Tag Archives: breath

The Importance of the Breath in Yoga

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

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:

  1. Inhalation (pooraka)
  2. Retention (kumbhaka)
  3. 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

And… Stories the Breath Can Tell

*Rae Indigo is ERYT500.

The Basic Mechanisms of Yogic Breathing

There are two main ways in which most people breathe: Chest (or thoracic) breathing and abdominal (or diaphragmatic) breathing. Thoracic breathing is very common in modern people. As a matter of fact, studies have shown that more than 50% of adults are predominantly chest breathers and more than 90% of sick people are upper chest breathers.

Chest (thoracic) breathing negatively affects health in three fundamental ways that promote chronic illness…

  • 1. Reduces blood oxygenation.
  • 2. Indicates hyperventilation and low oxygen delivery at the cellular level.
  • 3. Causes lymphatic stagnation.

Chest breathers virtually always have deep breathing (large breaths) at rest or sleep and suffer from hyperventilation (breathing more than normal). Contrary to popular belief, when we breathe more air, we get less oxygen in body cells. In fact, the slower your automatic breathing pattern at rest (as low as 3 breaths/min), the larger the amount of oxygen delivered to cells.

We need to be reminded that healthy, normal breathing is abdominal (diaphragmatic).

The diaphragm is the main muscle of inspiration (inhalation) in the respiration (breathing) mechanism. During inspiration, the diaphragm contracts and descends, along with other muscles, thus expanding the thorax, allowing the lungs to fill with air. Expiration (exhalation) requires the reverse of this process. In Pranayama (yogic breathing) the accessory muscles of expiration also contract to help force air out of the lungs more efficiently.

These accessory muscles come into use for whenever extra effort is required, but ordinarily they are only used in emergency breathing or any situation that is perceived as physically stressful or demanding by the individual, including heavy exercise. In this way, deliberate diaphragmatic breathing, focusing on long deep inhalation and exhalation, pranayama becomes a means of assuring all the accessory muscles of breathing are well exercised so that one has a “well oiled” breathing apparatus for an increasingly productive pranayama practice.

It is not be surprising for these muscles to be hypertonic (a pathology indicating extreme muscular tension) in new students of pranayama, especially if they have lead a relatively sedentary lifestyle. A good yoga instructor will work with these individuals to increase their range of movements in these restricted areas. This can even be achieved by direct work on the muscles, such as cross-fiber soft tissue massage which will not only decrease the tension in the accessory muscles, allowing more freedom and less restriction of the diaphragm, but can also work to improve postural alignment during asana practice. Additionally this can have a considerable effect on the student’s general sense of well-being, particularly on a psychological level.

Soft abdominal breathing requires minimal diaphragmatic movement. Deliberate soft abdominal breathing as in the “Relaxation Pose” (Shavasana – aka: Corpse Pose) has a “grounding” effect and can be very relaxing for the mind and the body. Soft abdominal breathing is gentle and can only occur when the diaphragm is supple and the mind and body are relaxed so it’s a great way to end your yoga session. In order to experience this, lie still in the Shavasana and continue to relax the entire body. Whenever mind tends to wander, bring it back to the body and scan the body for any tension. Continue deepening the relaxation of all the muscles in the body. Now bring passive and gentle focus on your breath. Breath should be getting softer, smoother and more subtle at this point. Let it continue to become even more subtle. It is good to watch for the pause between exhalation and your next inhalation to become longer and longer. The diaphragm has to do very little work at this point which deepens the relaxation further. This whole process takes time and for a person with average relaxation skills, it may take 10 to 15 minutes in Shavasana to be able to reach the state when soft abdominal breathing is occurring naturally. It is good to let the diaphragm have the opportunity to “rest” since it has been working hard. Soft abdominal breathing has tremendous benefits for both the mind and the body.

In closing: There are many different approaches to pranayama and some schools of yoga immediately introduce quite forceful and/or complex pranayama techniques, like the “breath of fire.” Other schools incorporate pranayama techniques into asana practice from the very beginning. But according to Iyengar Yoga, pranayama is taught very slowly and carefully, and at first, as a separate practice from asana.

Certified yoga teachers will be able to implement various modifications and adaptations to better serve the specific needs of each individual, tailoring both their pranayama and their asana practice.

