How We Breathe: Mouthbreathing


Mouth breathing is an all too common habit, and one that can be broken through yogic breathing techniques called pranayama.  In today’s post, I am going to talk about how mouth breathing can become habitual, the problems brought on my this bad habit and some ideas on how to correct mouth breathing.

The mouth-breathing habit

Mouth breathing is always an acquired habit as newborns are anatomically unable to breathe through their mouths.  This is why many a parent of a newborn with a stuffy noses sweats in fear as the baby struggles to breathe.
As the muscles of the neck and throat develop, though, the baby becomes able to breathe through the mouth.  If the child suffers from repeated bouts of  sinusitis, catarrh or rhinitis, mouth breathing may becoming habitual.  The child may become so accustomed to mouth breathing the shape of the mouth and teeth is permanently altered.  
If a person gets through childhood without developing a mouth breathing habit, they may still fall prey in adulthood.  Many high-intensity sports, like aerobics, running, spinning, tennis etc. can exert the cardiovascular system and make some mouth-breathing necessary.  However, external stressors like a very competitive attitude, pushing far past the pain barrier or a lack of awareness while exercising (the body is moving, but the brain is chewing over past or future events) can transform an otherwise healthy activity into a less healthy one.

So, why is mouth-breathing so bad?

The lungs work best with clean, moist, warm air.  They are made of an extremely fine tissue and produce mucus to protect themselves.  In fact, the whole respiratory system has a mucus lining.  What do the lungs, bronchii and throat need protecting from?  Bacteria.  Dust and particulate matter.  Dry air.  Aerosols.   Smoke.  Anything that can get into the breathing apparatus should be stopped before it gets to the lungs.
When we breathe through the nose, the cavernous area behind the visible nose, called the nasal turbinate, warms, moistens and cleans the air before it enters into the lungs.  When we breathe through the mouth, this happens to a far lesser extent, stressing the lungs.
Then, there is the adenoid tonsil.  This is a lump of lymphatic tissue that is a first defence against invaders.  If you breathe through the nose, the air passes over the adenoid tonsil.  If  any invaders are detected, the early-warning team of the immune system, the helper T-cells, kicks into action.  Keep in mind a cute and simple fact about immunity:  an early response keeps infection contained because the invader has less time to reproduce, so the extent of infection is lower.  That’s why you need a strong, quick immune response.  Bacteria and viruses reproduce very, very quickly.  You don’t want to give them even a few hours in the body without immune response!

Helper T cells are arguably the most important cells in adaptive immunity, as they are required for almost all adaptive immune responses. They not only help activate B cells to secrete antibodies and macrophages to destroy ingested microbes, but they also help activate cytotoxic T cells to kill infected target cells. As dramatically demonstrated in AIDS patients, without helper T cells we cannot defend ourselves even against many microbes that are normally harmless. (

The nasal turbinate also slows down the entry of air into the respiratory system because the air has to circulate a little bit in there. In slowing down the passage of air, the turbinate performs another very important function:  it warms and moistens the air.  How does this happen:  The air comes into contact with the mucus membrane of the turbinate and the blood in the capillaries which is at body temperature, transfers some heat to the air.  The mucus transfers a little bit of water, and ta-dah! cold and dry air becomes warm and moist air, just right for your lovely alveoli.
So, to resume:  the lungs want warm, moist, clean air.  The nose is the structure that can deliver air in the right conditions to the lungs.  Anything else is second-rate.

How to correct mouth-breathing.

As with anything, becoming aware is the first step. Watch yourself and see when and if you breathe through the mouth.  What are you doing when it happens? Do you breathe through the mouth at night?  Does that Netflix series you like so much keep you on the edge of your seat and alter your breath?  Just keep an eye.
When you figure out the triggers, you can put the brakes on when you need to.
If you find it generally hard to breathe through the nose and are prone to a stuffy nose, maybe you can use some neti nasal irrigation, or saline cleansing.
If physical exertion makes you mouth breathe, or pant, maybe you need to tone down the pace so that you can breathe steadily and correctly?  I know that is hard in a group class, or when we want to reach goals.  But doesn’t it make sense to not harm yourself while exercising?
Finally, if it is emotional stuff that makes your mouth breathe, try to keep your cool. Most of us seek out stimulating stuff like video games, television series and movies.  When the adrenaline gets moving, the heart rate increases and we are more likely to breathe through the mouth.  This is a totally unintentional and avoidable side-effect of a very normal activity.  Becoming aware of this can help you stop it happening.

