Whenever we might have heard people discuss Yoga, or even when we ourselves talk or think about it, we cannot keep breathing out of the discussion. We are simply talking about the breath itself in this article, not about modifying it in any way, which is what Prānāyāma is. Why is the breath so intrinsic to Yoga? Why is it so important?
What is breath?
Breath is simply the intake and output of air in the body. The respiratory system aids this movement of air in our bodies. The nostrils allow us to breathe air in and out, and the lungs help absorb oxygen and give out carbon dioxide. we know we need to breathe to stay alive. But is there more to the breath than this basic function? Let us explore this question a bit through the lens of Yoga.
Breath and sustenance of life
How does our body use oxygen? Oxygen gets absorbed into the blood from the lungs and gets circulated all over the body. Every single cell of the body needs oxygen to stay alive and keep functioning, and we have billions of cells that make up the body. Every cell also creates carbon dioxide as a waste product, which is collected by the blood and brought to the lungs; this is the air we exhale.
Oxygen is required in the process of digestion, to break down all the food that we eat and produce energy and heat from it. This energy helps us move and perform all the tasks we need to on a daily basis. This energy is used not just for voluntary functions, actions that we control but also to keep the body functioning – keep the heart beating, keep the brain alert, help kidneys filter waste products from the body, and much more. Oxygen is the one ingredient without which we cannot use the food we eat.
Prānā in Prānāyāma refers to this life force, this energy within us that keeps us alive. A body that does not have this energy coursing through it becomes just that – a body, something that is not alive, something inanimate. Breath is entwined with and a crucial part of this energy that makes us alive, makes us who we are.
Breathing – voluntary or involuntary?
Most functions in our body are either voluntary and involuntary. Beating of the heart, functioning of the kidneys, digestion, circulation are examples of involuntary actions; we cannot control or consciously stop/start any of these organs and functions. Then we have functions like walking, bending, looking in a particular direction, making a fist, and so on; all of these are voluntary functions, actions that we can control either partially or entirely.
Breathing is unique in that when we are not paying attention, our body takes over the function and it becomes involuntary. However, we can consciously breathe more or less, stop breathing at least for a few seconds, or change the way we breathe if we want. It is a voluntary as well as an involuntary function in the body!
Breath and the mind
This aspect is perhaps unique to Yoga. The breath is very closely connected with our mind. Be aware that when I speak about the mind, it is more than just the physical brain. It is also memories, experiences, gut feelings, instincts and intuition, emotions, muscle memory, and so much more that is included in the term ‘mind’.
Emotions are intertwined quite closely with our memories and past experiences. We react and respond to people and situations based on what we have been through in life, how we think of people, and things we remember from past experiences, along with our natural instincts. A child is not fearful of fire until they are burned by it. The memory of that pain keeps the child away from fire, away from pain and danger; it strengthens the instinct of self-preservation.
Because of all this, the way we are affected by people and experiences is unique to us. And at times, the emotions are felt so strongly that we are unable to control our response to them. We think, say, and do things in the heat of the moment that we often regret later on. Every emotion also brings about a change in the breath. We breathe differently when we laugh, cry, get angry, feel sad, and this changes how our body and mind function at that moment.
Breath and Yoga
The correct way to breathe as per Classical Ashtānga Yoga is always through the nose. There are a few techniques where breath is either inhaled or exhaled from the mouth, but these are done in clean surroundings and in a specific way. Nostrils are designed to clean, warm, and moisten the air that we breathe in so that irritants and allergens do not reach our lungs, so it is important to always breathe from the nose. It is extremely important to breathe correctly for better overall health.
Yoga believes that by managing the breath and being acutely aware of it, we can control our emotions better so we do not act irrationally under their influence, actions that we may regret later. We can think with clarity when the breath is under control, so that when we respond to a person or situation, we take the time to think it through. By doing this, we can speak and act more clearly, rationally, and calmly. By keeping our mind balanced in this way, we can avoid wastage of energy through emotions and the impulsive actions that result from emotions.
Breath awareness also helps us maintain a sense of calm and balance in the mind, irrespective of what is going on around us. When we are calm, we can act purposefully, provide the assistance required in the situation, and speak/act with clarity and firmness.
If you wish to learn about breath awareness and learn techniques to achieve this, reach out to me and we can discuss it further!