You’ve probably heard the term “take a deep breath” many times, often during a time when you’re losing your mind, super-frustrated or just need to calm down. Yoga practice also calls upon conscious breathing skills, as do lots of other fitness training, martial arts and anger management. How does taking a breath affect the body? You breathe in and out all day without giving it any thought–so why should we pay attention to the way we suck in oxygen all day?
Your body processes oxygen in a fantastic choreography of brain and muscle mechanics, mixed with a bit of blood chemistry, and then spits out carbon dioxide. The act alone is amazing, but of all the auto mechanics of our body we can interrupt the cruise control of breath with a split second thought. We can hold our breath, shorten it, push it out, breath shallow or deep. Focusing on the breath gives the mind an edge. It’s an edge that yoga practitioners say can make all the difference in life.
“The breath is the spark that enlivens us–without it, our cells start to die,” says Danielle Ryan of Samana Wellness. “Yet, breath is something that we can so easily take for granted because it happens automatically without our awareness. When we do place attention on our breath, the quality of it changes significantly. Most people breathe shallowly in daily life, and can benefit greatly from drawing breath deeper and more fully into the lower parts of their lungs. Deep conscious breaths decrease stress, lower blood pressure, and help us become more solution-oriented in times of challenge. In yoga, focusing on the breath becomes a meditative part of the practice that gives us clues about how we are responding to a pose, and whether or not our minds have drifted away from the practice to what we’re going to eat or do afterwards. Maintaining connection to the breath in yoga practice keeps us conscious and that really is what yoga is about.”
Brain research shows that the yogis know what their talking about. Pranayama is the yoga of breath, and there are many different practices associated with it. Len Kravitz, a Ph.D professor in Exercise Science at the University of New Mexico and author of Anybody’s Guide to Total Fitness, writes that Pranayama breathing has been shown to positively affect immune function, hypertension, asthma, autonomic nervous system imbalances and psychological or stress-related disorders.
“Breath control is called pranayama, which translates to controlling or directing the life force (prana) within our bodies,” says Rachel Gonzales, owner and Yoga instructor at Body Alive Yoga. “Sometimes we just watch the breath as is and observe its flow and qualities. And other times we control it. Of course, there will be times when we’re focused on activities of daily life and we will just be breathing without thinking about it, but it’s good for us to periodically to check in on it throughout the day. It’s sometimes interesting to observe our breath in different situations and notice how it differs based on what we are doing and so on. As soon as we begin breathing consciously, it activates our parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for calming us down, stimulating digestion and relaxing our bodies.”
Pranayamic yoga has several different methods for practicing acute awareness from diaphragmic breathing, retention breaths to agniprasana–the breath of fire. Mastery of the breath is preparation for meditation, another yogic practice that has benefits for the brain and body.
“In our stressful world, where we’re bombarded with information, noise and ‘doing,’ we absolutely need a tool to calm the nervous system and connect to our divine and natural resources,” says Christy Abelov, owner and instructor at Island Spirit Yoga. “It helps us feel more and think less. Meditation helps us move into stillness and cultivate tranquility. There are many forms of meditation… from silent to walking.”
The benefits of meditation run the gamut from increased productivity, better memory, reduced anxiety to more apathy. Most yoga practice incorporates a bit of breathing technique and meditation, whether it be beginner or advanced.
“The term ‘yoga’ in modern culture usually refers to the asana or postures of the physical practice and meditation conjures up ideas of sitting with the eyes closed and the fingers in some funky mudra,” says Ryan.”In traditional yoga, the postures are one of eight parts that comprise the system called ‘yoga.’ I mention this because in the traditional yoga system, three of the eight parts are levels of meditation, referred to as focus, concentration and absorption. So in that sense, yes, meditation is a part of every yoga practice, with focus, concentration and maybe even absorption, but not necessarily in a sitting position.”
On Jan. 6, JAMA Internal Medicine Journal published a study on meditation, finding the biggest benefits in reduced depression and anxiety with just 30 minutes of practice daily. Most yoga instructors say it’s easy to practice at home, with just a few quiet minutes in the morning to focus on your breath or take a moment to meditate. Another tool to meditation and breath could be your mobile device. The iPhone app called Headspace says you just need 10 minutes a day to practice, and takes you through a series of videos, visualizations and leads you through meditation with a British accent.
“Yoga and meditation are all about our connection to the moment,” says Ryan. “We are each built with a mindfulness bell and reset button, our breath. The more a person gets tuned in with his or her breath, the calmer the mind becomes. In this sense, breathing practices prepare the mind for the focus and concentration required in mediation. Inherent in each breath is receiving and letting go, merging with the universe in both directions. With each breath, we have the opportunity to turn towards sattva (consciousness, harmony, balance, clarity) or toward tamas (inertia, unconsciousness, dullness or habit). In meditation, when we realize that the mind has wandered (which it does again and again), we have the opportunity to come back to our practice as soon as we realize we’ve strayed. In every moment we always have a choice, sometimes it’s only about the quality of our breath. In that, we have the opportunity with every inhalation and exhalation to recognize that each moment is sacred, and that is the true meaning of yoga.”
TRY THIS AT HOME:
Find a quiet space and make yourself comfortable either sitting or lying down. Begin to breathe in, notice what happens in your body as you inhale and slowly breathe out and feel what happens as you exhale. Continue like this noticing how the inhale feels different than the exhale. You might find it helpful to repeat inhalation as you breathe in and exhalation as you breathe out to keep your mind very focused.
-Rachel Gonzales, Body Alive Yoga
Take a few minutes of deep breaths first thing in the morning, at night before bed and anytime I feel stressed or overwhelmed. Pointers: Make sure that inhales expand your chest and torso like you’re blowing up a balloon, and exhales are complete with the chest and belly falling toward the spine like a deflating balloon. Keep it simple and don’t push the mind or the body for best results.
-Danielle Ryan, Samana Wellness
A simple practice is to lie on your back with one palm placed on the center of the chest and the other on the abdomen. Breathe from the bottom hand and let it move upward and expand in every direction. Release the breath from the upper down to the lower hand. The inhale and exhale should be equal in length, smooth and easy. Take 10 minutes a day to lie or sit and practice deepening each breath, inhale and exhale.
-Christi Abelov, Island Spirit Yoga
Photo courtesy of Sean Hower, howerphoto.com