If we breathe automatically and hardly think about it during the day, why is breath emphasized so much during yoga class? And how is it even possible to breathe incorrectly?
These questions are common among beginner yogis, and they’re worth discussing. Awareness of breath, as well as synchronizing breath to movement, is an integral part of yoga.
Mechanically speaking, the act of breathing can be either automatic (an unconscious, involuntary behavior) or deliberate (a conscious, voluntary behavior). By making an automatic behavior deliberate, we begin to affect our neurological programming through a state of intentional awareness. This conscious breathing affects us biologically, emotionally and physically.
During most of the day when we’re breathing unconsciously, our breath is controlled by the medulla oblongata (the primitive part of the brain). When we switch to conscious breathing, it stimulates the cerebral cortex (the more evolved areas of the brain). It’s in that moment that the magic starts to happen! Activating the cerebral cortex has a relaxing and balancing effect on our emotions, which leads us into the next benefit of intentional breath.
When you begin to tune into your breath like this, emotional stress and random thoughts vanish. Your whole system gets a break. Your body’s energy begins flowing freely, disrupting any emotional and physical blockages and freeing your body and mind. This results in that “feel good” effect you experience after a yoga practice.
In our physical yoga practice, the breath works side-by-side with our structural alignment. Our natural tendency is to hold our breath or use stress-induced breathing (short and shallow) while holding a posture, especially in a challenging pose. This creates stress and tension in the body. That’s why you always hear yoga teachers reminding students to continue breathing intentionally during the toughest poses and sequences.
Now, you’re probably wondering exactly how you’re supposed to breathe…. In yoga, there are a variety of different breathing styles. We’ll highlight one here called Ujjayi (ocean sounding breath). When done correctly, it calms the mind, creates internal heat and gives an uplifting boost of energy. Like most aspects of yoga, it requires practice, patience and an open mind and heart. To do this type of breath, try the following sequence:
With your mouth open, try exhaling the sound “HAAAAH” – similar to the sound you make when you’re trying to fog up a mirror. Get comfortable with this sound to get the hang of the practice.
Close your mouth and attempt a similar sound, feeling the outflow of air through your nasal passages. If you’re doing this correctly, you should sound like waves in the ocean (or Darth Vader).
Generally, you should incorporate a positive resolve or mantra into every yoga session. This can be a single word or phrase that serves as a goal for your practice. This mantra should be integrated into your breathing process. When you inhale, gather up the stress or worries in your mind; when you exhale, imagine that stress flowing out of your entire body.
We’re willing to bet you had no idea how important – and complex – your breath is. What seems like an automatic process is actually critical to mindfulness, stress removal and energy creation.
If you’re ready to practice the art of yogic breathing, come join us for yoga class. And don’t forget to incorporate conscious breath into your daily life. When you’re feeling stressed or tired at work, school or home, spend two minutes focusing on deep inhales and exhales. You’ll be surprised how great you’ll feel after.
“A yogi measures the span of life by the number of breaths, not by the number of years.” -Swami Sivananda