The Yogic Lifestyle Breathing and Health Benefits

The Yogic Lifestyle: How to Maintain Health Through Breath Awareness

“Calm is retained by the controlled exhalation or retention of the breath.”

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, 1.34

The brain and body cannot survive after threeRegular and controlled breathing can improve acute states of distress, chronic disease minutes of oxygen deprivation. Breathing oxygen is vital to our existence and the life force behind every living creature on Earth. But fueling our bodies with oxygen does more than keep us alive: Controlling the breath is the key to optimal health and wellness.

How does breathing and breath awareness impact our health? Many layers exist in this answer, but by living with breath awareness (and using the breath as a tool for wellness), you are supporting a healthy body, mind, and spirit.  Many yoga practitioners only touch on this subject. However, if you decide to enhance your practice further and pursue a YTT certification, you will likely dive more in-depth into breaching.

In Sanskrit, prana means “breath” or “life force.” According to yogic teachings, prana sustains life; without it, an organism dies.


  • Prana moves the energy of the body—blood, nerve impulses, lymph, etc.
  • If we experience a disruption to our regular state (shock, stress, disease, etc.), that blockage creates irregular breathing patterns, which affects our physical state.
  • With regular and controlled breathing can improve acute states of distress, chronic dis-ease, and maladaptive physical states.


  • The mind will focus on the breath and go where the breath leads, which aids in healing and meditation.
  • Relaxation of the mind can alter gene expression, promoting physical and mental wellness.
  • Breathwork courses online and awareness are essential to samyama, the journey inward (inner limbs of yoga).
  • Focus of breath helps yoga practitioners to reach pratyahara—sensory deprivation.


  • Breath or prana helps to move energy and clear blockages in our subtle body—marma points (energy channels) and chakras (energy centers).
  • Pranayama (regulation of breath) will calm the heart and lead to inner peace.

By learning about breath awareness’s physical, mental, and emotional/spiritual benefits, you are working toward more excellent, regular, and controlled breathing that can improve acute distress and holistic health and wellness. Regulating your breathing and participating in breathing exercises can teach you to use your life force to improve your health. This action is fundamental to yoga practice and positively affects all organisms.

What is Breath Awareness and How does it Impact Health?

To understand the importance of breath in a yogic lifestyle, it is first essential to understand the Eight Limbs of Yoga:

  • Yama – restraints
  • Niyama – observances
  • Asana – physical postures
  • Pranayama – breathing exercises
  • Pratyahara – sense withdrawal
  • Dharana – concentration
  • Dhyana – meditation
  • Samadhi – bliss or enlightenment

Breath awareness is the key to all limbs and at the root of all practice. For simplicity, this chapter will focus on asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi. It is through practicing these limbs that one will nourish the body, mind, and spirit.

Breathing and Physical Health

Breathing is essential to living, and its quality is necessary to living well. First, let’s deconstruct the physical anatomical actions during breathing:

  • The diaphragm (a muscle just below the lungs) and the intercostal muscles (a group of muscles between the rib bones) are responsible for your breathing and allow the lungs to function.
  • Upon inhalation (breath in), the diaphragm and intercostal muscles contract and pull down and away from the lungs, which provides more room for the lungs to expand and fill with air.
  • Upon exhalation (breath out), the diaphragm and intercostal muscles compress and curve into the lungs, helping the lungs expel and push out air.

Breathing is an automatic process. In the brain, the respiratory center located at the brainstem controls breathing. Mostly, the medulla is responsible for sending the message from the spinal cord to the respiratory muscles to breathe in and out. Further, the body’s pons and other chemical responses regulate breathing involuntarily by monitoring oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the body.

Deep breathing increases oxygen levels and activates the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS is the body’s natural method of physiologically calming a person after the flight or fight response:

  • Regulates and decreases metabolism
  • Decreases heart rate and blood pressure
  • Increases nitric oxide levels (a vasodilator to expand blood vessels)
  • Relaxes muscles
Physical Ailments Related to Breathing

When a person becomes stressed, frightened, or over-exerted (maybe through exercise), the breath will shorten or even stop altogether. Have you ever noticed that you were holding your breath in a stressful situation? It isn’t until the situation is over that you may realize this phenomenon. The body works in unique ways to prepare you for fight or flight. When we are chronically stressed or living in a state of fear, however, it is possible to experience a host of physical symptoms and diseases:

  • Back, neck, side, shoulder, and chest pain
  • Problems with blood pressure
  • Sleep apnea
  • Issues with hernias
  • Stomach and digestive problems
  • Wheezing and whistling sounds in the chest
  • Frequent headaches

These ailments can result from improper diaphragm and intercostal muscle movements, increased carbon dioxide, and decreased oxygen levels in the body. Shallow breathing and holding postures that chronically compress the body (slouching) can cause acute and accumulated physical problems. Unconscious breathing can lead to tight jaw, neck, and back muscles.

