Whether we are a seasoned yoga practitioner or an amateur, we all know that breath control is an essential part of yoga. In fact, being aware of the breath and harmonizing it, is what sets yoga apart from other practices. So, what makes the breath so special for yoga practitioners?
Students of a yoga class are asked to consciously control their breath and connect to it. With each breath, we draw in “Prana” which means life force or the universal energy that pulsates through everything around us. Breath gives us the gift of life. When our breath or our prana leaves us, we are no longer alive. Not for a fraction of a second can we live without prana.
Breathing is a subconscious act and most of us take it for granted without realizing its significance. So, though breathing continues subconsciously, we can at any time interfere and bring awareness and consciousness to the way we breathe. Yoga teaches us to manipulate our breath to enhance our health and mental state.
Every cell and organ in the body are dependent on the oxygen that we inhale in with every breath. When we exercise or engage in a rigorous physical activity, we require more oxygen and therefore our breathing becomes faster. Oxygen and pranic energy are vital not just for physical health, but they also affect our emotional state by keeping our nervous system in balance.
Yoga helps us experience a deep appreciation for our innate ability to breathe and connect with ourselves. Breath expansion and control is implemented in “Pranayamas”, the art of different breathing techniques. Yoga also explains how breathing is synchronized with yoga poses and movements as well as meditation techniques.
The air flows into our windpipe as we breathe in through our nose. It further segregates itself like the branches of a tree into the left and right bronchi, the main passageway, into the lungs.
The bronchi divide into bronchioles from where the air and oxygen reach the bottom of the lungs. Here, the air goes to the alveoli, the microscopic air sacs, where the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in and out of the bloodstream, at the base of the lungs takes place. On inhaling, the heart rate goes up which further increases blood flow through the arteries to the lungs.
The most crucial breathing muscle is the diaphragm. This dome shaped muscle, powers our breath and is located at the base of the thorax (chest cavity). It segregates the organs of the chest from the abdominal and pelvic organs. It is aided by two core muscles, the quadratus lumborum, and the psoas.
Since the lungs have no skeletal muscles of their own, breathing is supported by the diaphragm, which is attached to the lower part of the rib cage and the spine. As we inhale, the abdomen and then the chest expands, the diaphragm softens and sinks down in the space created by the expanded abdomen, and the lungs get more space to inflate. Then, when we exhale, squeezing the abdomen in, the diaphragm also contracts and pushes upwards, pushing against the lower lungs, helping to expel the stale gasses out from the depths of the lungs.
We are constantly encouraged to breathe consciously in yoga. We inhale into backbends and exhale into forward folds. We inhale as we stretch, getting ready for a posture and exhale as we sink into the pose and so on. We are taught to synchronize our breath and movements. This is, in fact, the central focus of yoga practice as it allows us to connect with the subtle energy within. With practice, we realize that the breath helps us navigate through the various levels of our consciousness.
Connecting to the breath helps us focus on the present moment. It teaches us the act of “letting go”; letting go of making future plans or dwelling on the past and hence is at par with meditative practices. We are able to appreciate the “now” and we learn how to let go of our regrets of the past and worries for the future.
Breathing consciously stimulates a different part of the brain than breathing normally. When we are off our yoga mats, normal breathing is controlled by the primitive part of the brain, the medulla oblongata. On the other hand, conscious breathing originates from an evolved part of the brain called the cerebral cortex.
Conscious breathing stimulates impulses from the cortex to regions of the brain that impact emotions. As a result, it balances out our emotions and calms the mind. This also means elevating the consciousness by choosing the more evolved part of the brain over the primitive one. So breathing with awareness gives us a sense of tranquility and well-being which helps us to deal with life’s challenges from a place of strength.
Pranayama is the term used for yoga breathing exercises or breathing techniques. The word Pranayama is derived from the Sanskrit words Prana which means life force and “Ayama” meaning “control of”.
Breath control and coordination are paramount during yoga asanas. However, Pranayama constitutes specific breathing techniques and exercises that can be practiced independently.
Pranayama dates back to the time when yoga originated, which is believed to be around fifth and sixth century BC . The main tenet of Pranayama is that physical and emotional blocks restrict the flow of life force through the body.
The practice of pranayama helps us clear these blocks and allows breath and prana to flow freely, thus bringing tranquility to the mind and health to the physical body. Regulating the inhalation, exhalation, and breath retention during pranayama techniques help us to strengthen our respiratory organs.
Control over our basic breath can empower us. We are able to neutralize feelings of anger, fear, anxiety, and sadness. This leads to a happier version of us. Breathing practices in yoga also aid in weight loss. Deep and controlled breathing promotes oxidation that helps in burning fat cells. Yogic breathing also enhances metabolism by triggering the release of hormones from the thyroid gland, responsible for controlling metabolism rate.
Breathing techniques in yoga increase stamina. Deep inhalation and exhalation increase oxygen intake and expand the capacity of our lungs by opening up our rib cage, diaphragm, and spine. To increase stamina and endurance, one should choose asanas that augment both range of motion and lung capacity.
It has been found that there is an interdependence between longevity and respiration rate. Living beings with higher respiratory rates or number of breaths per minute have been found to have shorter life spans. Ancient scriptures and Buddhist monks say that we are given a definite number of breaths at birth that determines the length of our life.
Rhythmic and slow breathing leads to stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system. This means relaxed muscles, slower heart rate, a calm mind and better brain functionality.
The key to attaining a grounded connection with ourselves is, without a doubt, awareness of our breath. Yoga enables us to master the art of self-control. Pranayama and breathing techniques in yoga allow us to harmonize our breath with our mind. They help us take control of our lives so that we can react calmly to the surprises that life throws at us.
A point to make note of is, that, different breathing techniques and pranayamas bring about different effects on the physiological and energetic aspects of the body. So, none of these techniques are right or wrong, they are simply different from one another.
Mastering yogic breathing techniques influence our actions and thoughts in a positive way. The rhythm of our breath is an indicator of our mood. Our breathing is steady and rhythmic when we are happy and irregular and interrupted when we are anxious or stressed. So, it comes as no surprise that taking control of the breath can change the state of our mind and we can eventually move towards a state of deep poise, balance, and self-healing.