Body and mind are interconnected and the breath is the foundational link between these. Our breathing affects and is affected by our posture, movements, general health, emotions, and state of mind. Thus good breathing is key for good health and longevity. Ancient Indian yogis have long known this, a fact that is now increasingly recognised by scientific research. Yet, in modern yoga, the practice of breathing is undervalued compared to the physical aspects of yoga, such as asana.
One of the main goals of yoga is to be fully present and aware in every action and moment. Conscious and controlled breathing play a fundamental role in achieving this goal. If our breath becomes quick and scattered, it is very hard to still the mind and be present. Typically this is what happens when we are stressed. In contrast, when we are in state of relaxation, our breath tends to be deeper and quieter. This is because breathing is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, which is where emotional reactions, such as stress, originate from, affecting our state of mind. By regulating the breathing, we gain direct access to changes in the nervous system and consequently, changes in our state of mind too. Further, according to Yoga wisdom, the speed at which you breathe dictates the length of your life. If you breathe fast, your life will be shortened. Thus, consciously lengthening and smoothing the breath are key aspects of yoga practice.
In yoga, a key tool to consciously lengthen and smooth the breath is Pranayama. Practicing pranayama on a regular basis for short periods of time, over time we are able to replace our unconscious breathing habits with better breathing.
Different Pranayama techniques can be used to suit the specific needs of the individual. Techniques that lengthen exhale have a calming effect, whereas those that lengthen inhale have an energising effect, and those that lengthen both inhale and exhale have a balancing effect. Likewise, techniques that involve holding the breath can also have different effects. For example, generally, for an energising effect, one should hold the breath after breathing in, and for a calming effect one should hold the breath after breathing out.
The strong link between the breath and health is perhaps the reason why the “founders of yoga considered pranayama to be more important than asana". Pranayama is particularly important during the mid-stages of life, or the householder phase, covering roughly the years between 25 and 70. In this stage of life, when we are typically busy with the challenges of family life, pranayama offers the stability we need to perform our responsibilities.
Nevertheless, asana can also play an important role in cultivating breath awareness. In turn, using the breath can help improve the effectiveness of this practice. In addition to this, asana practice helps to prepare the body to sit comfortably erect for the practice of Pranayama and meditation.
In asana, the breath can help us cultivate the qualities of sthiram (alertness, stability) and sukham (relaxation). A way of doing this is to bring the focus of the asana practice to the flow of the breath, and allow the breath to initiate and guide the movement. Breathing naturally evokes movement of the spine, thus through this focus the movement into the asana becomes coordinated with the breath and the spine. This not only helps to develop consciousness of the breath but also promotes “integrated, conscious movement that maximises the effectiveness of a pose”. Further, the same principles used in Pranayama of lengthening the exhale or the inhale to achieve a calming or energising effect respectively, can be used in the practice of asanas.
The practice of meditation also provides an opportunity to cultivate breath awareness. This can be done by observing the sensations and movements the breath creates in the body. Such practice is different from Pranayama because it only uses the breath as an anchor and doe nothing in specific to consciously regulate it.
Despite the importance given to breath in yoga Vedic scriptures and the sutras, as well as the significant developments in the science of breath, in most yoga classes today, not enough emphasis is given to pranayama. Further, often pranayama techniques are under utilised and misunderstood.
A common misconception relates to what is often called the yogic breathing also know as abdominal-diaphragmatic or belly breathing. The use of this kind of language inherently suggests that it is in someway different to the biomechanics of normal breathing. Further, it promotes a false dichotomy between diaphragmatic and non-diaphragmatic or chest breathing. The way it is often taught encourages breathing from bottom to top: as we inhale, expand abdomen, then the area of the diaphragm, and finally the chest. As we exhale, relaxes the chest first, then the area of the diaphragm, and finally, the lower abdomen. This sequence goes against the anatomy of normal breathing, which works in reverse to this.
This anatomical understanding of breathing are well reflected in the principles from the Yoga Therapy tradition of T.Krishnamacharya and T.K.V. Desikachar.