Women experiencing pregnancy may also notice that many of their symptoms are related to their breath. During pregnancy, normal breathing can become disrupted by hormonal changes (increase in progesterone) and physical modifications (growing uterus, which impedes respiratory muscles). In addition, breathing is one of the critical ingredients to enduring labor. Focusing on the breath and keeping a consistent pattern will help the mind and body through this complicated process.

However, the most incredible aspect of breathing is that although it is involuntary, it can also be controlled voluntarily! We demonstrate this ability to control breathing when we sing, speak, play musical instruments, or participate in controlled practices, such as pranayama. By controlling our breathing, we not only work to calm our minds but also to calm our physical bodies. Deep breathing ensures adequate oxygen flow and the use of muscles involved in respiration.

Knowing our physical posture and breath status is vital to optimal physical health. People spend much time sitting at a desk, driving or riding in vehicles, and watching hand-held devices—these all corrupt good posture practices, which lead to poor breathing practices. Even people who exercise regularly may find improper breathing patterns can hurt their bodies rather than aid in oxygen recovery.

While asana refers to the refinement of the body, pranayama is the breath regulation. Many classes exist that focus on just pranayama. However, you must also participate in breathing exercises to help you establish good breathing patterns. A guide to breathing exercises exists at the end of this chapter.

Breathing and Yoga (Asana and Pranayama)

The breath links the physical and mental activities while practicing yoga and navigating everyday life. During physical yoga practice (asana), it is essential to link the breath to your movements, and to do so; it is necessary to focus on the breath and create a breathing pattern. The best type of breathing during asana is deep, consistent inhalation through the nose while performing expansive poses (chest openers, rising poses, etc.) and then complete exhalations through the nose (or mouth, depending) while performing poses in which you fold into yourself (downward movements, while twisting, etc.).

Note: The most important aspect of breathing to remember while practicing physical postures is to keep breathing! Please don’t hold your breath. Create a meditative flow that helps establish consistent breathing patterns you can carry into future practices and daily life.

Breathing and Mental Health

Taking deep breaths is one of the most common practices for stress relief and calming the mind. Parents use this technique with small children during tantrums, and medical professionals guide their patients to use deep breaths during painful experiences. While deep breathing helps the physical body, it significantly affects the mind.

Calming the mind also affects emotional states, which will be discussed later in this chapter. However, a calm mind is necessary for sustained and sharpened focus, diminishing the symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks, as well as reaching higher states of union (yoga) during meditative practices. But before we explore the benefits of breath awareness and mental health, it is essential to understand how breathing affects the brain and mental states:

  • Breath awareness can help you focus on the present moment, improving your attention span, diminishing anxiety symptoms, and boosting overall personal awareness.
  • Present moment awareness is also responsible for decreased mental fog and increased productivity (multitasking strains your mental bandwidth).
  • Regular meditation can lead to positive changes in gene expression, naturally regulating blood pressure, metabolism, inflammation, sleep patterns, etc.

Training your brain to stop the constant mind chatter and just to Be is one of the most beneficial activities you can perform. A daily meditation practice, which includes focusing on the breath, is at the core of ideal health.

Breathing and Yoga (Pratyahara and Dharana)

Training the body and mind is necessary on the path to wellness and union (samadhi being the ultimate goal, union with the divine or universe). Asana and pranayama help refine the body and prepare the mind for meditation. Patanjali does not focus much on physical practice, but asana is intended to prepare the body for sitting comfortably in meditation. Once the body and breath are solid and consistent, a practitioner can achieve pratyahara and dharana.

Pratyahara, or tuning out sensory input, is integral to inner development. In “The Dawn of Light, letter 79”, Hazur Maharaj Sawan Singh wrote, “The inner gate opens only when the outer gates are closed.” This is an excellent analogy for understanding pratyahara. In Sanskrit, prati means “against,” and Sahara means “that which is ingested.” Pratyahara is the shift from external distractions and attachment to internal focus and detachment. It is the bridge between the outer and internal worlds, and it leads to many benefits:

  • Helps to let go of attachments and stimuli that diminish peace
  • Increases attention and focus
  • Provides the practitioner more mental control (are you in control, or is the external world?)
  • Sharpens sensory input outside of meditation

When you can control and focus your attention (through the breath), you purify the heart, allowing light and love to enter without distortion.

Dharana is the first of the inner limbs of yoga and an integral aspect of meditation. In Sanskrit, Dharana means “keeping the attention on a single place.” This is the one focal point during meditation, such as an intention, an object, a person/relationship, or energy channels (any or all of the chakras). This is the first stage of samyama—turning inward—where the attention may wander and is called back to the focal point.

