Why is proper breathing stressed so much in yoga? Other than the fact that it keeps us alive, why is the link between yoga and breathing so important?
During a typical yoga class, we are instructed to practice pranayama, which means we breathe consciously, remaining connected to our breath, we learn to breathe deeply, retain our breath, etc. How much of an impact does proper breathing have on us, our life, and our yoga practice?
Breathing and longevity – Swami Sivananda is quoted as saying: “A yogi measures the span of life by the number of breaths, not by the number of years.”
I much of traditional Hindu literature it is said that if you breathe 15 times per minute, you will live to be 75 or 80 years old, but if you breathe only 10 times per minute you will live to 100. So the speed at which you breathe will determine the length of your life. The faster you breathe the shorter your life will be. That’s why animals that breath fast (dogs and cats for instance) have relatively short lives.
Breathing consciously is something we are continuously reminded to do when we are in yoga class. Breathing consciously is essential to yoga practice because it assists us in connecting with the subtle energy within. Pranayama enables us to navigate different levels of consciousness. Additionally, by breathing consciously we’ll create a positive biological effect on our mental, emotional, and physical states of being.
Remaining connected with our breath is an ideal method for being in the present moment. When you focus on each aspect of the breathing process, you are present, you let go of the both the past and the future and are concentrated on each moment within each breath. Breathing consciously becomes its own form of meditation. But this is only part of why conscious breathing is so important.
Remaining consciously aware of your breathing activates a different part of our brain than our normal, mechanical (unconscious) breathing, which is controlled by the medulla oblongata in the brain stem (the primitive part of the brain). Conscious breathing, on the other hand, comes from a more evolved area of the brain (the cerebral cortex). So by stimulating the cerebral cortex we’re sending impulses from the cortex to other connecting areas that impact emotions. This generally has a relaxing and balancing effect on the emotions by controlling which aspects of the mind dominate, in turn prompting our consciousness to rise from the primitive/instinctual level to the more evolved/elevated levels of the brain.
The Breath, Prana and Pranayama
Yoga practice teaches us to control prana, the vital (life) force, through pranayama. The breath is used in pranayama to help us to learn to control prana, but don’t make the mistake of confusing prana with the breath. Prana is the life energy that animates the lungs, but it is NOT the breath itself. Using pranayama (breath control) is the easiest method for regulating the flow of prana and once we are able to control prana through pranayama we are better able to control the movement of prana to other organs and areas throughout the body.
The breath being the mode of practice for pranayama, the focus is in on the three basic stages of respiration:
- Inhalation (pooraka)
- Retention (kumbhaka)
- Exhalation (rechaka)
However, according to ancient and traditional yogic texts, pranayama is retention, and inhalation and exhalation are secondary, being methods for affecting retention.
Kumbhaka (retention of the breath) has a deep physiological effect on the brain. It begins by providing additional opportunity for the brain cells to absorb oxygen, and eliminate more carbon dioxide, producing a calming effect on the mental/emotional body. When the breath is retained, the brain panics because the carbon dioxide levels temporarily increase and the increased carbon dioxide levels stimulate the brain’s capillaries to dilate. When this happens, more capillaries in the brain are opened up improving cerebral circulation, building up an immense amount of energy in the brain, subsequently forcing the creation of new neural pathways, plus the activation of dormant centers. The brain is now activated and awakened!
A good analogy is look at the breath like the oil in a car, prana as the gasoline (fuel), and the mind as the engine. By understanding the relationship of the breath, prana and the mind to one another we will be better prepared to navigate our life, progressing to a higher, more evolved state, and to repair it if it breaks down.
Although full control of the breath may take the student of yoga years to perfect, this perfection is not necessarily the highest form of pranayama. The highest form is to remain completely, consciously aware of the breath.
Of related interest, click on; Yoga Practice for Improved Lung Function
*Rae Indigo is ERYT500.