Breathing (but not just any way)...
Hello, sweet friends!
Did you know there is something you can do right now (anytime, day or night) that's free, and has the potential to really profoundly improve your health?
Yep--and it is super simple: breathing through your nose (rather than your mouth).
Why focus on this?
This focus is inspired by the incredible wealth of info James Nestor shares about breathing in his fabulous book Breath: the new science of a lost art. He writes about all sorts of interesting aspects of breathing in the book, but the biggest takeaway for me was the importance of nasal breathing (breathing through our nose, not our mouth).
For example, nasal breathing:
Helps to balance hormones
Helps to balance mood
Improves athletic performance
Reduces sleep apnea
Improves sleep quality and amount of deep sleep
Is important for brain development, cognitive functioning, and can help with learning disabilities
Helps with chronic allergies and congestion
Improves blood pressure
Improves tooth/mouth health— and decreases cavities!
Improves heart rate variability / nervous system responsiveness
Impacts mouth, throat, skull, airway, and facial structure & development
Helps to regulate and provide optimal oxygen and carbon dioxide levels
Leads to physiological signal changes that foster deeper sleep and also decrease the need to wake up to pee
Whoa! And if that isn’t enough motivation, friends, at the bottom of this post I've added a variety of excerpts from the book that I found to be particularly motivating and interesting. But for more detailed info. and inspiration, I definitely recommend the book itself. It is fantastic. James does a brilliant job of weaving captivating personal experiences, with a wealth of scientific findings, as well as plenty of inspiring examples from ancient practices, cultures, and texts. The result: a thorough (and highly motivating) understanding of the importance of nasal breathing for enhanced health, functioning, vitality, and wellbeing.
My relationship with nasal breathing...
Nasal breathing is something I used to really focus on a lot back when I first practiced and taught yoga (~2000-2008). Since then, however, I’ve slowly let this focus slip. Since reading the book during vacation, I’ve been feeling super inspired to bring nose breathing back into focus throughout my day (and night) and it’s already feeling soooooo gooooood. I still catch myself mouth breathing every now and then, but within just a few short weeks I’ve increased my nasal breathing a lot. Plus, I’m more connected with my sense of smell (of course!). And this time of year with all of the flowers —wow—it is such a lovely time to notice the lovely scents in the air.
So let's do it!
Want to join me, friends? You can do it right now... anytime... day and night. Let’s cultivate even more health and wellbeing with this one simple practice: breathing through our noses as often as possible. The more, the merrier.
It's such a lovely way to be present and connect to both our body and the world around us. Plus— it is sooooooo very good for us! Woot!
On and beyond the dance floor
We’ll of course play with this as we dance, but (always) please feel free to focus along with us outside of classes too. And then anytime— now, or after a couple of weeks, months, or years — please let me/us know: has this focus been helpful? What have you noticed/sensed? Are you breathing through your nose more? How is it feeling? Has it change anything for you?
Or perhaps nose breathing is your habit already... If so, awesome! I know many of you are practicing yogis and probably have already explored this a lot over the years. Does anything change for you with this focus while dancing and/or simply going about life too?
As always, I can’t wait to explore this with you and hear about your findings. Cheers to our lovely noses and all they do for us!
Interested in more? Here are some passages from the book that I found to be especially motivating and interesting. I hope they are helpful and inspiring for you too, friends. :)
On page 39, Nestor introduces some of the importance of the role of the nose in breathing:
The nose is crucial because it clears air, heats it, and moistens it for easier absorption. Most of us know this. But what so many people never consider is the nose’s unexpected role in problems like erectile dysfunction. Or how it can trigger a cavalcade of hormones and chemicals that lower blood pressure and ease digestion. How it responds to the stage so fa woman’s menstrual cycle. How it regulates our heart rate, opens the vessels in our toes, and stores memories. How the density of your nasal hairs helps determine whether you’ll suffer from asthma.
Few of us ever consider how the nostrils of every living person pulse to their own rhythm, opening and closing like a flower in response to our moods, mental states, and perhaps event the sun and the moon.
On pages 44-45, he takes us on a beautiful vivid journey through the nose’s vital functions:
Imagine for a moment that you’re holding a billiard ball at eye level a few inches from your face. Then imagine slowly pushing that entire ball inside the center of your face. The volume the ball would take up, some six cubic inches, is equivalent to the total space of all the cavities and passageways that make up the interior of the adult nose.
