About Jennifer Snowdon
Jennifer Snowdon has been practicing yoga since 2003 and teaching for the last seven years. She has also studied ELDOA, Movement For Trauma with Jane Clapp, and is a Buteyko Breathing Educator. Jennifer now lives in New Brunswick Canada and teaches Buteyko and Science of Breath webinars online.
Jennifer is also the breathing teacher for Kathryn and Carly’s 300-hour online teacher training beginning in April.
About This Podcast
Jennifer Snowdon is a Buteyko Educator and experienced movement practitioner. She joins Kathryn on the podcast to talk about breath mechanics and respiration science. Together they look at common assumptions about breath and how many of the techniques we have come to love and practice actually contribute to states of hyperventilation. Jennifer offers insights into contexts when those breath practices make sense, as well how to begin cultivating a relaxed breath again.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: This episode of the Mindful Strength Podcast is brought to you in partnership with Offering Tree. Offering Tree has set out to make digital marketing fun, easy, and most importantly for us yoga teachers, affordable. They are your one-stop-shop for your website, scheduling software, zoom integration, selling digital content like classes or courses, payment processing, email newsletter, and more. Stay tuned to hear more about them later in this episode.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: Hi, everybody, welcome back to the show. Today I am here with Jennifer Snowdon. Jennifer has been on the podcast once before, but it was quite a while ago and I don’t think that episode is even available anymore.
Jennifer is a Buteyko educator, so if you don’t know what Buteyko is, you can click one of the links in the show notes and you can check out more about it. Jennifer is also a yoga teacher.
What we talk about in this episode is respiratory science. How oxygen gets out there in the world all the way into our bodies; the breathing techniques and breathing exercises we can do to optimize that. Then we also talk a little bit about the core. Everything from the diaphragm to the brain, and then we talk about how the oxygen gets actually into our tissues.
Jennifer and I just go back and forth a little bit about some breathing exercises and we critique things a little bit. We share some ideas. I think this is a really great episode for anyone who is at all interested in breathing and why I approach breathing the way I do in my classes.
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All right, everyone. Here is my conversation with Jennifer Snowdon.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: All right. Welcome to the podcast, Jennifer.
Jennifer Snowdon: Thanks for having me. It’s so great to be here.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: Yeah, I’m really looking forward to this. We actually had a podcast conversation a few years ago, but that feels like so long ago now. And we are here to talk about breathing, which is a topic that I always love to hear people talk about. I’ve learned a lot about it over the last five years. Do you want to just take a few minutes, though, before we get into that and tell people a little bit about the type of work that you do just to give them some context for our conversation?
Jennifer Snowdon: Sure. I’m a yoga teacher and I am also a Buteyko educator.
Buteyko Breathing is a specific technique of breathing that is focused on the chemistry of breathing, which is something that we don’t talk very much about in yoga circles. We mostly talk about breathing in terms of the mechanics of breathing in the movement world. But we take a look at the chemistry of breathing. And so I think it’s really important to bring those things together because when we change the movement, we also change the chemistry.
And so we need to have a little bit of understanding of what’s happening in that part of the body as well. I’m also a trauma-informed educator. I also look at the psychophysiology and the neurobiology, like what’s happening emotionally and, you know, in terms of the political theory and how that interacts with both the mechanics of breathing and then the chemistry of breathing.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: How did you get into Buteyko?
Jennifer Snowdon: OK, so I was a yoga teacher who was exploring functional movement and what that meant and learning lots of different things. In that process, I became aware of the idea of being trauma-informed as well. I ended up in Jane Clapp’s Movement for Trauma Level One, and she had brought in Buteyko Educator to talk to all of the people in her course a little bit about breathing.
I had studied Kundalini yoga for 10 years before I became a yoga teacher. And I had done lots of work with breathing, of course, as we do lots of breath work, lots of fast breathing. The person who came in said to everyone, “you yoga people, you don’t know anything about breathing”. And I thought, “what? Of course, I do!” But I thought, “if I’m going to be looking at functional movement so that I can teach asana better, helping bodies move in better ways, I should actually also be looking at functional breathing”.
“…If I’m going to be teaching anything about breathing…” which we do a lot in yoga spaces and in movement practices. I learned Buteyko Breathing for myself. Then I became a Buteyko Educator.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: And how did that go for you? Were you surprised by what you learned or was it easy for you to integrate? Were you having moments of like “what?”.