Mouth breathing and sex.

There is one area where mouth breathing seems almost unavoidable:  lovemaking. If you are lucky enough to have a beloved to cuddle and canoodle with, right now, I’d say go for it, mouth breathing be damned! ha!  I mean, if your lover makes you pant, it is probably a good thing, right? hah!  Still, correct breathing will make it even better:   if you want to learn about tantra, or multiple orgasms for men, you will have to work on your breathing technique.    Having said all that, the good folks over at Conscious Breathing have published a very complete article about the links between good, nasal breathing and sexuality.


Since this is a yoga blog, I will resume by saying that the practice of hatha yoga, and pranayama will help you to breathe nasally and makes all the above easier, more pleasant and more natural.
So, come on down to class, get on your mat, breathe deeply, feel peace and joy within, and shine your little light, dear people.  The guru is within you.

Series: How we breathe – Introduction

Yoga can teach us many things, but perhaps the most important one is how to breathe.  Since I know a lot about breathing, I have decided to begin writing a little series entitled “How we breathe”.  I know that, with great frequency, bloggers start of with big plans to write a series, but things tail off after two or three entries.  Rest assured that here with Miss Rachel, this will not happen.  I am far, far too stubborn to do such a thing.  Ha!
Reflect, for a moment, if you will on this:  There is little else, other than the breath, that accompanies you, absolutely surely accompanies you, from the first moment you are born until the last moment you live.
You can lose a kidney, a spleen.  A heart can be transplantedA brain can be induced into a coma.  But the breath is there, coming and going, rising and falling.

Breathing and Anxiety

Anxiety is crippling us these days and the breath may hold one of the keys to overcoming it.  The defining quality of a panic attack is the feeling that one cannot breathe.  I have had two panic attacks in my life, now thankfully, many years ago.  But I recall the constricted feeling all too well.  I doubt that it could happen to me now.  Why?  Because I know “how to breathe”.  To touch ever so lightly on the matter, and more will follow, paradoxical breathing is the main problem here.

How does one breathe?

Breathing is one of those things that we thing we all just know.  But how many of you can name the accessory muscles of breathing?  Or say whether the internal or external intercostal muscles aid the inhale or the exhale?  Gotcha?  So, can you say you know how to breathe if you don’t know the mechanics of breathing?

Biochemistry of Breathing.

And how many of you know about the interchange of gases (CO2 and O2) across the alveolar wall?  Or the difference between breathing and respiration?  Or what the heck happens to all that oxygen, anyway?  There are so many facets to breathing and there is so much to learn.


Yoga has some amazing techniques to deepen and broaden the breath. I have tried many systems of yoga and practised for ages.  I will stand here and say that Viniyoga, the style I teach, is the one that taught me to breathe.  I can teach you what my teachers taught me.

Best of all, breathing properly is free!  Yes, people, you may have to invest in yoga lessons in order to learn, but once you’ve learnt, ain’t no one going to take it away from you…you are your master, baby!
So, this will be the first post in a series dedicated to the mechanics, biochemistry and yogic technique of breathing.  Like and subscribe, people.  And hey, if you have a coherent answer to any of the questions above, comment below.