In a single breath, more molecules of air will pass through your nose than all the grains of sand on all the world’s beaches—trillions and trillions of them. These little bits of air come from a few feet or several yards away. As they make their way toward you, they’ll twist and spool like the stars in a Van Gogh sky, and they’ll keep twisting and spooling and scrolling as they pass into you, traveling at a clip of about five miles per hour.
What directs this rambling path are turbinates, six maze-like bones (three on each side) that begin at the opening of your nostrils and end just below your eyes. The turbinates are coiled in such a way that if you split them apart, they’d look like a seashell, which is how they got their other name, nasal choncha, after the concha shell. Crustaceans use their elaborately designed shells to filter impurities and keep invaders out. So do we.
The lower turbinates at the opening of the nostrils are covered in that pulsing erectile tissue, itself covered in mucous membrane, a nappy sheen of cells that moistens and warms breath to your body temperature while simultaneously filtering out particles and pollutants. All these invaders could cause infection and irritation if they got into the lungs; the mucus is the body’s “first line of defense.” It’s constantly on the move, sweeping along at a rate of about half an inch every minute, more than 60 feet per day. Like a giant conveyor belt, it collets inhaled debris in the nose, then moves all the junk down the throat and into the stomach, where it’s sterilized by stomach acid, delivered to the intestines, and sent out of your body.
This conveyor belt doesn’t just move by itself. It’s pushed along by millions of tiny, hair-like structures called cilia. Like a field of wheat in the wind, cilia sway with each inhale and exhale, but do so at a fast clip of up to 16 beats per second. Cilia closer to the nostrils gyrate at a different rhythm than those farther along, their movements creating a coordinated wave that keeps mucus moving deeper. The cilia grip is so strong that it can even push against the force of gravity. No matter what position the nose (and head) is in, whether it’s upside down or right-side up, the cilia will keep pushing inward and down.
Working together, the different areas of the turbinates will heat, clean, slow, and pressurize air so that the lungs can extract more oxygen with each breath. This is why nasal breathing is far more healthy and efficient than breathing through the mouth. As Nayak explained when I first met him, the nose is the silent warrior: the gatekeeper of our bodies, pharmacist to our minds, and weather vane to our emotions.
On pages 41-42, he shares more specifically about the separate functions of our nostrils
The right nostril is a gas pedal. When you’re inhaling primarily through this channel, circulation speeds up, your body gets hotter, and cortisol levels, blood pressure, and heart rate all increase. This happens because breathing through the right side of the nose activates the sympathetic nervous system, the “fight or flight” mechanism that puts the body in a more elevated state of alertness and readiness. Breathing through the right nostril will also feed more blood to the opposite hemisphere of the brain, specifically to the prefrontal cortex, which has been associated with logical decisions, language, and computing.
Inhaling through the left nostril has the opposite effect: it works as a kind of brake system to the right nostril’s accelerator. The left nostril is more deeply connected to the parasympathetic nervous system, the rest-and-relax side that lowers temperature and blood pressure, cools the body, and reduces anxiety. Left-nostril breathing shifts blood flow to the opposite side of the prefrontal cortex, the right area that plays a role in creative thought, emotions, formation of mental abstractions, and negative emotions.
Isn't that so interesting???
I also loved Nestor’s sharing of examples from ancient texts and a variety of cultures. Here are a few examples from pages 45-47:
Around 1500 BCE, the Ebers Papyrus, one of the oldest medical texts ever discovered, offered a description of how nostrils were supposed to feed air to the heart and lungs, not the mouth.
A Chinese Taoist text from the eight century noted that the nose was the “heavenly door,” and that breath must be taken in through it. “Never do otherwise,” the text warned, “for breath would be in danger and illness would set in.”
(In the 1800s) The Native Americans explained to Catlin that breath inhaled through the mouth sapped the body of strength, deformed the face, and caused stress and disease. On the other hand, breath inhaled through the nose kept the body strong, made the face beautiful, and prevented disease. “The air which enters the lungs is as different from that which enters the nostrils as distilled water is different from the water in an ordinary cistern or a frog-pond,” he wrote.