Breathing and Emotional/Spiritual Health

Regardless of how one looks at it, a subtle layer of the body encompasses how you feel. It is an energy exchange; a situation is perceived, and we engage with the outcome positively or negatively. Some believe this subtle energy exists in centers and channels throughout the body, expressing themselves through chakra and marma points. This section will discuss these ideas while supporting individuals who may only wish to refer to their emotional health without these references.

Meditation, deep breathing exercises, and breath awareness are methods used to purify the mind and control the emotions. As stated above, deep breathing can calm the body and mind, leading to an even emotional temperament. Think about when you are nervous, angry, or grieving. Taking a timeout to breathe deeply and drown out outside distractions immensely benefits one’s emotional well-being. But this practice, when continued down the yogic path, can also help to clear energy channels and maintain the health of the subtle body’s energy centers. This practice allows prana to move effortlessly throughout the body, which can lead to elevated emotional and spiritual experiences.

Breathing and Yoga (Dhyana and Samadhi)

The breath is the most important aspect of turning inward to obtain emotional and spiritual wellness. Once you have used the breath to anchor your concentration in asana, pranayama, pratyahara, and dharana, you willAtunconsciously realize the benefits of single-pointed, continued focus. This is dyana, which is really continuous dharana.  this level, concentration is so focused that any external chatter (physical or mental) disappears, and you will be able to reach your goal. This type of meditation can bring clarity, and inner peace, and move you toward samadhi:

  • Overcome deep emotional and mental triggers.
  • Clear blockages that obstruct emotional healing.
  • Clarify and stabilize your heart center through consistent practice, which will carry over into your conscious awareness and everyday behaviors.

Since yoga means union, the objective of yoga practice is to clarify the physical body and heart-mind (mental and emotional states) to join with the divine or higher self. In other words, the goal is to experience bliss, oneness, and absolute attention. Samadhi is complete absorption, the mastery of whatever our focal point is. When and if samadhi occurs (after all, this takes practice and persistence), you can begin to understand the object, person, or idea of your focus without subjective judgments: Your knowledge has merged with the focal point and has become a part of your subconscious.

Using Breath Awareness for Every Day Health

Not everyone will master this level of meditation or yoga. However, we can practice this sort of attention toward actions and objects by sharpening our concentration. We can do this while creating art, operating machinery, or cleaning! When our minds wander, anchor back to the breath, and you help create a pattern that changes your physical, mental, and emotional responses to the external world.

It is through this automatic process, one that we take for granted, that we can improve every facet of our lives on Earth. If you are trying to lose weight naturally, this is also a great way to ensure your body is getting the right amount of oxygen into the blood for gut health and sleep. Oxygen, prana, is the force that moves through us all, and when we learn to harness it for health, we can live in harmony within ourselves.

Pranayama Practices:

Several breathing practices will help you to control, retain, and flow your prana. Here are two breathing exercises to practice anywhere:

Kumbhaka (Breath Retention):

In Sanskrit, kumbha means “pot” (the traditional image is of a human torso as a container for the breath with two “openings” at the throat and then at the base of the pelvis). Two types of retention exist: antara (internal) and bahya (outer).

Step 1: Sit in a comfortable, meditative posture. Ensure the spine is straight. If necessary, sit in a chair. Close the eyes and begin to breathe naturally through the nostrils.

Step 2: It is time for internal retention (antara kumbhaka). Take a deep breath and hold for five seconds (do this in your mind and use mandala beads or fingers to aid your counting). Tuck the chin and place your thumb and ring finger on either side of your nose. This is called mrigi mudra, which means “deer seal”. Hold your breath for five more seconds.

Step 3: It is time for outer retention (bahya kumbhaka). Release the hand and head, tilting the chin back into alignment, and fully exhale for 10 seconds.

Step 4: Repeat this pattern for 10-15 minutes. This exercise will help improve breathing patterns, increase retention, and support the diaphragm and intercostal muscles.

Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing):

In Sanskrit, nadi means “channel,” and shodhana means “cleaning” or “purifying.”

Step 1: Sit in a comfortable position or easy pose. Ensure the spine is straight. If necessary, sit in a chair. Make mrigi mudra.

Step 2: Close the right nostril with the thumb. Inhale through the left nostril, then close the left nostril with your ring finger. Release the thumb and open the right nostril, exhaling slowly out of the right nostril.

Step 3: Keeping the left nostril closed, inhale through the right nostril. Close the right nostril with the thumb, release the ring finger, and open the left nostril. Exhale slowly out of the left nostril. This completes one cycle.

Step 4: Continue this exercise by performing three to five cycles. This exercise is intended to open up the energy channels in the subtle body and balance oxygen levels on both sides of the brain.