From birth we are designed to breath through our nose (Nasal breathing syndrome or NBS). It’s a survival mechanism. As newborns it helps us to suckle and breath at the same time. As we age, we often segue to mouth breathing, often as a result of obstructions in the nasal passages or congestion. But the nose is a miraculous filter lined with tiny hairs called cilia. The cilia have many functions: they filter, humidify and warm or cool the air (depending on the temperature) before it enters the lungs. It is estimated that cilia protect our bodies against about 20 billion particles of foreign matter a day!!!
If you awake after a nights sleep with a sore throat or dry mouth, chances are you were mouth breathing.
Mouth breathing (MBS) is an abnormal respiratory function. From purely an anatomical perspective, with MBS the tongue is down and back rather than up and forwards with NBS. This influences the position of the head as it drops forward. Every inch the head drops forwards increases the weight on the spine by 10 lbs. Imagine the stress on the cervical joints. And the stress on the spinal muscles. During extreme athletic endeavours, some athletes may revert to MBS to access more air quickly. But unless there is an obstruction, most will revert back to NBS. MBS is associated with increased water loss, decreased energy and changes in salivary profile resulting in a greater risk of heat stress and muscle function, thereby negatively affecting athletic performance due to dehydration. Observe Roger Federer….his mouth is almost always closed during competitions. MBS causes the breath to be faster, shallower and mostly only in the upper chest. This makes us more prone to high blood pressure, anxiety, stress, depression, sleep-disordered breathing, asthma and fatigue. This pushes the body to utilize the sympathetic nervous system drive, the fight or flight response. On the contrary, NBS drives the parasympathetic nervous system, calming the body. If you find that this is a difficult transition from being a mouth breather, humming has shown to be very effective in this. Simply place your upper lip on your lower lip and hum. Now, you may ask, is this called Pranayama? No, it is not. NBS is an unconscious breath, what you do when you are not focusing on the breath. The breath you have whilst sleeping, resting and just being. Pranayama is a conscious breath, where the practitioner directs the breath into certain areas of the body cavity. This cannot begin until the aspirant can do NBS easily, readily and comfortably.
That is why, in the Iyengar method, we require a student to have 2 years of practice before they begin pranayama. The asanas open up the intercostal muscles of the rib cage and remove physical blockages in the body, helping you to develop a healthy, strong and flexible spine. The holdings of asanas helps the student to develop the discipline required to sit or lie, focused only on the breath.
But that is a story for another time. Right now, understand the importance of your unconscious breath.