The qualities of a yoga practice – Santosha and Ahimsa

I had a great group come along for class yesterday afternoon.  We did a practice designed for the legs and the âpana.  We all had a good go at some standing balances, with a transition between two postures. And mostly everyone fell out of the poses at least once.
Teaching a class is a dynamic, fluid thing.  I usually have drop-in groups, and of varying levels of experience.  The skill of a teacher depends on being able to tailor the practice to the group and make it enjoyable and useful for everyone, while never straying from the essence of the teachings.  This is called “pedagogy” and is the art of teaching.
I used the falling out of the poses to teach some yoga philosophy.  I used the Sanskrit words “Ahimsa” and “Santosha” to help people understand how to deal with things like falling out of poses.
Ahimsa means non-violence.  I use this word in the context of not allowing violent self-critiquing thoughts to arise.  It is common to sigh in frustration when we can’t do something, say to ourselves “I always fall” or “I will never get it” or “I am useless”.  We use ahimsa, which is one of the five Yamas of yoga, to practice peaceful, non-harming inner (and outer) dialogue.
Santhosha is one of the five Niyamas and of my favourite Sanskrit words.  It means contentment, enjoyment more or less. Fall out of a pose? hahahah!  Use Santosha to not want what others have, ie:  don’t compare yourself to others, and be content with what you are.
I say:

Some people believe that the Universe is a big game, that it is all a joke.  The archetype of the Trickster God is very common. Hermès, (AKA Mercury, my ruling planet) of the Greeks, was a trickster.  Krishna was a trickster The Raven of the Northwest Coast Indigenous peoples is aso a trickster.  When you start to think of checks and balances in life as jokes, as something to laugh at, it all gets a bit lighter. 

You see, it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.  Fail and take it lightly, step wrong, then do a little shuffle and get back on the beat.  Use non-violent inner dialogue to correct yourself, but not castigate.  Use good humour to just take it as a little joke.  Don’t put that strenuous face on in yoga,  have fun.
Taint What you Do, It’s the Way That You Do It, as the old song goes.  Here is a delightful live version of that old song, recorded by Sedajazz just up the road in beautiful Valencia.


Yoga is meant to calm me…so why do I feel so nervous?

This is a brilliant question that I received this week from a newcomer to class.  This particular lady was recommended yoga by her doctor, so comes as a special case.  Ideally, it must be said, such a person would have private tuition.  But, the mere fact that she has managed to make contact and come to class is practically a miracle.
Before the second class, she asked me this

During class last week, I felt very good.  But afterwards, I went home and felt more nervous than ever.  Isn’t yoga meant to calm me down?

Thus I replied:  Most anxiety arises from repression of emotions.  Anxiety and depression are often mixed, and sometimes confused.  But they are vastly different.  While depression has to do with a lowered level of mental activity, anxiety is a heightened state.  In yoga terms, anxiety is rajas and depression is tamas.  
Anxiety seems to arise when the brain is over-active.  This can be an excess of information, or an excess of emotion.  Most people with anxiety develop coping mechanisms.  The best way to plunge on through life when your brain is screaming red murder is to pretend it isn’t happening.  Here is the delightful Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s explaining it much more clearly than I ever could:

So, this lady suffers from chronic anxiety.  ie:  running to Tiffany’s every time she gets the mean reds.  And Tiffany’s can be a place in your mind, it can be a bottle, it can be distraction, an addiction, whatever.  You’re afraid and you don’t even know what you’re afraid of, the best response is to run, right?
Well, yes, until it isn’t the best response.  Because, just like Holly Golightly, if we could find a real live place that makes us feel like Tiffany’s, then we would buy some furniture and give the cat a name.
You see, dear readers, dear students, dear seekers, yoga brings you home to that real live place. When suddenly you have contact with the Still Point inside of you, simply through breathing, movement and the right teacher, you realise that all your running was in vain.  And you relax a little bit.  But… the minute you relax a little bit and then go back to breathing fast and shallow, fighting with the traffic, being surrounded by people who are NOT on the Path and almost seem to wish to shove YOU off the Path, you have to start running away again.  And you feel even more nervous than before.  
You can think of it as a study of contrasts.  If you are always in the mean reds, then a little deeper tone of red is hardly noticeable.  But if you are suddenly “in the pinks” and you go back to the reds…ouch.
Why does yoga make me feel good in class but nervous afterwards? Because yoga holds a mirror up to your inner state and makes you look at the things you don’t want to see and have probably spent a lifetime avoiding.  For that reason it is very, very, very important to have a trusting relationship with a qualified teacher.
Upon receiving that information from my student, a person I know hardly at all, I modified the pranayama at the end of the class and gave a technique specifically indicated for her, but that would cause no harm to any other members of the class.  And then, the next morning, I texted her, to make sure she was okay.  And she was.  And what’s more, she felt good.
So, people, there are Youtube videos a-plenty, gymnasium yoga fit classes galore, all sorts of bells and whistles.  But yoga is a practice that transcends all of this stuff and has tools to help everybody and the teacher is the one who will show you the path.  Get on your mats, comes to class, breathe deeply, be joyful.  The Spirit is within you, let it move you.