Jennifer Snowdon: No, it wasn’t. At first, it wasn’t easy to integrate. I had lots of I don’t know what to do anymore. And I found myself when teaching my yoga classes, I didn’t know how to talk about breathing. I just stopped talking about it for a year at least. Yeah, I would say almost nothing about breathing in yoga or movement context. And then I started to sort of integrate the two things together and figure out how to talk about breathing in that context.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: Yeah. OK, so we’re going to talk about all of these things. I went through a really similar process, though. When I first started doing Buteyko, oh boy. The next time basically I showed up to teach my class, I was just like, “I don’t know what I’m saying. What am I saying?” And “is this really helpful?” Like you, I also just kind of stopped talking about breath for a little while, and recently over the last couple of years have definitely reintegrated, but not at the same level that I had been talking about the breath before.
We’ll talk more about that. But I was just going to ask you this. I don’t know if you’ll know this person or their book, but if you have feelings about it, I’m curious to hear. Every time somebody says something about breath right now, everyone’s like, did you read the James Néstor book? And I’m wondering how you felt about it? That seems to be like the breathing resource in popular culture right now.
Jennifer Snowdon: Hmm. Resource. I wouldn’t call it a resource, but it’s an interesting book. It’s very readable, explores lots of different types of breathing, and talks about his own experience in that process. He didn’t quite get what your breathing is essentially about. His representation of Buteyko Breathing in the book, I wouldn’t say is entirely accurate or complete. That’s OK. He also doesn’t really talk much about the impact of trauma on breathing. But it’s a good book. I don’t know. I enjoyed it.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: I haven’t read it yet. But literally, every time I say anything about breath, somebody tells me about that book. So cool. Alright. It’s like I don’t even know where to start when you start talking to somebody about their breath…assuming that they don’t know anything about what you’re going to say. Where do you usually start with people? How do you start to teach them or just maybe guide their attention to areas of the breath that maybe they’ve never thought about?
Jennifer Snowdon: I think the place that I usually start is with nose breathing. It’s pretty accessible for everyone and it can make a significant difference quickly. That’s a really easy place to begin. If you are feeling anxious about your breathing, you can kind of take your attention to your nose. And it’s not like taking your attention to your diaphragm, which might be seated close to where a feeling of anxiety might be. But your nose isn’t. It’s sort of way out in the front of your face. So physically it’s removed from that. That’s easy.
And the nose is so important in breathing as opposed to not breathing. And when I talk about nose breathing, I talk about breathing through the nose all the time, every single breath in and out. That seems to sort of blow people’s minds right off the start.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: Why is it important to breathe through the nose?
Jennifer Snowdon: Your nose does a lot of things that your mouth can’t do when you’re breathing.
When you are breathing through your nose, your nose can capture pathogens and bacteria, capture and kill pathogens coming in through your nose. It filters, air, dust, pollen, all of those kinds of things as well.
Those things don’t end up in your lungs. It changes the temperature and the humidity of the air as it’s coming into your body. It slows the air down, which is really important for the tissues at the back of your throat, particularly for people who snore or have sleep apnea. Now breathing is super important.
It also brings nitric oxide into the body, which is an incredibly important chemical for breathing and overall well-being. That’s inhaling. Then exhaling, there’s a whole other list of things that it does, and most of those are chemical. And so once we talk about that, then we can start talking about the chemistry of breathing. But breathing out through your nose helps keep the chemistry where it should be.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: OK, I have been through the Buteyko Process of going from a lot of mouth breathing during exercise to no mouth breathing during exercise. That was a bit of a process, but it wasn’t too bad for me personally. And sometimes when I say to people, “oh yeah, just try to like only breathe through your nose”, they’re like, “no, I can’t do that”. I’m wondering, do you have, like, a progressive way that you help people get to this place?
Jennifer Snowdon: When people begin nose breathing with exercise, the nose isn’t used to the load. Right? It’s a new thing for this part of their body to try to do. And so feels unfamiliar. It feels uncomfortable. And the body…I just tell people, “just breathe through your nose when you’re moving. If you feel like you need to open your mouth, slow down”. People get really annoyed with that because they want to continue their HITT workout or their intensity.
