Breath serves as an innate and integral foundation for yoga sadhana. Through the breath we can learn mind and body awareness and control, energy awareness and control, as well as gratitude and peace. These aspects are what makes yoga such a powerful practice to improve your health and happiness. For an embodied and transformative sadhana, the breath must not be overlooked. Breath is life, the rhythm to which we flow, and the energy which sustains us.
To understand the profound effects of the breath it is important to understand the physical and scientific process of breath.
What is breathing?
During inhalation the diaphragm and external intercostal muscles contract. As the diaphragm moves downward, the volume of the thoracic chest cavity increases and the external intercostal muscles pull the ribs up and outward to expand the ribcage. During exhalation the diaphragm and intercostal muscles relax and the thoracic cavity restores to its original volume.
The respiratory center in the brain stem controls a persons breathing rate. The medulla directs the spinal cord to maintain breathing, and the pons provides further smoothing of the respiration pattern. This control is automatic, involuntary, and continuous.
Breathing is very unique to other visceral functions (ex. digestion, endocrine, cardiovascular) in that it can be controlled voluntarily. Voluntary, or behavioral, breathing is controlled by the cortex, the part of the brain that is also responsible for singing and playing wind and brass instruments.
Pranayama is the practice of voluntary breath control, encompassing inhalation, exhalation, and retention. Pranayama is considered “an intermediary between the mind and body,” says psychologist Rolf Sovik. It is well known that deep breathing can shift the nervous system from ‘fight’ to ‘flight’, and there is even evidence that pranayama can over-ride some of the body’s autonomic systems. Because cellular metabolism is regulated by oxygen from the breath, pranayama breathing techniques can actually affect oxygen consumption and metabolism. Pranayama has also been shown to positively affect immune function, hypertension, asthma, autonomic nervous system imbalances, and psychological or stress-related disorders.
Breath as Prana
In yogic philosophy, prana is often thought of as the universal life force. It is clear that we must breathe to live, and cannot go for more than a few minutes without breath. Breath is most certainly our life force, even more so than water and food. Does breath only serve to supply the observable oxygen to our body, or is there something else to it? Has the scientific world discovered and explained all there is to know about breath, or is there a deeper mystery that the ancient yogis knew of? During sadhana, if you focus on the breath, and honor the breath as prana and life, yoga becomes a truly profound practice. To inhale with the intention of filling your body with life and energy fills your body with life and energy. To exhale with the intention of releasing stagnation can certainly create a sense of freedom and lightness in the mind and body. When we honor and are grateful for something so simple as the breath, every moment becomes precious.
Breath as a Current
Once you bring your mind to your breath, you are able to follow it from the beginning of the inhale to the end of exhale. Your mind can follow it from the nostrils to the throat to the lungs and back out. This helps foster a very intimate mind body awareness. If you are willing to visualize or honor the breath as prana, you may use visualization to imagine the energy of the breath expand beyond the respiratory organs and through the nadis, the energetic channels of the body. With intention, you can feel the breath circulate the entire body, from the top of the head to the tips of the toes, clearing out energetic blockages and filling the body with fresh and pure energy. Just as oxygen circulates the body via the bloodstream, the subtler energies of the breath also travel throughout the body.
Breath as Movement
Breath creates a subtle and natural movement in an otherwise still body. The body expands and the spine lengthens as you breathe in, and the body and spine retract as you breathe out. The deeper the breath, the more animated the body becomes. When we start to truly link movement to breath, the breath becomes the initiator, animator, and guide. In Surya Namaskars, the expansive movements are always done on the inhale. At the beginning of the inhale the body is already starting to unfold. To grow from the natural unfolding of the body leads to a more embodied expression of asana. With the beginning of the exhale, the body starts to calm, and the ribcage glides back down the spine as the belly is pulled in. The innate core activation is a great initiator for folding forward and twisting. To move with the breath from the beginning to end, is to ride the wave of the breath. When holding a static asana, the body still moves with the breath, allowing you to work with the vayus, and energetic alignment.