Bring calm into your nervous system via breathing

Here is a short video that deals with the relationship between the breath and the emotions.  In a study, scientists discovered that when emotions are elicited in trial participants, their breathing pattern changes.  But the interesting thing is that the opposite thing also happens:  When breathing patterns are altered, the corresponding emotion is elicited.  Let’s allow Emma Seppälä to explain it:
Breathe Better: How to Improve Your Mind, Attention, and Memory
In the video, she demonstrates the yogic breathing technique known variously as Nadi shodhana or anuloma-viloma.  Alternate nostril breathing works just fine, too.

Musings on Meditation

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the path of yoga is very clearly laid out.  Book 1 talks about the kind of person who undertakes to stay on the path, and the pitfalls that may arise whilst there.  Book 2 talks about the practical part of yoga.  It is here that you will find the first mention of hatha yoga – the postural part that we are now familiar with – and the other 7 branches of Astanga Yoga (there are eight limbs in total).
We start with character-building, as Swami Radha calls it in her brilliant book “Kundalini Yoga for the West”.  These are the yamas and niyamas.  Once this is established, the yogi can then confidently practice asana  (postures) and pranayama, (breathwork) leading to pratyahara, or retraction of the senses. I found the concept of pratyahara difficult to understand before directly experiencing its effects. Your path and my path of yoga are each distinct and unique, so I won’t elaborate too much here.  But, in my case, pratyahara meant a softening of the impact of external influences – loud noises make me jump less, bright lights don’t annoy, strong smells…well strong smells still bug me.  Okay, but you might get the point.
The next limb of Astanga Yoga is dharana, or concentration.  This is not, note, meditation, which is dhyana. Dharana is the ability to focus the mind on a single object for increasingly long periods of time.   Eventually, one become “one” with the object, and enters into samana with it.  This is the beginning of Book 3 of the sutras.  The object can be something external like an icon or candle, or it can be more subtle, like the breath or the heartbeat.
Still, the point I want to make here is that dharana, and eventually dhyana, are the fruits of previous practice.  I was a terribly meditator.  For years I fidgeted on my zafu, wondering where all the mental peace was.  Well, the answer is it’s coming…be patient.  Practice and all is coming, said Sri Pattabhi Jois.   I use the spinal breathing method described in the book “Advanced Yoga Practices”.  (
My advice is:  don’t jump straight into meditation without toning the body and breath first.  Some people can – hey, we’re all different – but many people can’t.  And don’t give up.  Propel yourself forward on wings of faith.  Look up at the sky and realise that the Universe is boundless and you are a speck and rejoice in all the incredible freedom that gives you.  OM.