It doesn’t last for very long. It’s only a couple of weeks. And you go into what I call sometimes the valley of despair, but it will improve. In fact, what happens is so you feel like you can’t do the workout like you used to do, and then you’re frustrated with it over a week and a half, maybe two weeks. Then suddenly one day you can. But then after that, it will be easier and easier and easier. And in fact, you’ll find the workout easier and easier as you become more efficient with your breathing.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: Have you ever had somebody say, breathing through my nose makes me feel really anxious?
Jennifer Snowdon: No.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: Mmm. OK.
Jennifer Snowdon: …because breathing for the mouth ends up leading towards anxiety. And actually, when people breathe through their nose, they tend to feel calmer. Now, I have had people say if we want to talk about taping our mouths, which is a whole other thing, but taping your mouth is not breathing, but it is a hack that we use in Buteyko Breathing.
Other people use it as well. We do that so that we remember to breathe through our nose. I have had people say keeping my mouth closed makes me feel anxious. That’s about feeling like they can’t have access to the amount of air that they need when they need to. But it’s not the nose breathing that makes them anxious. If you just have people close their mouth and breath through their nose, they’re usually going to feel less anxious.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: OK. Do you think everyone can breathe through their nose? Because oftentimes on the podcast we’re talking about human variability and all the different ways in which humans show up in the world in their bodies. And I’m wondering is nose breathing a thing accessible for all humans? What do you think?
Jennifer Snowdon: Ultimately, yes, I know lots of people say I have a deviated septum or I have something happening in the nasal passages that prevent me from nose breathing. I was in a conference once and there was an ENT surgeon there named Doctor Soroush Zhagi, and he talked about how he had done all of these surgeries on people’s nasal passages, sinuses over the years.
He would fix their breathing and then they would come back to him not that long afterward because the problem had returned. And what he figured out was that he was doing a lot of unnecessary surgeries when what people really needed was breath retraining.
Now he does a little test with people, He gets them to sit quietly and breathe through their nose for three minutes. And if they can do that, they don’t need surgery and they just need to retrain their breathing.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: OK, that’s very interesting.
Jennifer Snowdon: Sometimes I think we can some people might need some support from a cranial sacral therapist, if there are some things that need moving, resetting. There are also other things that we might need. Tongue ties can be prohibitive or get in the way of proper breathing. Also tongue placement and the ability to hold the tongue where it needs to be. But all of those things can be addressed and most of them not surgically.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: OK, so nose breathing is the way to go.
Jennifer Snowdon: Yep.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: All right. What happens in, like, mechanically in the body when you’re breathing?
I’m wondering if you could walk us through a really basic here’s what happens when you’re breathing in these like key structures. Here’s what happens when you breathe out.
Jennifer Snowdon: OK, at rest, here’s what happens. Let’s assume you’re going to breathe through your nose and not your mouth. Your mouth has closed. Your brain will send a signal by the phrenic nerve. First to the back of your tongue to lift them to the diaphragm and the lower external intercostals to contract. The contraction of the diaphragm drops it down, which sounds kind of backward.
But if you think of a jellyfish and how a jellyfish sort of pushes down and out as it contracts, that kind of movement. Then the external intercostals actually pull the ribs apart. It creates a larger volume in the lungs. That larger volume drops the pressure, which pulls air in through your nose, down into your lungs. And then after a couple of seconds of inhalation, those muscles relax.
The relaxation pushes..they just sort of move back into their original position. There’s no contraction of muscle that needs to happen for that to move back. The muscles moving back again changes the shape of the pleura, which are the sacs surrounding the lungs, your thoracic cavity. It increases the pressure. That increased pressure pushes the air out of your nose. That’s pulmonary ventilation.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: What’s kind of interesting in what you just said, which I don’t know if I’ve picked up so much on before, is that when you breathe, you mentioned things. They relax. It’s not a contraction.
Jennifer Snowdon: The body is really smart to breathe. It only has to work for half of the breath.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: So it’s contracting. More on the inhale and exhale.
Jennifer Snowdon: That’s right. Now, when we start moving and doing something and need to increase the volume of breathing, then we’ll start incorporating accessory muscles for the inhalation. If we’re trying to breathe even faster, we’ll start using muscles to make the exhalation happen more quickly. We would start to use muscles around the core, so your muscles in your abdomen and other accessory exhalation muscles as well. But generally speaking, we only need to contract the muscles to inhale.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: OK. Amazing. I think that because oftentimes we hear in like wherever it is, exercise or pilates or yoga, “you always want to engage as you exhale”. I don’t know, for some reason that has just bled over into other ways of my thinking about what’s happening with the breath.
