Is Pranayama Dangerous?

(yoga breathing)

Dear Yoga Student,

There are some really silly yoga myths floating around, and a big one goes like this:

“Breathing exercises (pranayama) are for advanced yoga students only and should never be practiced without a teacher’s supervision or it can be very dangerous.”

Geez, the first time I heard that, I got really freaked out. So I asked more questions:

“What EXACTLY happens?” And, that’s when it got REALLY silly.

One teacher told me about a “friend of a friend” who was doing pranayama against his teacher’s advice and ended up in a psychiatric ward.

Another long-time student told me of a “student he knew” who actually gave himself brain damage from breathing practices.

And me? Well, yeah, I believed it.

Why would people make this stuff up? To this day, I still don’t know why there’s all this hoopla and scare tactics around breathing – but there is.

And unless you’re doing five minute breath retention practices near toxic waste dumps, I don’t think you
should pay any attention.

Here’s why:

I know hundreds of teachers and thousands of students, and it didn’t take me long to figure out that those freaky stories were totally bogus.

Scuba divers get into trouble with breathing – not yoga students. Drug addicts free-basing cocaine get brain damage – NOT someone doing “unsupervised” breathing at home.

I mean really, what’s next? Do we need someone to teach us how to chew our food too?

Yoga is powerful, and breathing can be even more so, but come on! Brain damage? Let’s not get carried away. If someone is stupid enough to do breathing exercises that are so extreme that they’re dangerous, you gotta think that maybe the brain damage was already there 😉

Enough yoga lore… I want to talk about the Vagus Nerve.

The Vagus Nerve stretches from your brain stem all the way down to your abdomen and is involved in heart rate, gastrointestinal peristalsis (poo), and sweating.

Here’s the interesting part:

Deep breathing stimulates the Vagus Nerve which “turns on” the parasympathetic nervous systems to slow your heart rate, relieve stress, and heal your body.

This is why your significant other tells you to “breathe deeply” when you’re freaking out (me? never!). And this is why someone hyperventilating is given a brown bag… to force those deep, slow breaths. The Vagus Nerve gets stimulated, the body got into “rest and digest” mode, and life is chilled out again.

There are hundreds of pranayama exercises available, and they’re fun and challenging to learn, but most people really struggle with the patterns and counts.

So if you’ve got a breathing practice, great. If you don’t, you can still get the same benefits just by doing simple deep breathing at home… totally unsupervised.

Go nuts. Breathe!

Stay bendy,