Breath Hygiene: Keeping the Mind and Body Healthy Through COVID-19

Robin Rothenberg, author of Restoring Prana and forthcoming Svadhyaya Breath Journal: A Companion Workbook to Restoring Prana (June 2020), served for six years on the IAYT Accreditation Committee in addition to running a busy yoga therapy practice. Her yoga therapist training program was one of the first to be accredited by IAYT in 2014 and she has been a yoga therapist for over 20 years. You can find out more about Robin at Essential Yoga TherapyBelow she shares tips for keeping the mind and body healthy through COVID-19.

Over the past few weeks I’ve seen numerous social media posts counseling people to stay calm and stay clean. In my experience, employing good breath hygiene is the most effective way to both remain grounded and support immune and respiratory health. The breath is our greatest inner resource and with a little breath education, you too can develop the capacity to settle yourself, even when fear is gnawing at your gut!  Initially, breath hygiene may feel unfamiliar or awkward (much like learning to wipe down everything you touch with disinfectant) but the more you work with it, the easier it gets.

Here are five valuable tips for how you can use the breath as a powerful BFF to enhance emotional regulation, while simultaneously giving your immune system a boost.

1. Breathe Through Your Nose

I’m going to actually write that again in all caps to implore you: PLEASE, BREATHE THROUGH YOUR NOSE. The nasal cavity is the miraculous starting point for your immune system. Your nose is designed to protect your lungs from foreign particles, including germs. Within the nasal cavity are tiny turbinates that work hard to filter out substances that are not intended to be ingested. Inside the sinus cavities you have pockets of Nitric Oxide, a potent anti-microbial gas that has been shown to have anti-viral capacities as well. With each nasal inhalation you ensure that the air you are taking into your body has passed through your natural TSA check-point, weeding out potential biological terrorists.

I suggest employing nose-breathing 24/7. For me this means taping my mouth each night before bed. Nose breathing at night supports deeper, more restful sleep. Sleep is an incredibly important factor in sustaining your health. Mouth-breathing is linked to snoring, sleep apnea, insomnia, dental decay, and poor gum-health. Mouth and chest breathing also foster anxiety and panic by stimulating the sympathetic nervous system. To employ mouth-tape at night, use hypo-allergenic paper tape, like 3M Micropore or Nexcare Paper Tape.

2. Breathe light

Although common lore says that when you feel nervous or upset that you should take a deep (implying BIG ) breath, I’m going to suggest the opposite. Here’s why:

Big breathing stimulates your sympathetic nervous system. You tend to take big sighs or gulps of air when you are stressed or physically working-out. When you are relaxed your breath is slow and soft. I routinely ask anxious clients, “How would Buddha Breathe?” Can you imagine Buddha huffing and puffing his way through meditation?  If you invoke your inner-Buddha and settle the breath, you will find that the mind follows and settles in-kind. This is the key to the power behind yoga pranayama practices. When you quiet your breathing, the nervous system resets into relaxation mode. If your internal alarm system isn’t being fired off by hefty rounds of big breathing, your mind will likely cease and desist from agitating stories of impending doom.

3. Breathe slow

It’s not always easy, but the companion to a light breath is a slow, rhythmic breath.

Fast breathing correlates with a higher heart rate and the fight or flight response. It tends to give rise to shallow, chest-generated breathing. When you override the urge to breathe rapidly, you exhibit personal agency over your reactivity in the present moment. This is empowering! Regardless of the circumstances happening outside of yourself, you can choose to maintain a slow, light cadence: Inhale 4 seconds, exhale 6 seconds, pause for 2. This keeps your mind from being hi-jacked by fear while reinforcing resilience.

4. Breathe like a Jelly Fish

Imagine your diaphragm, which sits right in the center of your body expanding and contracting like a beautiful jelly-fish floating through the ocean. When you breathe in, your diaphragm flattens, expanding your rib-cage laterally. When you exhale, your diaphragm draws inward narrowing the dome into the concave space between the ribs. This action formulates the basics of functional breathing bio-mechanics.

The abdominal muscles also attach to the lower rib-cage and work synergistically with the diaphragm. You can actively engage your abdominals to amplify healthy diaphragmatic movement. To do this, span your hands around the lower side-ribs and upper belly. With each exhalation, draw the belly inward as if you were hugging your viscera and giving it a good squeeze. On inhalation, relax the belly and allow it to passively expand. Visualize the undulating movement of a jelly-fish and train your belly and diaphragm to dance with the breath, much as a jelly-fish propels itself through water. Jelly-fish breathing enhances your parasympathetic nervous system by gently pumping the vagus nerve and replacing the chest-breathing habit. It massages your heart and supports lymphatic drainage. When you jelly-fish breathe, the lower lobes of the lungs are better activated which improves ventilation and profusion with far less effort.

5. Short Breath Hold Practice – Your ER Breath Remedy

It may sound counter-intuitive, but the absolute most effective way to short-circuit the panic button is to voluntarily stop breathing.

Employing Short Breath Holds (SBH) in a repetitive fashion rebalances your oxygen and carbon-dioxide levels. This in turns, increases oxygenation to the tissues, reducing tension. The arteries dilate, airways reopen, and nervous impulses quiet down. All of these systemic responses support you feeling more in-control and less likely to be emotionally de-railed.