Jennifer Snowdon: Well, this is exactly the issue, is that people are telling…in some context, given directions to breathe… People are telling people in a movement class, “we’re going to use muscles to help exhale”. And that might be to help create stability in the trunk of the body, proximal stability so that we have distal mobility.
And that might be useful in that situation. But as soon as we have given somebody an instruction about breathing, they take that instruction and put it into other contexts. Any time we’re telling somebody how to breathe, they’re going to practice that in lots of other situations and sometimes often unconsciously.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: Yeah, yeah. OK, so from the cellular level, what happens? Basics of what happens when you breathe in, breathe out?
Jennifer Snowdon: OK, so the four stages to breathing. So there’s pulmonary ventilation which is bringing air into the lungs. Then there’s internal respiration which is happening inside the lungs. There’s that air exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, and then the air moves to the cells where there’s an exchange of oxygen, carbon dioxide again.
Then there’s cellular respiration, which is that actual chemical level, three chemical reactions that happen which take sugar and oxygen to create carbon dioxide and water and energy. All that happens at the cellular level.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: And if there were like a couple of helpful points that you would want somebody to understand about all of that, what would they be?
Jennifer Snowdon: OK, so we can change the pulmonary ventilation. We can change the mechanics of breathing. The next step, which was external respiration, you can’t really do anything about. It’s either working or it’s not working. If it’s not working, you’re probably sick.
Just so you know, you can’t change what’s happening inside the lungs. If you have, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, then part of your lungs aren’t working, that air exchange won’t happen well.
The chemistry that’s happening…so the interesting thing is, from the chemical perspective, is the body creates this carbon dioxide as a part of that cellular respiration. We’ve always been told we’re going to inhale and exhale carbon dioxide because it’s a waste gas. Although we do need to exhale it because we need to keep the amount of carbon dioxide that’s in balance.
Carbon dioxide does a lot of things for us, which is surprising, I’m sure. It manages the pH of the blood and that pH of the blood has to sit in a really small window at 7.4. And if it moves out of that window, we can’t access oxygen properly. When our carbon dioxide levels drop, our pH becomes more alkaline and when it’s more alkaline, oxygen and hemoglobin bond to each other.
You can have 100 percent blood oxygen saturation, but you won’t be able to access the oxygen that’s in your blood if you don’t have enough carbon dioxide. When you start breathing more, that pulmonary ventilation, when you increase the volume and the rate…the minute volume…how much are you breathing over a minute…when that goes up, but you’re not metabolizing enough carbon dioxide to keep up with that rate, you start hyperventilating.
We often think hyperventilation is just that, like blowing in and out of a paper bag when you’re having a panic attack. But hyperventilation is increasing the ventilation in the lungs so that carbon dioxide pressures drop. Hyperventilation has a chemical definition. It’s really important that we don’t drop the carbon dioxide so that we are continuing to be able to access the oxygen that we need for all of the things that we’re doing in life.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: Yeah. OK, so when I first started learning about Buteyko, I learned this thing about our bodies, they are quite saturated with oxygen. We need to get that oxygen not just in the bloodstream, but actually in the tissues where things are working.
I think that there is among the general population, not just people who do yoga or exercise, there is a pretty substantial misunderstanding about how we use oxygen. Oftentimes it’s like “take a deep breath or just like breath more”. There’s this understanding of there’s oxygen out there and it needs to be in here. So we’ll just breathe it in.
But what I’m hearing from you is really this importance of carbon dioxide, of actually getting to the oxygen that’s already inside of you, so you don’t have this feeling of you need to breathe more and more and more.
Jennifer Snowdon: When you take in a breath, your body only absorbs about twenty-five percent of the oxygen that you’ve breathed in. There’s more than enough oxygen when you exhale, you’re exhaling the rest of that oxygen along with carbon dioxide and other bits of air.
The oxygen is not a problem unless you’re sick. But again, other issues. For a normal healthy person, getting enough oxygen is not a problem, is not difficult. You have plenty of oxygen. It’s when your carbon dioxide levels drop, you can’t chemically access the oxygen for cellular respiration to create energy.
