Why do we focus on the breath in yoga?
Yoga was founded around five thousand years ago, years before the days of modern science. Yet for centuries, yogis have made extraordinary claims about the importance of the study of breath. It is believed that the breath is the link between the body and the mind, and by controlling our breath, we can gain control of our whole being. Because of this, yoga and the breath go hand in hand.
Of all of our bodily ‘systems’, respiration is the only one that we can consciously control. The digestive system and the circulatory system, for example, run on automatic. We don’t have to think about our heart pumping blood around our body, or the digestion of the food we eat. Most of the time our breath runs on automatic, relying on signals from the body to manage the amount of air we have to inhale. Yogis emphasize the importance of taking control of the breath, and throughout a yoga class you will constantly be reminded to come back to your breath. Without the control and awareness of the breath, asanas are just stretches or gymnastics, they aren’t yoga.
”When focusing on the breath during our asana practice, the control of the breath shifts from the brain stem (medulla oblongata) to the cerebral cortex (evolved part of the brain), due to us being aware of the breath. It’s in the moment, when we are aware, that the magic starts to happen. The mind will become more quiet and calmness arises.” Esther Ekhart
The Respiratory System- Yoga and the breath
Cellular respiration refers to the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in every cell in the body.
In order for this is happen, we need to breathe air into our lungs. The oxygen in the air dissolves into the moist lung tissue (one hundred million alveolar) and at the same time, carbon dioxide is transferred out.
The circulatory system assists with this process, delivering the oxygenated blood from the lungs to every cell in the body through arteries and capillaries, and simultaneously returning the carbon dioxide via the veins to the lungs to be expelled.
Through the practice of yoga and with our awareness on taking long, deep breaths, we deliver more fresh oxygen to the body, energizing it and providing the cells with the adequate oxygen for growth and repair. When we rely on our ‘automatic ‘ respiration, our bodies get by, but our health and well being can be improved by focusing on taking longer and deeper breaths.
A Full Yogic Breath
A nice pranayama (breathing exercise) anyone can start off with, to calm the mind and body, is a full yogic breath. Most of us naturally take very shallow breaths into the chest only, which means we aren’t utilizing the full capacity of our lungs.
To practice taking a full yogic breath, lye down in a comfortable position.
Place a hand on your belly. Focus on breathing into your belly. Feel your hand gently rise as you inhale deeply through your nose, and fall as you exhale.
Try and deepen the breath further. As you inhale feel the belly rise, the ribs rise and the chest rise. As you exhale feel the chest fall, the ribs fall and the belly fall. Repeat this breathing technique for 5 to 10 minutes to feel calm and relaxed.
Breathing in Asana Practice
The breath can also be used as a tool during our asana practice. As you inhale in a posture, feel your spine lengthen and chest open. As you exhale, feel yourself be able to release and relax further into a posture.
e.g. In a standing forward bend like Utthanasana
Also, in backbends, when our bodies are lying prone, notice how an inhalation enables you to rise your torso and chest higher from the ground
e.g. In Bhujangasana / Cobra
Whether you are practicing yoga or not, conscious breathing is always available to you. To energize and detoxify the body and to relax and calm the mind.