By giving consideration to the purpose, mechanics and awareness of breath, we can greatly improve mind, body and spirit.
The Mechanics of Breathing
Did you know that you aren’t really breathing? It is the planet’s atmospheric pressure that sends breath into the body. With the process we call breathing, our body simply changes its shape in such a way that the pressure in the chest cavity is lowered, thus permitting air to be pushed into the body during inhalation. During passive breathing, as when sleeping, it is the universe that breathes for us. On the exhalation, we do nothing; the body tissues that have stretched during inhalation simply spring back to their original shape.
The movements of the diaphragm, the principle muscle associated with breathing, brings the body into complete alignment and coordination, because it is connected to all of the major organs in the thoracic (chest) cavity and the abdominal cavity, as well to the heart. This is the reason why a calm, full, deliberate breath can slow your heartbeat, improve digestion, decrease abdominal pains, subdue intense emotions, etc.
Once the muscles and organs associated with breathing – the lungs, the tissues around the thoracic cavity, the diaphragm and its lower and upper attachments – loose some of their elasticity, it is difficult for the body to exhale on its own because the tissues do not spring back. For example, compromised elasticity of the lungs results in respiratory problems such as emphysema and pulmonary fibrosis.
During a typical yoga practice, we find ourselves focusing on slow, deliberate breathing, which tones the body’s respiratory system and associated muscles, keeping them healthy and effective.
Increasing Awareness of the Body
Yoga, at its core, is the practice of effective and efficient breathing. During a yoga practice, we’re not only bringing alignment and coordination to our physical systems, we’re also creating a connection between the mind and the physical body with the breath. By focusing on the areas where we need the breath most, usually following tension, we develop our ability to perceive what each part of our body requires for healthy function, increase awareness of any ailments that need attention. The mind/body connection also develops our sensitivity to the subtle energy of the body, called prana.
Yoga breathing (pranayama) – long, deep inhales, active exhales, and focused awareness, following the breath in and out of the body – allows you to calm the chatter in the mind and open up to the subtle dialog that your physical body has with the mind. The practice helps improve your concentration to a point that, with experience, you may become so familiar with your body that you will instinctively know which postures/foods/surroundings your body needs in order to address physical, mental and spiritual weaknesses.
The Universe Fills Us with Life’s Energy
As the universe fills us with air on the inhalation, it also replenishes us with prana – the energy of the living things that surround us. But if we’re to receive this energy, we must first make space for it in within ourselves.
Much of yoga is about removing waste from the bod to prepare it for spiritual experience. TKV Desikachar, one of the great masters of modern yoga, has often claimed that yoga is 90% waste removal. With every exhale, we remove from the body what is no longer needed, physically in terms of carbon dioxide and energetically in terms of stale energy and negative emotions. Yoga breathing also unites and integrates all of the body’s systems to assist with the overall elimination process, thus bringing us closer into a state of sukha – good space.
Three Yoga Breathing Techniques
In addition to the many functions and benefits of a regular deep breath used during a yoga practice, various breathing techniques called pranayama have been developed by yoga masters to help us accomplish certain objectives. The following three are examples of what we can achieve with pranayama and concentrated breath.
Direct & Guide Chakra Breathing Technique
This chakra breathing technique will help balance the energy and revitalize any of the chakras. For example, if you focus on the heart chakra Anahata, you will strengthen your sense of compassion and unconditional love, balance your feelings of joy and passion, and invigorate the immune and endocrine systems. Click here for more details on each of the seven chakra energy centers.
Begin this exercise by sitting comfortably in a chair or cross legged on a pillow on the ground, the spine straight and the wrists resting on the knees or legs, palms facing upward. Breathe naturally and bring your awareness to one of the chakras. Keep your attention on only one chakra during this exercise. Notice any feelings in the area of the chakra that you’ve chosen – feelings such as tingling, warmth or buzzing. Then follow this process:
- Keep your awareness on the chakra.
- As you inhale, guide the energy of the in-breath to this chakra.
- As you exhale, settle your awareness and once again notice any sensations present in the chakra.
- Repeat for several breaths, before returning to your natural breath.
This breath is ideal at the beginning or end of your yoga practice, or anytime you need to revitalize one of your energy centers.
Ujjayi Breathing Technique
Ujjayi means victorious. This breathing technique is most beneficial when used during a physical asana yoga practice. Using Ujjayi during your asana practice distracts the mind from unwanted thoughts, with the breath acting as a mantra and helping the mind to focus. Ujjayi breath acts as a guide during the practice, and if its rhythm is broken or forced, we learn to back off, slow down or rest. Using Ujjayi also creates more postural support in the body, and is recommended during physically-demanding yoga practices such as Vinyasa Flow and Ashtanga.
After you’ve warmed up and prepared for your yoga practice, follow this process to being the Ujjayi breath:
- While inhaling and exhaling through the nose, partially close the throat until the breath creates a soft humming sound in the back of the throat. The physical formation of the throat and vocal cords is similar to that during whispering. The sound is often described as the hum of the ocean waves or the wind moving through tree tops.
- Gently smile with each breath, allowing the breath to swirl in the back of the throat before moving down into the lungs.
- Continue with this breath throughout your yoga practice.
This breath is ideal during a physical yoga practice, but it can also be used other times when you need to bring focus to the mind, such as during a walking meditation.
Kapalabhati Cleansing Technique
The Kapalabhati pranayama is a cleansing breath technique where we focus on short voluntary exhales. This technique benefits the body in many ways: it revitalizes the respiratory, digestive and nervous systems; it tones the abdominal muscles and improves metabolism; and it helps to purges your system of all negativity, including negative thoughts, physical ailments and diseases, and even damaging habits.
Begin this exercise by sitting comfortably cross legged on a pillow on the ground, the spine straight and the wrists and hands resting on the knees. You can also sit in a chair if sitting on the ground is not comfortable, with hands resting in the lap. Breathe naturally for a few breaths and relax the physical body from head, through the shoulders and torso, and down into the legs. Then follow this process:
- Inhale deeply through the nose until you’ve reached the top of the breath.
- Start with short, sharp exhales through nose, while at the same time squeezing the abdomen and pulling it in toward the spine, also in short bursts.
- Allow the inhalation to happen passively, without any emphasis on it.
- While practicing, visualize what you are expelling from the body.
- After about 20-30 seconds, inhale deeply through the nose until you’ve reached the breath’s full capacity, and exhale naturally.
- Observe the calmness in the mind for about 15-20 seconds, while breathing naturally.
- Repeat for 2 or 3 rounds.
Start practicing the Kapalabhati breathing technique with 2 rounds for about 20 seconds each, growing up to 3 rounds for 30 seconds each. Please note that Kapalabhati is a powerful breathing exercise, so it is not recommended if you have a heart condition, high blood pressure, hernia, asthma, or are experiencing dizziness, back pain or abdominal pain during the exercise.
To see a demonstration, click here.
Yoga offers many other beneficial breathing techniques that can be used by anyone to improve health, wellness and to develop peace of mind.
Swenson, David. Ashtanga Yoga: The Practice Manual. Ashtanga Yoga Productions. 1999.
Kaminoff, Leslie and Matthews, Amy. Yoga Anatomy 2nd edition. Human Kinetics. 2012.
Disclaimer: This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Please consult your primary care physician before beginning any type of physical practice.
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