When we can’t do that, we shift from aerobic respiration into anaerobic respiration. So we start creating energy. Our cells are still wanting to create energy and they do that without oxygen and that ends up causing lactic acid. And then our body has to manage the lactic acid and we get lactic acid in our tissues. We feel sore the next day.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: If humans are so functional and adaptable and incredible, how have we gotten to this point where a lot of us really struggle with breathing and in particular things like nose breathing?
Jennifer Snowdon: Stress, I think is the biggest impact on the body. In this shift to less functional breathing, when you move into a sympathetic nervous system state, a fight or flight or what we most often feel freeze. Right.
You’re sitting at your desk and you feel the stress coming up, but you don’t, you know, go punch your boss for writing that email. You sit at your desk and you don’t move and you respond to the email. Right? But your breathing rate still increases. The first thing that we often do when we feel that sympathetic nervous system responses, we take that breath in through our mouth, *gasp* Eyes wide open, big breath in, and we shift into mouth breathing.
When we’re constantly shifting into that kind of stressful state, our nose actually stops being able to manage the load of breathing. We end up breathing it through our mouths more often. We also learn breathing patterns from other people, from our parents. If they’ve had stress, then we might breathe the way that they do.
And then we like I said earlier, if you’re in a yoga class and somebody is teaching you to breathe through your mouth, you’re going to take that breathing pattern home and continue to do it.
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All right, everyone, back to the show.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: When I first started, really, really learning how breath worked from mechanics to cellular stuff, I started to notice that I think the main input on breathing that I had received in my life was through my yoga classes and yoga training.
I definitely started to notice that I was taking those techniques that I was doing on my yoga mat and I was doing those all of the time. Some of that I wasn’t aware of it was just this automatic shift. But some of that was also like this idea of, OK, this yoga teacher who, I trust, has taught me how to do this breathing. I associate that with right or good or functional breathing.
I’m going to be like such a good student. I’m going to do that breathing all day long. And for me, this was really kind of problematic. Maybe not everybody has that experience. And of course, different people who do do different practices are taught the breath in really, really varied ways. But I’m wondering if you’ve heard this kind of story before.
Jennifer Snowdon: A lot. A lot. I hear a lot of people talk about how their ujjayi breath became the way that they were breathing all the time. They’re sitting at their desk or they’re reading a book and they’re doing ujjayi, which is hyperventilation. You know, if you’re moving vigorously on your yoga mat and you’re doing that sort of constriction at the back of the throat, that creates that that gentle sound. Hopefully, a very gentle, quiet sound that only you can hear, not that the whole class can hear.
But if you’re doing a vigorous movement, then that kind of breath could help keep your breathing under control. But when you’re breathing and usually that’s loud so everyone can hear you and you’re not moving, so your metabolism hasn’t increased to maybe match a higher rate of breathing, you’re definitely hyperventilating.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: Right. As you mentioned before, hyperventilation is not just breathing into a paper bag. Do you think that a lot of times when people sit down to do breathing exercises, oftentimes that ends up being hyperventilation?
Jennifer Snowdon: A lot of the time. In fact, this is really interesting. I found this research article fairly recently where they talk about paced breathing, slow-paced breathing would be so many breaths per minute or inhale for this long exhale for that long. Inhale for four seconds while square breathing is paced breathing. We’re going to inhale for four, hold for four, exhale for four, hold for four.
And what they found was that when people are taught paced breathing, if they are not also taught to breathe less, to not hyperventilate…and that’s either through instruction, mechanical instruction…so breathe less, breathe quietly or by using capnometer. A capnometer will measure the carbon dioxide levels in your blood. And you can see as you breathe more the carbon dioxide levels drop. You can use the capnometers to help keep CO2 levels up higher where they should be. If one of those two methods is not used, then people will hyperventilate.
Not only will they hyperventilate while they’re doing the breathing exercise, but their carbon dioxide levels, the rest of the time, also drop over time. Their hyperventilation also starts to become more of the way they breathe all the time. How many yoga classes have you been in or taught…I mean, raise my hand to this one…where you’ve had people doing paced breathing. “Let’s all inhale for two and exhale for four for the next few minutes”. If we’re not giving an instruction to also breathe very quietly through the nose, then we’re probably, at least some of the people in the class, will be hyperventilating.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: Do you think there’s ever a place for hyperventilation?
Jennifer Snowdon: No. It doesn’t mean that there’s never a place for breathing quickly.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: OK.
