An in-depth discussion on breathing may seem like a mundane subject, but its implications touch on every aspect of life. It’s no exaggeration that if the same amount of attention given to planning a diet was directed towards cultivating the quality of breathing, health levels would be increased across the board.
Highlighted below is an overview of why proper breathing is so important in day-to-day life and why yoga places extra emphasis on breathing.
Importance of Proper Breathing
The obvious reason why breathing is important is that the body won’t last long without oxygen. However, breathing is so much more than gulping down air for dear life. The intention and quality of each breath, as well as the contents in the air being inhaled, have extensive implications for human health and life.
The practice of yoga places a great importance on the cultivation of breath. Whether you are in a big yoga setting or following along with a tutorial in the comfort of your home, your awareness will ultimately be brought to breathing.
This is because the conscious connection made when observing the breath has implications for both the practice and the yogi. For example, Swami Sivananda, who played a key role in transmitting yoga culture to the West, taught yogis to count their lives in breaths rather than years.
According to yoga culture, individuals who breathe 15 times in a minute will not live past 80, while those who breathe 10 times in a minute will live to be 100. This difference is based on the idea that the capacity to hone the breath that allows humans to reach older ages.
Conscious Breathing in Yoga
In yoga, conscious breathing is the essence of the practice as this action forms the link to understanding and interfacing with more subtle energy flows. Building awareness and cultivating higher-consciousness is done through the special interface of the breath.
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Furthermore, there is an extensive list of benefits that come from breathing deeper, slower breaths that will be explored later on. First, let’s take a look at what is happening during the cultivation of breathing in a yoga practice.
Conscious breathing is the key to building a higher awareness of the present moment. Try it right now. Do nothing more than focus your attention on the next five breaths and notice the difference in your body conditions. Try it again when you are feeling overwhelmed by negative feelings about the past and future. You can see how instantly this exercise pushes such thoughts from the mind.
When the body becomes excited and stress levels rise, breathing rate is the first thing to rise with it. When breathing is steep and erratic, emotional states become altered and people become agitated, anxious, pressured, nervous, jumpy, or panicked depending on personal inclinations.
More importantly, the reverse is also true. As the conscious mind begins to build awareness of breathing patterns and regains control, the emotions follow suit. By slowing breathing, the cerebral cortex is activated and prevents the sympathetic nervous activity from increasing breathing rate. This also affects the hypothalamus, which controls emotions and initiates relaxation.1
Nadis and Chakras: The Channels of Energy Through the Body
The entire philosophy of yoga operates under the premise that energies flow through the body, bringing life force and healing power with them. Breathing is the all-important mechanism that controls the mind and body and optimizes the flow of these energies through the chakras and nadis.
The nadis and chakras of the body are described in the oldest works on human health and anatomy. The nadis are special channels or conduits through which energies flow and meet at major intersections called the chakras. When the energy flow through nadis and chakras is optimal, the world and universe are the yogi’s proverbial oyster. The benefits of fully open and energized chakras and nadis exceeds mere physical and mental health.
Breathwork plays an important role in keeping these chakras open and nadis energized. Take for example the subtle energies passed between the Sushumna, Pingala and Ida nadis in the practice of kundalini yoga.
The Pingala Nadi is colored red and associated with masculine energy and solar warmth. It runs from the right nostril to the base, sacral, or Muladhara chakra.
The Ida Nadi has a pale color and is associated with the feminine side, lunar energy, and cooling effects. It runs from the left nostril to the Muladhara chakra at the base of the spine.
The Sushumna Nadi is the central energy channel running from the Muladhara chakra up the spine to the crown, or Sahasrara chakra. This is the conduit through which kundalini energy will travel, so this Nadi is important for balancing the mind and body.
Throughout the day, energies may be running through the left or right nostril. Airflow through one of the nostrils can be greater than in the other due to the engorgement of tissue on the anterior part of the nasal septum.2
In yoga, airflow between nostrils is thought to change throughout the day depending on rates of breathing and mental or emotional states. Each time the transition is made from one to the other, the Sushumna Nadi is activated, but only briefly at first.
