Breath is a unique function of the body: it is automatic, but at the same time can be consciously controlled. No matter if we are paying attention to it or not, the breath is always moving. But if we bring conscious awareness to the breath and learn to subtly direct it, we can transform the breath into an invaluable tool for physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.
Muscle tension, poor posture and stress can lead to breathing patterns that are less than optimal. These poor breathing patterns can in turn create even more strain in the body and mind. Mindful awareness of the breath, which is an integral part of yoga, can help resolve this chronic tension.
Breath and nervous system regulation
Stress is part of our life. While it’s unavoidable, and not always purely negative, when stress becomes chronic it will invariably negatively affect our health and wellbeing. One of the remarkable qualities of conscious breath is its ability to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is our "rest and digest" response. When we engage in slow, deep breaths, we create a sense of safety in the body, leading to reduction in stress hormones. Conscious breathing encourages mindfulness and present-moment awareness, helping us detach from anxious thoughts about the future or regrets from the past. This, in turn, contributes to a calmer mind, and to a healthier body: lower blood pressure, improved digestion and immune function.
Breath and the flow of oxygen
Breathing is the main way for the body to obtain oxygen. As we age, our lung capacity can decrease, leading to reduced supply of oxygen to the cells. This can cause physical fatigue, as well as mental and cognitive problems. Intentional breathing practices can expand our lung capacity and improve oxygenation. Increased oxygen delivery to cells, including the brain, helps the body maintain optimal functioning, and can play a significant role in preserving overall health, and brain health in particular.
Breath and flexibility
Flexibility, or range of motion in our joints and muscles, is essential for preventing injuries and for performing everyday activities with ease. When we practice yoga, focusing on long, smooth breath encourages relaxation and allows us to ease into the poses gradually. Dynamic movements become more effective when coordinated with breath. By activating the “relaxation response”, mindful breathing helps the muscles relax and reduces tension and pain, which makes our everyday movement more efficient as well.
And breath is not just important for relaxation: full breathing engages the diaphragm and activates the deep core muscles. A strong core provides stability and support to the spine, contributing to improved overall physical strength and balance.
Breath in Yoga
In yoga breath is considered to be the carrier of prana, or life force. Breath is at the center of most yogic practices. This is why yoga is such an effective tool for optimizing both physical and mental health. Whether you are doing asanas (physical postures), pranayama (breathing practices) or meditation, you are paying attention to the breath and mindfully engaging with it. The more you practice mindful breathing, the more it becomes a natural part of your daily life, infusing every moment with a sense of calm and stability.
Mindful breathing practice
Sit upright in a comfortable position
Notice the natural rhythm of your breath 1 min
Begin to count to create a steady rhythm inhaling to a count of four and exhaling to a count of four for 1-2 minutes
Keep your count steady, and begin to lengthen the exhale, so you can count till six on the exhale
Continue breathing with this 4-6 rhythm 3-4 min
Let your breath return to normal and observe effects of the breath on your body and mind 1 min