Jennifer Snowdon: Because you can breathe quickly without hyperventilation. It’s a fine line. If you breathe quickly but your minute volume, so the amount of air that you’ve moved in and out of your lungs over that minute is still quite small… These would be very, very tiny breaths but many of them, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be hyperventilating.
That’s possible. It’s not easy. And teaching people to do that, I wouldn’t. I don’t teach that kind of breathing at all anymore. But there are people who can breathe that way. And I would suggest that they have very functional breathing and they do not have a trauma history.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: OK. The only time during my practice that I actually take what feels like a few deep breaths is when I’m doing something and I want to have the experience of mobilizing my core in an interesting way. I might get myself into, like, the angry cat position and then take a couple of deep breaths into the back of my ribs or whatever.
Get my pelvis into this position, take a couple of deep breaths, meaning more air that is needed, which I guess probably you would call hyperventilation. I do that maybe for five minutes or so or just a couple of breaths here and there. From the standpoint of getting my core structures to move in a different way, I’m wondering what you think about that.
Jennifer Snowdon: Yeah. So I was in a workshop recently where somebody had us doing a lot of that and my hands and feet started to get cold. I was chemically hyperventilating. I could feel the shift happening in the chemistry in my body. There is value in recognizing that the body can move air physically in different ways.
The problem that I have with teaching people this is the habits that they develop around breathing. If people don’t understand, OK, we’re going to take two breaths in this place, you’re going to be hyperventilating. These will be larger than normal.
After that, we’re going to go back to breathing slower and less so that our body has a chance to balance out the chemistry. I think without those kinds of instructions and that kind of information and education around breathing, people don’t understand that that kind of breathing needs to happen in isolation and carefully and not all the time.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: OK, are there any breathing exercises you do?
Jennifer Snowdon: There are lots of breathing exercises I like.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: So what does that look like?
Jennifer Snowdon: The first breathing exercise that I think is really important is learning, relaxed, breathing. That’s just learning how to breathe without stress and tension in your and your body. I think, with breathing low into the body, so 360 breathing, of course, while keeping the volume low, so you’re not hyperventilating. 360 breathing is really valuable. Alligator or crocodile breathing, laying on your stomach, breathing into your back…also very valuable.
I like alternate nostril breathing. But again, unless if you’re teaching that or if you’re practicing it, also being careful that you’re not hyperventilating while you’re doing that. The energetic qualities and value of changing where the air is moving in the body, I enjoy that as well. Using ujjayi, like I said, while in movement can be helpful for restricting…don’t mean restricting in a bad way…but controlling the breath that it doesn’t move into hyperventilation can be very useful. Does that help?
Kathryn Bruni-Young: Yeah.
Jennifer Snowdon: I could go on.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: Sounds like you enjoy breathing exercises where basically there’s no hyperventilation going on.
Jennifer Snowdon: Yeah, yeah.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: That makes sense. Yeah, totally makes sense to me.
Jennifer Snowdon: And I think in some of those same breathing exercises, hyperventilation could be going on. Nadi Shodhana isn’t always not a hyperventilation. You can hyperventilate while you’re doing that. Just to be clear.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: Yeah, it’s you know, it’s really good stuff. I’ve heard all of these things before, but it’s such a great review for all of these things. In my classes, I no longer do the like, inhale, arms up, exhale, bend over. You know, and it’s been quite a while of not teaching that way. And I might say anything about the breath here, they’re like breathe into this part of your ribs or whatever.
And then after class, I always get questions like if I’m teaching in a workshop where there’s time for questions afterward, every time, usually the first question is, “well, like, why aren’t you cueing the breath?” And “I thought that, like, breath was part of what makes the yoga practice so special and different”. I’m wondering if you get questions like this as well?
Jennifer Snowdon: I do get questions like this. So, OK, there’s a couple of things I can say about this.
One is we have a body of teaching that’s been given to us that says this movement equals this kind of breathing. So, you know, extension equals inhalation, flexion equals exhalation. That’s not always true or that isn’t only true. The easiest example to give in an audio-only format could be cat and cow. You can inhale as you move into cow and exhale as you move into cat.
However, you can also inhale as you move into cat and exhale as you move into cow. It depends on which part of the body you’re thinking about. The thoracic spine, when you inhale, does not extend, it flexes, which is the opposite of what you think your body should be doing.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: What does that mean for the rib cage movement?
