Why is there so much focus on the breath in yoga? What is the link between yoga and breath, and why is it so important (besides the fact that it keeps us alive)?
In a typical yoga class, we are instructed to consciously breathe, connect to our breath, breathe deeply, retain our breath, etcetera. What impact does the breath have on us, and our yoga practice?
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Breath And Length Of Life
A yogi measures the span of life by the number of breaths, not by the number of years. -Swami Sivananda
It is said that if you breathe 15 times per minute, you will live to 75 or 80 years. If you breathe 10 times per minute you will live to 100. The speed at which you breathe will dictate the length of life. If you breathe fast, your life will be shortened. This is why dogs have short lives.
We are continually instructed to “breathe consciously” when we are in yoga class. Breathing consciously is the essence of yoga as it assists us in connecting with the subtle energy within. It is through the breath that we are able to navigate different levels of consciousness. Moreover, breathing consciously has a biological effect on our mental, emotional, and physical state.
Firstly, connecting with your breath is a method for being present. When you concentrate on each aspect of the breathing process, you are present; you let go of the past and future and are focused on the moment inside the breath. This is why breathing consciously is its own meditation. But this is just the beginning of why conscious breathing is important.
When you breathe consciously you activate a different part of your brain. Unconscious breathing is controlled by the medulla oblongata in the brain stem, the primitive part of the brain, while conscious breathing comes from the more evolved areas of the brain in the cerebral cortex. So conscious breathing stimulates the cerebral cortex and the more evolved areas of the brain. Consciously breathing sends impulses from the cortex to the connecting areas that impact emotions. Activating the cerebral cortex has a relaxing and balancing effect on the emotions. In essence, by consciously breathing, you are controlling which aspects of the mind dominate, causing your consciousness to rise from the primitive/instinctual to the evolved/elevated.
Controlling The Breath
By changing the breathing pattern, you can produce different states of mind. Slowing down the breath has an impact on your emotional state. The cerebral cortex is activated through consciously slowing down the release of breath. Then the cerebral cortex sends inhibitory impulses to the respiratory center in the midbrain. These inhibitory impulses from the cortex overflow into the area of the hypothalamus, which is concerned with emotions, and relax this area. This is why slowing down the breath has a soothing effect on your emotional state.
Channels Of Subtle Energy
Breath controls the body, mind, and emotions. There are 72,000 nadis, or channels where the subtle energy flows throughout the body. Of the 72,000, there are 3 that are the most important: Ida, Pingala, and Sushumna.
The Ida Nadi begins at the Muladhara Chakra, courses through the chakras and ends in the left nostril. Ida is aligned with the moon energy and has a calming and cooling effect.
The Pingala Nadi originates at the Muladhara Chakra, courses through the chakras and ends in the right nostril. It is associated with the sun energy and has a heating effect.
The Sushumna Nadi is the central channel. This is the nadi that the Kundalini energy travels. It is associated with balance.
During the course of the day, the left and right nostril alternate in which one dominates. This is accomplished through erectile tissue in the nasal passage that inflates with blood to cut off, or reduce the flow of air. One of the nostrils will dominate based on your mental, emotional, and physical state. They alternate throughout the day. As they change over, the Sushumna is activated, but only for a couple minutes. The key is to activate Sushumna for a longer period of time. This is accomplished when both the Ida and Pingala are flowing evenly.
Prana And Pranayama
In yoga we learn to control prana, the vital force, through pranayama. We use the breath in pranayama to learn to control prana, but don’t confuse prana with breath. Prana is the energy that animates the lungs. It is NOT the breath. Using the breath is the easiest method for training prana. Once you are able to control prana through pranayama you are better able to control the movement of prana to other organs and areas of the body.
The breath being the mode of pranayama, we focus on the three stages of respiration: inhalation (pooraka), retention (kumbhaka), and exhalation (rechaka). However, according to yogic texts, pranayama is retention. Inhalation and exhalation are methods for affecting retention.
Kumbhaka, or retention of the breath has a physiological effect on the brain. First, it provides more opportunity for the cells to absorb oxygen, and eliminate more carbon dioxide. This has a calming effect on the mental and emotional body. In fact, scientific studies have proven that slight increases in carbon dioxide for a short amount of time reduce anxiety levels. However, it is only beneficial up to a certain level. Carbon dioxide becomes very harmful, even fatal at high levels.
Furthermore, when the breath is retained, the brain panics because the carbon dioxide levels increase. Increased carbon dioxide levels stimulate the brain’s capillaries to dilate. In this way, more capillaries in the brain are opened up to improve cerebral circulation. This builds up an immense amount of nervous energy in the brain, forcing the creation of new neural pathways and the activation of dormant centers; the brain is activated and awakened!
Breath And Sound
Every vibration has sound. Breath, a vibration, also has sound. The Yoga Chudamani Upanishads states that the breath has a sound that is heard at a particular level of consciousness. According to the Upanishads, the sound of the breath is “So” during inhalation, and “Ham” during exhalation.
When you withdraw your senses from the external, you are then tuned into the internal sound and can hear the breath. By mentally chanting - So-ham, the mantra manifests as an audible sound in the inner ear. In Kundalini Yoga, we mentally chant Sat on the inhale, and Nam on the exhale which serves the same purpose.
Mind, Prana, and Breath
Basically we can look at the breath like the oil in a car, prana as the gasoline, and the mind as the engine. By understanding their relationship to one another you are better equipped to navigate your life to a higher elevation, and repair it when it breaks down. The yoga mat is just the starting point of your journey.