiovascular function and blood pressure. In one study, deep slow breathing at a rate of six breaths per minute for just five minutes demonstrated a significant reduction in heart rate, systolic blood pressure, pulse pressure, and mean arterial pressure. They concluded that these changes could be due to a normalization of autonomic cardiovascular rhythms (less stress) as a result of increased vagal modulation (increase parasympathetic activity) and/or decreased sympathetic activity and improved baroreflex sensitivity.8
Ujjayi + Savasana
In this study, practicing ujjayi while in savasana or corpse pose was practiced for six weeks, and a gamut of cardiovascular tests were performed at the beginning and end of the study. Savasana is a lying-down resting (supine) pose designed to fully relax the body. The 60 subjects in this study were divided into two groups. One group did ujjayi while in savasana and the other was the control. Ujjayi pranayama in this study was practiced with a slow deep inspiration, followed by slow deep expiration, with breath holding in between.8
After six weeks of practice, there was significant decrease in the following cardiovascular risk factors: heart rate, systolic blood pressure, diastolic blood pressure, pulse pressure, mean arterial pressure, and rate pressure product.
The study concluded that, “A short-term pranayama practice for six weeks improved the parasympathetic (vagal) functions which suppressed the sympathetic activity, thus denoting the parasympathetic dominance on the cardiovascular system. This breathing exercise can also relieve stress, and it can also be practiced by hypertensive patients as a complimentary therapy with drug therapy.”8
Try this practice of deep, slow ujjayi breathing in savasana when under stress, before a meditation, or before bed to settle your nervous system down. And let us know how it goes in the comments below!