Jennifer Snowdon: The rib cage expands out in all directions. It doesn’t expand in the front only.
We often think of breathing as being in the front of the body. We think of inhalation in the rib cage opens in the front and then the back of the body closes. Then as we exhale, we think of the front of the body closing, which would allow the back of the body to open. But when you inhale, your ribcage expands in all directions, including into the back.
If you take your attention to the back of your body while you inhale, you might become aware of that expansion and how the thoracic spine…the spine where the rib cage is, flexes, and then as you exhale, it moves back to its original. There are both things happening in the body at the same time. I think when we are telling people you have to breathe in this way, as you do this movement, we’re not always taking into consideration what the whole body is doing.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: Where do you think…I don’t know if you know the answer to this…but where do you think it’s like inhale into extension?
Jennifer Snowdon: Well, I mean, it’s easy to point fingers. Ashtanga practice is very much movement coordinated with the breath. Right? Pattabhi Jois would lead a class by just saying inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale as people went through the movements. It’s not the only place where that has happened. But definitely, that has been a significant influence on these movements and the breath and how we coordinate those things.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: Yeah, yeah. I don’t know the answer to the question either. I guess at some point there were there were some breaths assigned to movements for reasons I might not understand. And yeah, here we are, here we are.
Jennifer Snowdon: There’s the one thing of which was the body moving when you inhale or exhale. And the second problem that there is with always directing movement with breath, is that people’s breaths are different lengths. I’m telling you that now you have to inhale and now you have to exhale. Isn’t it time for you to inhale yet? Maybe you need to wait.
Sometimes what I do when I’m teaching, in teacher training programs especially, or if I’m teaching a class, I’ll do this…but when I’m teaching teacher training programs, I try to show people that you can set up a flow and then have people move through the flow, you know, repeatedly following their own breath. Perhaps you want to inhale as you move to this pose and then exhale when you move to that pose. But maybe when it’s time for you to exhale, not hen I’ve told you to exhale.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: Yeah, yeah, I find like I notice myself still doing this, like years later, still doing this. When I am doing a sun salutation, I lift my arms up and I breathe in. And I usually lift my arms kind of slowly and I will match my inhale to the length of time that it gets me to get the arms over the head. That usually means that I’m taking a lot more air and than I actually require. It’s just so interesting because to me it really shows how much we can create habits and patterns.
I’m not sure this is the worst habit I could have, but it’s it’s definitely like a learned behavior. M<y body is not just naturally doing this. It’s like I had this idea for so many years and now this is a learned behavior. I find if I’m actually allowing my breath to be more gentle, allowing myself to only be the amount of air that I actually require, my breaths are quite small.
That means if I’m like going to a movement, as I’m doing the breath, the breath is going to be very small, but my movement often times is very big. That doesn’t always match up.
Jennifer Snowdon: It doesn’t line up the way you think it should. I think that’s the problem is that we think the breathing should be something we were told it should be. And we’re not attending to what it is. That’s a problem. And I mean, as you said, same practice to your practice for many, many years…habits are…we create them, right? There are patterns that we…if you do something once, it’s like drawing your finger through water. Right?
The line is gone. And to do it exactly the same way, there’s nothing left behind to tell you how to do it exactly the same way. If you do with a bunch of times, it’s like drawing your finger through sand and you can see the pattern so you can repeat it, but it’s still quite easy to change it. If you’ve done it many, many, many times, it’s like drawing a line in rock. And even when you don’t want to do it, you’re probably going to do it. That’s what it’s like. Those are samskaras.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: What I’ve noticed has been helpful is paying attention to my breath as I’m doing my movements or whatever that might be, and really trying to let go of the idea of matching it up.
I think that sometimes we don’t maybe realize that that’s an option. It’s like I can still go through this flow of postures. I’m still breathing. I can still pay attention to my breath, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be this way.
Jennifer Snowdon: The other thing that I like to do when I’m doing movement and breathing is to be aware of…we talk about inhalation and exhalation…but there’s also sometimes no breath. I don’t mean holding the breath and retaining the breath. There’s just like space. After I exhale, maybe I don’t want to inhale again right away.
