As a yoga teacher, I talk about the breath a lot. Every class starts with an awareness of the breath and there are many cues throughout the practice. You will hear a lot of us yoga teachers saying things like ‘doing yoga without the breath is just making nice shapes.’ Breath is a big deal. But for many people, especially those coming to yoga for the first time, focusing on the breath so much can seem a little strange. After all, it is something we can all do without being reminded! What is it with all the cues?!
So here are a few words about the breath in yoga and why it is so important in our practice – I hope you find it useful. It is a vast topic and to keep things simple and relevant, I focus only on the areas that most of us use or hear about: the physiology, the connection to movement and the yogic idea of breath as energy.
1. Physiology and the relaxation response
Air is the most easily accessible resource available for us to live. We breathe air all the time and doing this sustains us, on a cellular level, but also as an organism as a whole. The breath feeds the body, every minute of every day.
How we breathe, though, changes our physiology. If the breath is shallow and rapid, it is a very different experience to when we engage in full, slow, deep breathing. Imagine the differences between breathing when scared or panicked, when running really fast, or when resting up reading a book.
There is a link between the breath and the nervous system. Our nervous system is designed to respond to information received through the senses and to trigger appropriate reactions. It coordinates and regulates the information and processes in the body and helps us adapt to our environment.
When we are in danger (or more likely under stress), the sympathetic part of the nervous system (SNS) that is responsible for the body’s rapid, involuntary response to dangerous or stressful situations, initiates the ‘fight or flight’ response. The response floods the body with hormones to alert us, raising the heart rate, pumping blood to the muscles and making us breathe faster. This will help us fuel up the body quickly to get us away from danger and respond to stress.
When we are calm and at peace, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS; also called the ‘rest and digest’ system) conserves energy through slowing the heart rate and relaxing the muscles of the body, and calming the breath. The PNS stops the body from overworking and restores us to a calm and composed state. In this restful state the body can focus on tending to its natural processes undistrurbed. This is our healing state.
In yoga, by breathing deeply and slowly into the diaphragm, we trigger the PNS and the body’s relaxation response. In this process, the vagus nerve, which runs from the base of the brain to the abdomen, is crucially important. It is a complex and long nerve (“vagus” means wandering in Latin, which is appropriate, if you have a look at it) with many different sensory and motor functions.
The vagus nerve
Learning to stimulate the vagus nerve through breathing is a great way to help manage anxiety and stress.
2. Movement in yoga
In terms of movement in yoga, a good place to start is this: the point of most energy needed for moving the body is to move from stillness (no movement) to movement. If movement always starts from the muscles, it can soon become exhausting for us. A more energy efficient way to move is to allow the breath to be the starting point for any movement. It is a more sustainable way to let the inhales strengthen and lift us, while using the exhales to relax and soften us.
Similarly to the body’s energy use in general, in yoga we also want to preserve energy for when it is needed and only use what we have to, resting wherever possible. It is the most efficient and effortless way to move through our practice, and also why we use rest postures to reconnect, relax and store energy.
When we are in more passive, holding yoga postures, having established a stretch, we use the breath to calm and relax the body further so the muscles relax deeper and we soften to find more space within the stretch.
Working with a relaxed, rhythmic, effortless breath keeps the body in an optimal state for the physical flow of movement. By keeping the body soft and easy, the mind remains relaxed and this in turn shapes the experience of our practice.
I believe that having a relaxed mindset is central to the experience of yoga, and of movement in general. When we are relaxed in the mind and in harmony with the body and the breath, the experience is one of ease and grace. When we force and push the body, we involuntarily put up resistance to perceived obstacles. We work against ourselves, in conflict. Being in this state increases chances of injury, and in any case doesn’t make for a nice experience. To put it simply, flowing gets us to places where forcing never could.
And all this down to one single breath at a time.
It’s easy to see how integral the breath is to our practice and generally, our way of being. It has power to instantly change how we feel and how we are.
3. Breath as energy
Yoga has an incredibly old and rich history, dating back thousands of years. To fully honour the tradition, we have to also consider the breath as energy. For this, we look back to the Vedas – the ancient texts that established the foundations of yoga. The Vedas describe the breath as a subtle energy, or prana, that flows through the body. Prana is not physical energy in the Western sense, but a kind of life force or vital energy. The Chinese word for this is chi, in Japanese it is ki, and there are references to this life force in many other ancient cultures throughout the world.
This life force is believed to be flowing through the universe, including our bodies. According to Vedic knowledge, the body contains a complex pranic system made up of tens of thousands of energy channels and vortices. You have probably heard of the chakras, which are ‘wheels’ or circles of pranic energy in the body, located along the spine. Hatha yoga, which encompasses most types of modern yoga, moves the body, incorporating breath, and also looks to rebalance and enhance the subtle energies of the body.
By consciously using the breath, we can increase and store prana inside us – this practice is called pranayama. Pranayama is traditionally incorporated in yoga but it is also a separate practice in its own right. In my classes we mostly use basic breathing techniques but there are some very powerful and more complex breathing patterns that create vastly different responses in the body. Body and breath are inextricably linked through the breath in yoga.
This is a brief look at a rich and diverse topic. There are vast amounts of resources available for anyone wanting to look further into the role breath plays in yoga. Drop me a message if you would like some further information.
Stay easy in your breath, friends. Remember - it is a superpower! xo