When I started practicing yoga 8 years ago, I struggled with the breathing part. I had been athletic most of my life (although more used to aggressive sports like Muay Thai than paced yoga) so the physical part of things wasn’t such a challenge. What was most difficult surprised me: I found out that I didn’t know how to breathe.
In yoga, Ujayi breath refers to the slow and controlled movement of air in and out of your lungs through your nose. The practice of yoga is part movement and part breathing, with the final skill being the synchronization of the poses and the breath. Movements are coordinated to rise and fall and the breathing goes in and out accordingly, until the poses become as intuitive as calmly walking down the street. The poses are challenging, that is true. But coordinating the breathing is a whole other level, one without which the practice holds less purpose. Why the focus on the breath? This tempered and measured breathing not only helps the body relax and the mind focus, but it also paces the practice to actually “flow.” But it’s much more than that.
Controlling your breathing tempers your heart rate, maximizes oxygen usage, and cools the mind. There is an actual measurable physiologic effect of deep and focused breathing on the entire body, and this has a positive effect on everything from blood pressure to mood. This is not new information. But what is new is the effect that deep breathing has on pain.
There is a lot of emerging evidence that deep breathing exercises can not only help you recover better, but it can actually decrease your pain. To the point where you take a lot less pain medication. The exact mechanism is not known, but given that the side effects are basically none, this seems like a reasonable gamble.
This same controlled breathing can also decrease anxiety, which is a surprisingly relevant and common problem in postop management. Anticipation and fear have a very strong effect on general wellness, and both of these tend to be maximized after surgery. Add pain to the mix, and you have yourself a powerful feedback loop. Breathing it out can blunt all of these demons, literally taking the edge off the journey.
There are other techniques that can also help you recover better. Controlled stretching, meditation, and other relaxation techniques have also been found to be helpful, as helpful as things like supportive friends and family around to help out. There is no such thing as too much support, from your body or from your environment. The bottom line is that if you choose a capable surgeon, a reasonable surgery, and a strategic perio-operative plan, things have a good chance of going well for you. Just breathe.