Breath as Vinyasa
Vinyasa literally translates as ‘to place in a special/sacred way.’ However, it is also defined as a cycle, or a wave with a beginning, middle, and end. Surya Namaskar is a vinyasa, the Earth around the sun is a vinyasa, and the waves in and out of the beach are a vinyasa. The breath, with its never-ending pattern of in and out is a personal vinyasa that reflects the rest of the world around us. It is a sign of our interconnectedness to other people and to the natural world. This rhythm carries us through our yoga practice, and is with us as we leave the mat as well.. Awareness and appreciation of nature’s many cycles, enables us to live with a greater sense of connection and unity to the world. The union of yoga, refers to union not only within ourselves but within the Universe.
Breath as Exploration
As we’ve already established, during yoga the breath creates subtle movements and initiates larger movements. With focus on the breath, we are able to bring our minds to different parts of the body that may otherwise be hard to connect with, especially if we have injuries or are newer to yoga. If you can imagine sending your breath to your hip joint for example, you can now mentally find your hip and explore the sensations within it. The breath may intuitively lead you in your sadhana from asana to asana, and within the asana the breath may guide you in and out of depth. We can actually accomplish a lot of integral work with the breath, with no need to pull or push with our body parts. In Ardha Uttanasana (Half Forward Fold), for example, you can take several rounds of breathe here. Every inhale naturally lengthens the spine and every exhale brings the belly to spine. Breathing here with the breath’s natural actions, will create more length in the spine and more activation of the Bandhas, Uddhiyana in particular. You can find more integrity and embodiment in the pose without striving or straining.
Breath as a Mirror
It is well known that the breath mirrors our mental and emotional states, and reacts to our nervous system. When we are stressed out, we breathe quicker, tighter, or maybe forget to breathe at all. When we are relaxed, long, slow breaths come easily. This is true for our yoga practice as well. When we approach a place of discomfort or pain, our breathing may become erratic, shallow, or may completely stop. It is absolutely necessary to be aware of your breath during yoga to assess physical sensations. Building strength and heat is fine, pushing through pain is not. In some asanas we may find that our breathing stops or hiccups not because of pain, but because in the position we have no space to breathe. This may be due to improper alignment, especially if you are collapsing the upper body which houses the respiratory organs. As breath is the most integral part of yoga, it is wise to return to a position where you can breathe and only deepen the pose with the full breath. Other things that may reflect in your breath during yoga are thoughts, emotions, and stress. By keeping your breath in your field of awareness, you are better able to stay in the moment, stay embodied, and express asanas with more integrity and joy.
Breath as Prayer
This notion will ring especially true with Bhakti yogis. Bhakti is devotion and love for that which you designate it for, whether it be in the form of God, a deity, the Divine, or life itself. Depending on your personal beliefs, you may create an intention at the beginning of your practice. It can be for anything you wish, to love yourself, to create space to love others, or to just be in the moment. Whatever your intention may be, keep it in your mind as you practice and devote every breath to it. This devotion of the mind, heart, and breath create a truly humble seat to sit in during your practice, a simple place of intention and love that you may wish every person in the world to feel in their own lives. If you feel yourself full of overwhelming love and gratitude during yoga (common side effect of deep breathing and movement hehe), allow yourself to sit and bask in these feelings for as long as you can. These feelings are precious and truly powerful. Gratitude for life, health, breath, loved ones, abundance, and of course, yoga, is a wonderful feeling and loving expression from our deepest hearts. Gratitude for breath, the simplest yer most necessary thing in our lives, is the humblest appreciation for life itself.
Breath off the Mat
Everything we learn in yoga can be applied to the rest of our lives, especially the breath. Through yoga we learn to breathe deep and full, we learn to use the breath to invigorate and energize, and we also learn to let go, release, and surrender. Through the power of the breath we find strength and resilience, ease and trust, and most importantly, love and peace.