Here’s how to employ a SBH practice:

-Always work with the pause after exhale.
-Take a gentle nasal breath in and out (light, slow, and low).
-Seal your nostrils with your fingers and count gently up to 5.
-Release your fingers and take another gentle breath in and out through the nose.
-Take a second or third ‘recovery’ breath between breath-hold cycles as needed.
-Repeat the short breath hold process.
-Gradually increase the hold to 6, 7, or 8 seconds.
-Build gradually over several breath cycles until you feel a return to calm.

NOTE: Short breath holds are never to be done after the inhale. Only sustain the suspension of the breath to a level that feels slightly challenging, not to the point that you’re gasping for the next in-breath. Be sure that the inhalation that follows your breath-hold is nasal – through the nose. Also, feel free to adapt. If a 5 second initial hold feels too long, drop it down to 1, 2 or 3 seconds and build from there. If you feel comfortable extending the breath hold to 12 or 15 seconds, work at that level. Honor where you are with this process. As your respiratory system calms down, you’ll find it easier to volitionally suspend the breath for longer periods of time.

Why it Works: The intention of the SBH practice is to allow your CO2 levels to raise back up re-establishing homeostasis. CO2 has a sedative effect on your nervous system. It acts as a vasodilator and relaxes the smooth muscle in the body which is embedded in the airways, arteries, and organs including the brain. When you stress-breathe for a period of time, you can temporarily hyper-ventilate. This means you’re breathing too much and lowering CO2 levels below normal. The lower levels of CO2 can make you feel like you’re having a heart attack or possibly dying. SBH practice offers a safer and less-cumbersome alternative to paper-bag breathing. The paper-bag method (dramatized in movies as a response to panic attacks) is intended to restore CO2 levels, offering immediate relief.

SBH practice can also be used to stave off coughs, wheezing, or chronic congestion. I encourage my clients to sway, dance, or jog in place while practicing their breath-holds. This offers a useful and playful distraction, enabling more comfort while learning this technique. Others find accompanying SBH practice with the repetition of a silent mantra like, “Om Shanti”, or “Light, Love, Joy and Peace” to be very soothing.

To summarize, remember these salient points:

Breathe through your nose;

Breathe Light

Breathe Slow

Breathe Low (Jelly-fish breathing)

When feeling anxious, worried, or restless—reach for your innate rescue remedy: Short Breath Holds!

The brilliant thing about good breath hygiene is you can practice all day long and no wipes are required! Learning to breathe this way offers potent sustenance to embody a calm, relaxed, and responsive state of mind. May we all find our way through these turbulent times and model our commitment to health and sanity through proactive self-care like good breath hygiene.


Restoring Prana
A Therapeutic Guide to Pranayama and Healing Through the Breath for Yoga Therapists, Yoga Teachers, and Healthcare Practitioners

Robin L. Rothenberg. Foreword by Richard Miller, illustrated by Kirsteen Wright

Many yoga instructors and therapists are undertrained in respiratory physiology and the impact breathing has on individuals, and this guide makes this information accessible and easy-to-adapt to practice. This reference guide for instructors and therapists will ensure that the yoga community practices breathing techniques safely and effectively.

Read more


Spotlight: Robin’s Virtual Communal Dedication to Health

An Inspirational Quote from Brene Brown:

“This pandemic experience is a massive experiment in collective vulnerability. We can be our worst selves when we’re afraid, or our very best, bravest selves. In the context of fear and vulnerability, there is often very little in between because when we are uncertain and afraid our default is self-protection. We don’t have to be scary when we’re scared. Let’s choose awkward, brave, and kind. And let’s choose each other.”

While the insularity created by social distance may spark deep seated doubt in us, now is not the time to succumb to fear.  During this time of quarantine, I’m committing myself to getting out of bed everyday to practice and I’m inviting you to join me. Let’s choose each other in support of the awkward, brave, and kind. Let’s reinforce our resilience and find comfort within the uncertainty and vulnerability we fee. Let’s remember our shared humanity as we practice.

Routines sustain our psyche. They keep us grounded. Sangha reminds us that we are not alone, no matter how lonely we may feel. Membership to Robin’s Zoom Club offers you access to a global community. Together we will meet each and every day moving through a regimen of asana, pranayama, and meditation. Becoming a member will also provide you a discount on any of the online therapeutic clinics or workshops that I’ll be offering over the next several months, as well as on private sessions with me during this time of quarantine. Let’s build out our  sangha and support one another to be our best, bravest selves.

Everyday, starting on Wednesday, March 25 and going through the end of April. Robin is offering an hour of yoga practice from 7-8 AM PST. Virtual practices will begin with chanting the Prayer for Health, and close with a five-minute Tonglen meditation. This meditation will be dedicated to all those near and far, known to us and unknown to us, who are suffering due to the virus. In between, we will move with strength, exploring equanimity and presence. We will use our bodies to remember how to play and open, our breath to ground and settle inward. We will undulate with the fear that arises and return home to the light of faith. Through the comfort of sangha and the wisdom of yoga we will unite and prayerfully support healing and health around the globe.

For information on cost, or any questions, please contact Robin at Robin@essentialyogatherapy.com.

To register, click here.
Meeting ID: 473-127-145
Password: 021818

 

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