Of related interest: An Anatomical Analysis of Yogic Breathing

An Anatomical Analysis of Yogic Breathing

Most yoga students wonder how a true yogi breathes. Traditional yogic literature claims yogic breathing is the secret to both longevity and a clear mind. The author of Hatha Yoga Pradipika (Swami Svatmarama) states that “When the breath wanders the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still, and the yogi achieves long life. Therefore, one should learn to control the breath.” But long life is not the only reason a yogi or student of yoga practices pranayama (yogic breathing), albeit the physical benefits are great. Breathing is not only an important part of our entire mental, physical and emotional wellbeing; it is also recognized as a way to accelerate spiritual progress. By learning more about breathing by looking at it from an anatomical perspective, we can understand more fully how and why a yogi can achieve long life and at the same time balance all of these aspects of the self.

We can begin this analysis or anatomical study by examining the main organs involved in breathing. Starting with the lungs; the lungs’ principal responsibility is transporting oxygen from the atmosphere into our bloodstream and then to release carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere, again through our bloodstream. In a normal breath, the average person can introduce approximately six liters of air in their lungs. It is interesting to note that those born and raised at sea level develop slightly less lung capacity than those born in higher altitudes where the air is thin. Air enters our lungs through passages called the bronchi and branchioles, and it is there that the exchange of gases begins. These exchanges in the lungs take place across the membranes of small balloon-like structures called alveoli (a collection of millions of specialized cells, which form tiny air sacs). The alveoli are connected to arteries that then bring oxygen into the bloodstream.

The secondary, but an equally important organ necessary for this gas exchange to occur in the lungs is the thoracic diaphragm. This dome-shaped sheet of muscle extends from just below the bottom of the rib cage and separates the thoracic cavity from the abdominal cavity. Its primary function is to help pull air into and out of the lungs by its musculature movement; it is also involved in other functions such as excretion of mucous and vomiting. When breathing, as it lifts, air is pushed out of the lungs and as it lowers, the lungs are able to take air in. The lungs do not perform this function on their own. With proper use of the diaphragm, much greater quantities of air can be circulated through the lungs for optimal oxygenation of the blood.

During a normal day, most of us breathe in a relatively shallow manner. We may only consume enough oxygen for our bodies to continue to function. But when we engage in pranayama we are able to increase our lung capacity. By increasing the lung capacity we are making the system more efficient.

Lung capacity can be measured as “tidal volume” or “vital capacity.” Tidal volume is the amount of air that is inhaled or exhaled with each breath under resting conditions; for most adults, this is about ½ liter. But we actually have the capacity for much more; with practice (and proper instruction), we can learn to inhale as much as ten times that amount in a single breath. When we exhale, not all of the air is completely released or the lungs would collapse. For this reason our bodies’ inherent intelligence keeps some air in the lungs at all times. Vital capacity is the term used to describe the maximum amount of air that can be forcibly expelled from the lungs after breathing in as deeply as possible. This capacity is usually measured during heavy exercise, when the lungs are working at their peak levels. Tidal capacity minus vital capacity is basically the amount of air left over in the lungs after we have exhaled completely.

Many types of pranayama aim at not only exponentially increasing the tidal volume (inhalation), but also the vital capacity (exhalation). We can exhale much more than we normally do in a relaxed breath also. As we learn to exhale more, the subsequent inhale is automatically much larger, because the autonomic nervous system works on “auto-pilot” maintaining homeostasis (the tendency of the body to maintain internal stability). Thus, breathing may be completely automatic in this way; but with pranayama we can make it more conscious in order to greatly increase the efficiency of our lungs.

The pathway air follows is also important. When we take in air, it must first journey through the nostrils and the nose must be clear to allow the maximum amount of air to enter the respiratory freeway. Yogic practices such as jala neti flush the nasal passages with clean, salted water, helping to rid the nasal passages of dust and congestion. So the importance of making sure this initial pathway is as clear as possible is obvious. Nasal/sinus irrigation is not the only way to cleanse the nostrils, but it is much less invasive then other methods and much better for us than prescription or over the counter drugs which claim to be accomplishing the same thing.

In summary: It is always important to make sure that the air we are taking in is as pure as possible and practical. By spending as much time as you can outdoors in richly oxygenated environments the natural process of plant photosynthesis makes the air oxygen-rich. In earlier times, doctors often instructed their patients to spend time more time outdoors, which essentially just gave them a cleaner, fresher air supply, oftentimes resulting in a seemingly miraculous improvement in their health.

Breathing normally is a simple, automatic act, but when we better understand the body and take steps to highly refine this natural process, we can improve our health, our sense of wellbeing and give a boost to our ultimate spiritual journey. Prana is stored in every breath we take in, and when we add more of this invaluable life-force to our bodies through pranayama, we learn to breathe in a manner which attunes us to the dynamic energies continually unfolding as our hidden potential.

Of related interest, click on: Basic Mechanisms of Yogic Breathing