It’s a clear winter morning. As I look at the blue sky and the leafless branches quivering in the wind, I enjoy a relaxing, deep breath.
This is one of the best effects that has come from doing Yoga. Not only does my body feel lighter, well-stretched and more active, but I find myself breathing in a slower and easier way than before I started my practice.
The role of the breath in Yoga is often understated. I’m not referring to pranayama, which is the branch of breathing exercises within Yoga, but to the awareness and use of breath within asanas (postures) themselves.
While getting into various postures is definitely refreshing, the benefits are fully reaped only when each posture is maintained for a fairly long period of time, and there is awareness and relaxation of the breath and body throughout the duration of each pose.
Asana: React to difficulty with relaxation
Often, when staying in a difficult asana, the instruction to “breathe normally” can feel laughable. We struggle just to maintain the pose, let alone breathe normally in it. But the aim of the instruction is to remind us to become aware of how fast and short our breathing becomes. Once we’re aware of the breath, we can consciously try to relax the body with slower, calmer breaths.
As we breathe into areas that we hold tension in and relax the muscles that aren’t actively being used to maintain the posture, we stop bracing. This active and conscious relaxation helps reduce the strain, eliminate the pain, and deepen the pose to the fullest extent possible.
It may seem counterintuitive to react to difficulty with relaxation, but it’s highly effective. I’ve experienced this active relaxation as a core principle within the practice of Yoga. It takes consistent, conscious effort to react this way, but it tends to get easier to do over time. The awareness and relaxation of breath and body is what leads to progress in the asanas.
The breath is important to follow even during vinyasa, which is the movement from one asana to another.
It can often be confusing to determine which movement should be accompanied with inhalation and which with exhalation. Inhalation should accompany postures and movements in which the body opens out and expands. Exhalation should accompany postures and movements in which the body folds in on itself.
For example, in Vyagraha Pranayama, also known as “tiger breathing” or “cat-cow,” the movements of the back, the neck, the shoulders, the hips and the head are all used to facilitate complete breathing, opening up parts of the lungs that otherwise aren’t used. This kind of full breathing aids in removing stale air from the lungs and refreshing it with new oxygen.
Breath is of prime importance in Surya Namaskara (sun salutation), too. In fact, when my guru taught me, she emphasized the “inhale” and “exhale” parts of the instruction more than the names of the asanas we were moving through. Correct breathing along with each movement is crucial and integral to the practice. Doing the movements alone without actively involving the breath is like singing a song without rhythm.
Pranayama: Breath control gives us greater insight
If Yoga yokes together the body, the mind and the spirit, the breath is the underlying reason for this union. The breath is often called the bridge between the mind and the body. The reason it can function this way is that we breathe even when we’re not conscious of our breath. It’s an automatic process. But unlike many other automatic processes in our body, it can also be controlled consciously. Therefore, it’s a two-way street.
Watch how your breathing changes with different emotions. Watch how there’s a natural shift in the use of your nostrils throughout the day. In these cases, the breath is the outward expression of inner processes, emotional and physiological. When we consciously control the breath with certain exercises, we can control our emotions and exert influence on our inner physiology.
Pranayama, which literally translates to “the control of breath” (or “life energy”), is thus the branch of Yoga which, for each of us, opens up a whole world of insight into our physical and mental health through our breathing.
Meditation: Simply observing the breath
The breath is also used in meditation. In mindfulness meditation, in contrast to pranayama (in which we control the breath), we simply watch the breath without controlling it.
The breath is used as the focal point of our attention. When thoughts come in and we become aware of them, we repeatedly remind ourselves to let them go and return our attention to our breath. We pay attention to the rise and fall of our bellies as we inhale and exhale. We pay attention to the sensation of air flowing in and out of our nostrils. We pay attention to the feeling of the air filling up and leaving our lungs.
If we’re unable to focus directly on the sensations of the breath, we may also use labels such as “inhale,” “exhale,” “rise,” “fall,” “in,” and “out,” or simply count breaths to mark our attention to the sensation of breathing.
Of course, there are various types of meditation, but the breath is central to most forms.
Becoming yogis throughout our everyday life
Taken further, through the practice of Yoga and the integration of breath-awareness into our lives, we can ease, enrich, and enliven other experiences. We can breathe away our anger once we become aware of it. We can use actively relaxed breathing to transform the sensations involved in giving birth from painful to powerful. We can use full-belly breathing to melt away stress in the middle of the day.
It eventually becomes easy to recognize that the breath is something we always have at our disposal, as long as we’re alive. By being aware of it and controlling it in certain ways, we become yogis in our approach to life.
It’s never just a physical activity
The word Yoga conjures up images of physical activity and various beautiful postures of strength, balance and flexibility. Many modern versions of it are exclusively physical, promising and helping students work towards better core muscles, while incorporating cardio and other vigorous physical elements.
As Yoga spreads and takes on new interpretations worldwide, however, it’s important to keep in mind the role of breath, which gives life, soul and meaning to the practice.
Yoga is not just about “stretching” your flexibility. As a full practice it consists of asana, pranayama and meditation, which are all derived from the awareness or control of the breath.
It’s the attention to breath that sets Yoga apart from other physical practices as an exercise that’s energizing as well as relaxing. It’s this attention to breath that deepens the impact of Yoga on health, soothes the mind, and introduces a tranquil and spiritual element into the practice.
Next time you think Yoga, think breath, and breathe deeply!
Read about the benefits of practicing Yoga in midlife and beyond in YOGA OVER 50: The journey is in never arriving»
Janani Dhinakaran started riselife.org to improve the condition of those with stress-related and other psychosomatic health issues by combining her background in Western academia (Ph.D. in Neuropsychology from Germany) with the traditions of Yoga and meditation. She can be reached at email@example.com.