Take a Deep Breath

“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

When I was born, I was diagnosed with asthma. During the first couple of years of my life, I was more in than out of the hospital. I still remember that I had to sit in the bathroom with my mum daily while she had the shower on the hottest temperature imaginable, creating a steam room, to let me breathe normally. Later, I outgrew my asthma and did not need medicine anymore. But once in a blue moon I had an “attack”. 

I literally couldn’t breath and had the feeling that I was suffocating

The last time that happened was 3 years ago in Sicily: I literally couldn’t breath and had the feeling that I was suffocating. I had to see a doctor immediately, and since covid was still considered a life-threatening illness, we had to take precautions. It turned out I didn’t have covid but probably a reaction to pollen on the island that my body wasn’t used too. Back in the Netherlands I had to see a lung specialist, and after a couple of lung tests the doctor told me that my lungs were in perfect shape, my lung capacity was above average, that he couldn’t see that I smoked for 20 years (although I stopped 22 years ago) and that I don’t suffer from asthma anymore (although once you’re a “patient” you will be considered that for the rest of your life). So, my latest attack was probably just a bad reaction on pollen.  

From the time I started yoga asana I started to practice Pranayama, breath exercises. This was not long after I quit smoking and yes, I had the feeling my lung became better, stronger. In fact, I haven’t had an Asthma attack from that moment until the latest episode, and I truly believe my breath exercises and yoga asana helped me with healing and strengthening.

In most languages breath is described as something spiritual, in fact in Latin the word is “Spiritus” meaning spirit. And in the Latin languages you say “spirit in” and “spirit out” when you talk about inhale and exhale. In Hebrew the word is נשימה (neshima, breath) comes from the same root as נשמה (neshama, soul) spirit. The German atmen and Dutch adem is believed to derive from the Sanskrit Atman, which could be translated as soul. And in Sanskrit breath Prana and in Chinese Qi both could be translated as life energy. So being “inspired” literally means to breathe. 

in our society we created an enormous amount of lung related diseases

Not being able to breathe properly is a huge problem, and in our society we created an enormous amount of lung related diseases and suffer from other related issues caused by lung illnesses. Most lung-related illnesses are considered to be “modern” illnesses.

Lately we see that stress, insomnia, depression and incorrect posture have a big role in breath-related problems. Or is it the other way around? Do breathing problems cause stress, insomnia, depression? Wim Hof “The Ice Man” made breath exercises popular to a wide audience, using an ancient Tibetan pranayama technique “Tummo” but now calling it “breathwork”. And it works, we see people turning back to the old yogic techniques backed up by modern science, and it’s helping a large group of people suffering from various illnesses and stress. 

due to the way we currently live, we mostly use our secondary breathing muscles

It turns out that due to the way we currently live, we mostly use our secondary breathing muscles, and breathe through our mouths and thus trigger our sympathetic nervous system (our fight, flight or freeze system). Instead we must breathe through our nose and use our primary breathing muscles (the diaphragm and intercostals) to activate our para-sympathetic nervous system (the rest and digest system).
This is why breathwork workshops and trainings are so popular these days… and necessary!

Authors like James Nestor (Breath) and Patrick Mckeown (The oxygen advantage, The breathing cure), wrote fantastic books about our breathing system, the science and exercises. Most interesting is that these books fall back on pranayama techniques invented and described by the old yogis. 

If you are curious about different breath exercises we have a lot of instruction classes on The Fat Yogis website!

The author:

Marcel van de Vis Heil is based in Amsterdam and one of The Fat Yogis founders.

Marcel has been practicing yoga for over two decades, starting his journey with Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga and Vipassana meditation, moving into more static, alignment-based styles.

He continued his practice and path with yin yoga’s founders Paul and Suzee Grilley and is now spreading the message of functional yoga and his knowledge of the human body across the world as both a personal trainer as well as a yoga teacher.