Maybe there’s a pause in my breathing and that’s OK too. That’s actually an important pause to like, let the body figure out when it wants to inhale again. Just because you finish exhaling doesn’t mean you have to inhale.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: What do you think about the idea that lots of people have about I need to cue the breath in my class because my students will forget to breathe?
Jennifer Snowdon: Well, you can remind people to breathe without telling them how to breathe. You can say things like, “are you holding your breath? Don’t forget to breathe. Continue breathing while you move. Continue gently breathing through your nose as we do this”. There are lots of things that can be said that aren’t telling people now it’s time to inhale and now it’s time to exhale.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: Do you think that people forget to breathe? Do you think that’s even a thing? Or maybe that’s kind of like a symptom of other things happening that maybe we don’t fully understand?
Jennifer Snowdon: I don’t think it’s that people forget to breathe. I think that that sometimes we’re using our diaphragm primarily as a muscle stabilization instead of a muscle of respiration, which it evolutionarily is, was created to stabilize the core, not to move air. It turns out it’s really good at moving air.
When we’re moving, if we’re relying on the diaphragm to be the major stabilizer, then we will hold the breath for periods of time. We also tend to hold the breath when we feel under stress. Again, because it’s this primary muscle of stabilization when we move into the sympathetic nervous system state and our body is waiting to see where we should run…where’s the tiger coming from that we can hear…
…we will stabilize our core so that we are ready when we have to run. And when you’re in this sort of constant stress state, which thank you. 2020 or lots of us have been under a lot of stress, especially in this past year. But generally speaking, we carry a lot of stress in our bodies. When we’re in that state regularly, we tend to not use the diaphragm much. We tend to move into breathing into other parts of our body, and we tend to hold our breath in those places, too.
But that’s because of stress, not because we’re wanting to stop breathing or we’re choosing to not breathe.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: Yeah, it’s a great point. I mean, the stabilization of the diaphragm thing is really interesting to me from like my weightlifting perspective. In weightlifting, I mean, you can manipulate how you’re breathing, you can adapt it. I definitely adapted it. I didn’t do like the typical powerlifting breathing patterns.
When you lift a really heavy-weight up, from what I understand, you got to take a breath in, and sometimes you have to hold it in for a couple seconds while you’re doing the thing. You don’t have to take the biggest breath ever but you got to inhale. Hold it. Like using that intraabdominal pressure in a good way to help you. And then you can breathe out whatever a couple of seconds later.
Jennifer Snowdon: Absolutely. As I said, it’s a muscle that helps us stabilize. It does that through its own strength and also through the changing of the pressures in the thoracic diaphragm or in the thoracic part of the body, like in your lungs as well as in the abdominal. The intrabdominal pressure that it creates with that inhalation, with that pushing down that the diaphragm does when you inhale.
Yes. You use it that way. If you were going to lift the piano, you’re going to take a deep breath and hold. And that’s OK. Don’t do that every time you breathe. You breathe 30 thousand times a day, like 20 to 30 thousand times a day. Right? If you’re going to take that kind of breath when you lift a heavy thing, that’s great, please do that. But go back to normal gentle breathing when you’re not doing that.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: OK, this has been so much great information. Wow. It’s always a bit of a whirlwind when we do this breathing interviews. I feel like there’s so much here for people to come back to. We have the transcripts that people can come back and read through if they need to.
You’re also on the faculty of our 300- hour course, which I’m so pumped about because we’re going to go like even deeper into all of the breathing stuff.
Jennifer Snowdon: I’m really excited about that too. It’s going to be great.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: If people want to learn more about you or maybe work with you or get some more information, where should they go to do that?
Jennifer Snowdon: My website is jennifersnowdon.ca, find me there.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: OK. Amazing. Well, thank you so much for coming back on the podcast.
Jennifer Snowdon: You’re very welcome. Thanks for having me. It’s always so fun to come and chat with you. And I love talking about breathing. This has just been really wonderful for me.
Kathryn Bruni-Young: And thank you again to our amazing sponsor Offering Tree. If folks want to get started getting your stuff online, go to offeringtree.com/mindfulstrengh. All right, everyone. I’ll see you next week.
Kathryn: That’s our show. Thank you, everyone, so much for listening. If you’re listening on the Apple Podcast and you’re loving the podcast, please consider leaving us to review. All of the reviews really, really help. If you want to learn more about my work, my membership, my teachers’ course, or my new free course called Mindful Strength Foundations, you can head over to mindfulstrength.ca