We all know that we can go without food for several weeks; we can go without water for several days, but most of us can’t even go a minute without breathing. So, in a very real sense, breath is life.
If breathing is necessary for life, why are there so many people with respiratory problems? Many people believe that respiratory problems are a natural part of ageing. But they’re not. Many respiratory problems can be alleviated and even reversed simply by breathing correctly.
The importance of breath in yoga is focused on the concept of prana. In Sanskrit, prana is both the body’s energy, and in action, it means to breathe forth. Because breathing is the vehicle by which prana is transported around the body, it becomes an intergral part of yoga. This is why breathing practices are included in every yoga class.
Let’s start with the basics and look at the physical aspects of breathing.
Natural breathing is long and deep down deep in the belly. It is the breath that you see babies taking when they’re sleeping. It is the breath we take when we are completely relaxed and calm. It is the breath we intend to take when we meditate.
However, most people – especially in the West – breathe into their chests.
For optimal health, breathing should be slow. Slow breathing allows time for the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body. We need time for the oxygen that comes in with the inhalation to enter the bloodstream and be carried around to the whole body. But we also need time for impurities in the body to be expelled via the exhalation.
Fast breathing – the breaths we take when we are nervous, scared, and in ‘fight or flight’ mode – go straight to the chest.
Fast, chest breathing is how many – too many – people breathe. When people who are stressed breathe into their chests, the fast chest-breathing adds to their stress levels, which, in turn, often leads to high blood pressure and heart disease. Fast chest breathing is also related to respiratory disease, which can frequently be controlled just by consciously slowing and lowering the breath into the belly. Breathing deeply allows a greater volume of air into the lungs, which in turn allows more oxygen to be absorbed into the bloodstream, thereby allowing greater cleansing capacity.
The various breathing practices that are done in a yoga class aim to encourage deeper breathing (to allow maximum intake of breath) and slower breathing (to allow optimum exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide). Deeper and slower breathing allow greater relaxation.
How many times have you been very stressed, very rushed, very angry, or very upset and someone has advised, “Slow down and take three deep breaths”? It’s because deep slow breathing instantly relaxes the body and the mind.
Our nervous system has two different parts – the “fight or flight” (sympathetic) and the “rest and digest” (para-sympathetic). Only one of these systems can ever be operating, but one of them must be turned on. If you’re breathing into your chest, you are automatically activating your body’s “fight or flight” responses. Conversely, when you are belly breathing, you have activated the “rest and digest” response.
So, in a very real, physical sense, deep breathing brings about relaxation.
In yoga, specific breathing practices have been developed around this belly breath. These breathing practices, collectively, are called “Pranayama” and comprise the fourth stage in Patanjali’s eight stages or steps of yoga.
In these blogs I have mentioned Patanjali several times. He was a sage in India a few thousand years ago, who systematised yoga from all the disparate philosophies and practices that had been evolving over eons. He claimed that the ultimate aim of yoga (enlightenment) would be reached via eight steps or stages. The first and second stages are personal and social codes to live by; asanas (the physical practices) comprise the third stage, pranayama the fourth stage, and the remaining four steps are stages leading to meditation.
So correct breathing is necessary not only for good health but also for progress in our ultimate journey. It can help to practise correct breathing whenever you remember to, and to also wear clothing that is comfortable around the waist so that breathing is not restricted.
Do you know why nineteenth century used to faint so often? As today, the ideal nineteenth-century woman should be slim. To make themselves look slimmer, women wore corsets and pulled them in so tightly that the women could not get enough air into the deep parts of their lungs – so… they were prone to fainting!
So… let’s do away with tight belts and tight jeans and breathe freely.