Yoga during a Pandemic
Catch up on Part I here.
COVID-19 and our breath capacity
Having been practising and studying yoga for more than 20 years, I am still amazed at how the yogis of yore – gurus who isolated themselves in the forests and mountains of India and spent their time in deep meditation – understood so much about the human body and mind. The practices of yoga which have evolved over the last few centuries include techniques only recently being recognising as valuable by modern science.
In the context of a respiratory pandemic, basic yogic practices can provide an easy, cheap and efficient way of combatting the illness. In my last post I wrote about how developing the breath and the lung capacity would be invaluable in the case of contracting COVID-19 or any other respiratory illness. In this post we stay with the breath and how we can use it to fight infection.
One of the first things I tell new yoga students is that we always inhale and exhale through the nose (except for certain, specific techniques). This nasal breathing technique appears to be simple and, you might ask, what of it?
To answer that question you need to know that the sinuses are air-filled cavities around the nose, the temples and above the eye sockets. When we breathe in through the nose, these areas serve to filter, warm and dehumidify the air. These areas also produce nitric oxide, which mixes with the incoming air and diffuses to the bronchi and bronchioles.
Nitric oxide has many benefits. In general, it is anti-fungal, anti-viral and anti-bacterial. It reduces respiratory tract infection by inactivating viruses and inhibiting their replication in the epithelial cells. It also has a dilatory effect – on the nasal passages, bronchi, bronchioles, and on the blood vessels supplying the lungs. This means that nitric oxide will counteract the stuffiness of a blocked nose and help oxygen to be carried from the lungs to the cells of the body.
One of the techniques of pranayama (the yogic science of breath-work) is called Bhramari, or Humming Bee Breath. The effects are said to be a lowering of blood pressure and a calming of the nervous system. These and other benefits have been revealed by modern scientific research. The Karolinska Institute in Sweden discovered that humming increases the airflow in the sinuses and causes a 15-20-fold increase in the production of nitric oxide.
In their book The Humming Effect, J.&A. Goldman declared that humming “reduces stress, induces calmness, sleep, lowers the heart rate and blood pressure, produces neurochemicals, e.g. oxytocin, increases lymphatic circulation and melanin production, releases endorphins and creates new neural pathways in the brain.” Quite a feat for a simple technique!
To practice the Humming Bee breath, sit upright in a comfortable position, with the back erect and not leaning against a chair back. Take an inhale and gently exhale, producing a humming sound. At the same time, you can gently massage the sinus areas mentioned above. Repeat several times. When you have finished sit quietly for a few moments to notice the effects of the practice.