Through the cultivation of breathing exercises and consciousness, both the Pingala and Ida nadis can be opened simultaneously, allowing the Sushumna Nadi to remain activated for longer periods of time.3
The idea that interfacing with the breathing affects the channels and nodes of physical energies is not limited to yoga and Ayurvedic culture. The same concepts are seen in many factions of eastern tradition such as traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).
Prana and Pranayama
The Hindu poet Kabir once offered this answer to the question of who God is and where he resides. “God,” said Kabir, “is the breath within the breath.”
Kabir was referring to prana, something ethereal that exists beyond the actual physical components and dynamics of breathing. Inhalations and exhalations are the physical part of breathing, and within these actions exists a vital energy shared with all life in the universe.
Through the practice of yoga, the yogi is introduced to this vital force, called prana, and to the practice of cultivating prana through pranayama. With the practice of pranayama and cultivation of prana control, life energy can be manipulated in a number of ways. One of the most significant would be directing life energy to the organs of the body and chakras.
Pranayama 101: Three Stages of Respiration
Breath is the all-important interface of pranayama and the secret to longer life and good health. In yoga, this practice consists of three stages:
- Puraka – Inhalation
- Kumbhaka – Retention
- Rechaka – Exhalation
Puraka and rechaka are important methods for linking to and affecting kumbhaka. However, the secrets of pranayama lie in the retention of breath, kumbhaka. According to yogic practice, the retention of breath affects the mind greatly.
As the breath is held, certain physiological changes are initiated, and the blood is able to complete a full delivery of oxygen to the brain, organs, and cells. At this time, carbon dioxide is also eliminated. This leads to the calming feeling accompanied by a deep slow breath.
As the breath is held longer, carbon dioxide levels begin to increase, which can be dangerous at higher levels. Thus, the brain enters panic mode when carbon dioxide levels rise, which results in a widening of the capillaries to absorb more oxygen and increase cerebral circulation. This all happens in a mere instant but builds negative energy like a vacuum. As the inhalation once again floods the brain with oxygen, the result is an activation of the brain and its pathways.
The sound made by the air passing through the airways of the body resonates with a frequency that is also important to observe. According to yogic tradition, as recorded in the Upanishads, the sound of each breath resonates with a specific level of consciousness.
As awareness is built on the sounds and frequencies occurring within the body, it is easier to hear the voice of your breath. This can be enhanced through the mental chanting of the sounds “so-ham” resonating in the mind and inner ear.
Benefits of Proper Breathing
In addition to the more enigmatic benefits offered by cultivated breathing practice, there have been several more direct benefits attributed to practicing healthy breathing, some of which are highlighted below.
- Better Digestion – As the body’s organs receive greater amounts of oxygen, they are able to function better.
- Improved Nervous System Function – Better oxygenation and improved waste management also work to protect the brain, neurons, and spinal cord. The increased nourishment allows the nervous system to function better which in turn improves the health of the entire body.
- Enhanced Respiratory Function – Deeper breaths mean that the lungs are now accustomed to filling all the way with each breath, increasing their health and flexibility.
- Greater Relaxation – Slower rhythms in breathing activates parasympathetic nervous activity, which seeks to restore the body to balanced conditions especially after periods of high-stress and anxiety.
Affecting the health through the breath is an important aspect of many different practices. However, just as much attention should be paid to the quality and content of the air in your environment. Just like the beneficial compounds present during aromatherapy or forest bathing can greatly boost the health, particulate matter and contaminants in urban environments can cause a range of negative health issues.4
More of these healthy compounds can be added into your day-to-day life either through time spent in nature or use of essential oils in the home. These essential oils can be used topically after dilution with a carrier oil or aromatically in a room diffuser or personal aromatherapy diffuser like Zen MONQ.
By pairing proper breathing techniques with clean air filled with beneficial plant compounds, you’ll be on the way to breathing easy and improving your health and well-being overall.
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