Awareness of breath and synchronising breath and movement is what makes yoga, yoga; and not gymnastics or any other physical practice.
If you have ever taken a yoga class, then no doubt you have heard many a yoga teacher cue to consciously breathe or to let the breath guide your practice. But what exactly do they mean when they say that? What is the connection between yoga and the breath? And how does our breath influence our practice, and ultimately our life?
Breathing consciously is the essence of yoga as it takes us from just stretching and twisting, to being acutely present, and mindfully aware of our entire being. Yoga is more than just the physical practice that has recently boomed in the Western world. It is, as Patanjali wrote, a practice to “still the fluctuations of the mind”. The asana, or the postures, are simply a way of preparing you for longer periods of meditation by stretching the body and clearing the mind. Perhaps you have experienced for yourself how the chatter of the mind seems to soften when you are during a yoga class and can often remain a little while longer.
Focusing on the breath is the simplest and most effective way to connect us with the present moment. Each conscious breath we take is a reminder of our present moment awareness. There only ever is this one breath, right here, right now. We cannot take another breath from the past, nor steal a breath from the future. When you tune into the sensations and the movement of the breath, you are present. In that moment there is no past, or future, simply the moment you are in now.
But there is more to the breath than just cultivating this sense of present moment awareness. The breath has the ability to control our mental, emotional, and physical state so that on all levels we can experience that moment of calm.
The breath is a mirror image of the mind. When the breath changes, that tells you that something is happening in your mind. When something happens in your mind, like a disturbing thought, for example, your breath will reflect that back to you. A breath that is short and shallow, directed into the chest, most likely means that the mind is anxious or cluttered. On the other hand, a breath that is slow and steady, deep into the belly, suggests a mind that is at peace. We can consciously choose to breathe in a certain way to elicit a particular state of being. So by practicing a slow, deep breath we can convince the mind to become quiet, even if all around us is chaos.
There is a biological difference between conscious and automatic breathing. For most of the day we breathe on autopilot mode which is controlled by the primitive part of the brain. But when we breathe consciously the function shifts to the cerebral cortex, a more evolved area of the brain. Activating this part is known to relax and balance our emotions. So through our conscious breathing, an energy of peace arises and the mind becomes still.
A body that is tight with tension or restricted in the chest tends to breathe and move less effectively. Breathing into the chest activates the sympathetic nervous system or what is more commonly called, the ‘flight or fight’ response, preparing the body for action. By slowing down the breath, the brain sends a message along the vagus nerve alerting the body to activate the converse parasympathetic nervous system or the ‘rest and digest’ response. Furthermore, the breath enables us to move through the postures with ease and grace by creating a sense of lightness in the body. Your breath sets the rhythm and pace for the practice as you move only with the breath. As a guideline, the movements which involve expanding or rising are associated with an inhale, and movements which contract, twist or fold flow through an exhale.
When we are practicing the physical asana of yoga, we use the breath to relax the body, calm the emotions and still the internal dialogue mind so that prana, energy or life force can flow through the body without any physical and emotional blockages. With this freedom, we can more easily pay attention to the subtle layers of the self. For me, yoga is so much more than twisting the body into pretzel like shapes. It is a practice that cultivates the space for me to pay attention to the ebbing and flowing of the breath, the sensations arising and disappearing in the body, the changing emotions and the chatter of the mind. It allows me to take a step back from all the busyness and instead be totally present to the unfolding of life.
Because of yoga, I am reminded to connect with the breath again and again throughout the day and create a sense of calm in a world that can seem pretty unyielding.
A Practice to Explore
- Find a comfortable position, sitting in a chair, feet flat on the floor or on a cushion with the legs crossed or even kneeling. Anything that allows the spine to be long
- Close your eyes, imagine looking down the nose, softly smile and begin to lengthen the breath
- Inhale for a count of four
- Exhale for a count of four
- Observe for a few moments
- In time you may become aware of a little pause between each inhale and exhale, and between each exhale and inhale (don’t hold the breath or force this in anyway, just notice it’s natural arrival)
- Continue for as long as you like. Each time the mind wonders gently guide it back to the present moment
- When you have finished, observe the effect of this practice on your mind, emotions and body
Next time you’re in a yoga class, set the intention to be aware of your breath and consciously lengthen it. Notice how this simple technique can change your entire practice.
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