Tending the Fire

There is much talk of fire in most Yoga texts and teachings. Fire is one of the 5 elements, the others being Air, Water, Earth and Ether/Space. Fire is felt to transform matter from one state to another. Its sinuous flames remind us nearly of liquid, so despite its “hot” quality, it is also intimately associated with Water, Water being its equal and opposite.
The path of yoga is one of transformation. We learn new ways to move, think, breathe and be still, and thus we transform ourselves from one type of person into another. We are still ourselves, but we have changed, shed a skin or grown a new one. Thus, stoking the fire of transformation is of utmost importance.
In hatha yoga, we do this mainly through postures associated with the abdominal region. We also practise breathing techniques that emphasize the inhale and breath retention with lungs full. Other lineages may follow other methods, and these are all legitimate. You are always in control of your yoga practice, and are free to choose the branch of yoga that most satisfies your heart and soul.
This winter, I have learned to tend the hearth. I have never before lived in a house with a working fireplace, let alone relied upon it as my main heat source! But, I am open to change. I had call to be the sole firelighter for a period of nearly two weeks. I struggled mightily at first, sitting near it, blowing desperately on rapidly dwindling sticks and leaves and bits of paper. Once, I managed a roaring inferno on the first go, but most nights heard me cursing the whole rustic life and yearning to go back to the city and central heating.
But I persisted.
I discovered that the paper I use on my massage couch serves perfectly as a recycled firelighter. Light, and slightly oil-streaked, it takes immediately and burns hot. I learnt the value of the small bits of kindling that my partner lovingly chops, and how to tell if wood if green or dry. I am now a one-match woman. I can set and light a fire in about ten minutes, and tend it carefully for hours. I watch it and poke it and generally feel it to be a living presence in my home.
I think that our inner Fire is the same. It needs the right material to start it up, and the right material and rhythm to keep it burning brightly. We need to pay attention to it, feeding it more when it needs it, and leaving it to rest when it doesn´t. Cared for properly, our inner Fire helps us efficiently transform our food into healthy tissue and keeps us energetic and motivated.
Weak Fire leaves us sluggish, uninspired and waterlogged. We feel like we are walking in soaked through clothing. A Fire burning too brightly manifests in a flushed face, quick temper and impatience. Remember, a person may have imbalance of one Element in the physical body, while having a completely different Elemental layout in the realm of the Mind.
So, tend your Fire, dear souls.

A few days away

Namasté.  I went this weekend with my yoga group to the Sierra de Mariola, near Alcoy.  A lovely break, it was.  We stayed at a lovely casa rural called “Casa Bons Aires.”    If you should chance to visit the Font Roja region of Alicante, I highly recommend a visit.
The theme of our studies was pranayama, but the unintentional theme was sound.  We chanted the Gayatri mantra in the vedic form as a group.  We sang some bhakti mantras together, with yours truly on guitar.  We laughed our asses off over supper.  The rooster crowed us awake in the morning.  Claudia the donkey brayed.  Water flowed and gushed.  Gases erupted unexpectedly in down dog (adho mukha svanasana).  We practiced bhramhari pranayama.  We had fun…ananda!  Santosha!
There really is nothing like a few days away to recharge your batteries.  “Cambiar el aire” as the Spanish say.  Although I arrived home tired, I feel like I’ve had a month of holidays!
Meanwhile. have a listen to Wade Imre Morrissette sing the Tara Mantra.    I went to High School with this fellow.  I must admit that I would not have imagined him ending up chanting sanskrit mantras!  Wahey Guru!!

Let the breath contain the movement

The breath is the link between the exterior and the interior yogic practices. It is not in vain that pranayama is the fourth of the eight limbs (ashtanga) of yoga.  The first three are the most external:  habits and behaviours towards yourself and others (niyamas, yamas) and postures (asana).  The last 4 angas are to do with the mind (dhyana, dharana etc.)  Therefore, the breathing techniques (pranayama) form the link between the body and the mind.
The mind has no form, it is composed only of the thoughts that define it.  The quality of mind can be either tamasic (heavy) or rajasic (excited) when not trained.  The trained mind is satvic (calm).  Because it is very difficult to work directly on the mind, to make it more satvic, we bring the mind under control by learning the control the breath.  Breathing is the only physiological process that is under both conscious and unconscious control.
An easy way to focus your yoga practice is to pay attention to the breath.  The breath should be a parenthesis to the movement.  This means that the breath is always longer than the movement:  it begins before the movement begins, and ends after the movement ends. For example, with arms by your side, begin breathing in.  Raise your arms above your head.  Finish the breath after the arms come to vertical.  Now, do this breathing technique throughout your practice. It is very difficult to maintain this kind of mental focus.  Don’t worry if your mind wavers.  When you notice it doing so, come back to the focus (bhavana.)