When beginning this post, I did a quick Google search to see what else was out there about nasal breathing, and found it really interesting that most of the results were from websites of dentists. Before this book, I had no idea about the link between nasal breathing and dental health. But thinking about it now, it (of course) makes so much sense. On pages 49-50, Nestor shares what he learned from a dentist in Silicon Valley.
Dr. Mark Burhenne had been studying the links between mouth-breathing and sleeper decades, and had written a book on the subject. He told me that mouth breathing contributed to periodontal disease and bad breath, and was the number one cause of cavities, even more damaging than sugar consumption, bad diet, or poor hygiene. (This belief had been echoed by other dentists for a hundred years, and was endorsed by Catlin too.) Burhenne also found that mouthbreathing was both a cause of and a contributor to snoring and sleep apnea. He recommended his patients tape their mouths shut at night.
“The health benefits of nose breathing are undeniable,” he told me. One of the many benefits is that the sinuses release a huge boost of nitric oxide, a molecule that plays an essential role in increasing circulation and delivering oxygen into cells. Immune function, weight, circulation, mood, and sexual function can all be heavily influenced by the amount of nitric oxide in the body.
Nasal breathing alone can boost nitric oxide sixfold, which is one of the reasons we can absorb about 18 percent more oxygen than by just breathing through the mouth. Mouth taping, Burhenne said, helped a five-year-old patient of his overcome ADHD, a condition directly attributed to breathing difficulties during sleep. It helped Burdened and his wife cure their own snoring and breathing problems. Hundred of other patients reported similar benefits.
(For specific recommendations about mouth taping, please see pages 51-52 of the book.)
And, thankfully, all throughout the book, Nestor gives us all hope if we find we currently breathe through our mouths. Our bodies adapt to the demands we place on them, and we can retrain our breathing and receive great benefits. On page 51, he shares:
Like other parts of the body, the nasal cavity responds to whatever inputs it receives. When the nose is denied regular use, it will atrophy. This is what happened to Kearney and many of her patients, and to so much of the general population. Snoring and sleep apnea often follow.
Keeping the nose constantly in use, however, trains the tissues inside the nasal cavity and throat to flex and stay open. Kearney Burhenne, and so many of their patients healed themselves this way: by breathing from their noses, all day and all night.
On page 33, Nestor also shares some examples of some benefits Gigi, as well as other humans, and monkeys experience after shifting from mouth-breathing to nasal breathing:
On the computer screen, Evans pulled up another photo. It was Gigi again, but in this shot there were no dark circles, none of the sallow skin or drooping lids. Her teeth were straight and her face was broad and glowing. She was nasal breathing again and no longer snored. Her allergies and other respiratory problems had all but disappeared. The photograph was taken two years after the first, and Gigi looked transformed.
The same thing happened with other patients—both adults and children—who’d regained the ability to breathe properly: their slack-jawed and narrowed faces morphed back into a more natural configuration. They saw their high blood pressure drop, depression abate, headaches disappear.
Harvold’s monkeys recovered, too. After two years of forced mouth-breathing, he removed the silicone plugs. Slowly, surely, the animals relearned how to breathe through their noses. And slowly, surely, their faces and airways remodeled: jaws moved forward and facial structure and airways morphed back into their wide and natural state.
Six months after the experiment ended, the monkeys looked like monkeys again, because they were breathing normally again.
And finally, another passage I loved was on p. 38-39, where Nestor shares poetically about our sense of smell.
Smell is life’s oldest sense. Standing here alone, nostrils flaring, it occurs to me that breathing is so much more than just getting air into our bodies. It’s the most intimate connection to our surroundings.
Everything you or I or any other breathing thing has ever put in its mouth, or in its nose, or soaked in through its skin, is hand-me-down space dust that’s been around for 13.8 billion years. This wayward matter has been split apart by sunlight, spread throughout the universe, and come back together again. To breathe is to absorb ourselves in what surrounds us, to take in little bits of life, understand them, and give pieces of ourselves back out. Respiration is, at its core, reciprocation.
Isn't that beautiful?
As always, thanks for reading. I hope it was helpful info, and am looking forward to dancing with you soon. Thanks, friends!!
Nestor, J. (2020). Breath: the new science of a lost art. Riverhead Books.