Last updated on November 28th, 2023.
The brain and body cannot survive after three 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 Yoga Teacher Training 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 training 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-mind and lead to inner peace.
By learning about breath awareness’s physical, mental, and emotional/spiritual benefits, you are working toward more excellent wholistic health and wellness. In regulating your breathing and participating in breathing exercises, you can learn 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 important 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
Not only is breathing essential to living, but 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 (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 provide 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, which help the lungs to expel and push out the 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 pons and other chemical responses in the body 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), then the breath will shorten or even stop altogether. Have you ever noticed in a stressful situation that you were holding your breath? It isn’t until the situation is over that you may realize this phenomenon. The body works in amazing 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 disease:
- Back, neck, side, shoulder, and chest pain
- Problems with blood pressure
- Sleep apnea
- Issues with hernias
- Stomach and digestive problems
- Wheezing, whistling sounds in chest
- Frequent headaches
These ailments can exist due to improper movements of the diaphragm and intercostal muscles, as well as 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 the breath. During pregnancy, normal breathing can become disrupted by hormonal changes (increase in progesterone) and physical changes (growing uterus, which impedes respiratory muscles). In addition, breathing is one of the key ingredients to enduring labor. Focusing on the breath, and keeping a consistent pattern, will help the mind and body through this extremely difficult process.
The most incredible aspect of breathing, however, 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 the breath, we not only work to calm our minds down, but we calm the physical body as well. Deep breathing ensures adequate oxygen flow and the use of muscles involved in respiration.
Being aware of our physical posture and the status of our breath is vital to optimal physical health. People spend much of their 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 that improper breathing patterns can hurt their bodies rather than aid in oxygen recovery.
Breathing and Yoga (Asana and Pranayama)
The breath is the link between the physical and mental activities, while practicing yoga and navigating everyday life. During physical yoga practice (asana), it is important to link the breath to your movements, and to do so, it is essential 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 full 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! Do not hold the breath. Create a flow that becomes meditative and helps to establish consistent breathing patterns you can carry into future practices and daily life.
While asana refers to the refinement of the body, pranayama is the regulation of breath. Many classes exist that focus on just pranayama. However, it is necessary to also participate in breathing exercises on your own, which will help you establish good breathing patterns. A guide to breathing exercises exists at the end of this chapter.
Breathing and Mental Health
Taking deep breaths is one of the most common practices involved in stress relief and calming down the mind. Parents use this technique with small children during tantrums. Medical professionals will guide their patients to use deep breaths during painful experiences. While deep breathing helps the physical body, it affects the mind in magnificent ways.
Calming the mind affects emotional states as well, which will be discussed later in this chapter. However, a calm mind is necessary in 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 important to understand how breathing affects the brain and mental states:
- Breath awareness can help you focus on the present moment, which can improve your attention span, diminish symptoms of anxiety, and boost 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 incessant mind chatter and to just 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)
On the path to wellness and union (samadhi being the ultimate goal, which is union with the divine or universe), it is necessary to train the body and mind. Asana and pranayama help to refine the body and prepare the mind for meditation. Patanjali does not spend much time focusing on physical practice, but asana is intended to prepare the body for sitting comfortably in meditation. Once the body and breath are strong and consistent, a practitioner can begin to achieve pratyahara and dharana.
Pratyahara, or tuning out sensory input, is an important part of 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 ahara means “that which is ingested”. To clarify, pratyahara is the shifting 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 diminishes 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 (which is done through the breath), you purify the heart-mind, which allows 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, there is a subtle layer to the body that encompasses the way you feel. It is an exchange of energy; a situation is perceived, and we engage with the outcome in a positive or negative way. Some people believe that 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 down the body and mind, which obviously leads to an even emotional temperament. Think about when you are nervous, angry, or grieving. Taking a timeout to breathe deeply and to drown out outside distractions is immensely beneficial to 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 single-most important aspect in 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 will begin to unconsciously realize the benefits of single-pointed, continued focus. This is dyana, which is really continuous dharana. In 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, 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, it is the goal to experience bliss, oneness, and absolute attention. Samadhi is complete absorption, the mastery of whatever our focal point is. When and if samadhi occurs (afterall, this takes practice and persistence), then 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, in life, 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 even cleaning! When our minds wander, anchor back to the breath, and you help to create a pattern that literally changes your physical, mental, and emotional responses to the external world.
It is through this automatic process, one in which we take for granted, that we can improve every facet of our lives on Earth. If 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 but 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.
There are several breathing practices that 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 exists: antara (internal) and bahya (outer).
Step 1: Sit in a comfortable, meditative posture. Ensure the spine is straight. Sit in a chair if necessary. Close the eyes and begin to breathe naturally through the nostrils.
Step 2: Now 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 sides of your nose. This is called mrigi mudra, which means “deer seal”. Hold the breath for five more seconds.
Step 3: Now it is time for outer retention (bahya kumbhaka). Release both the hand and head, tilting chin back into alignment, and fully exhale for 10 seconds.
Step 4: Repeat this pattern for 10-15 minutes. This exercise will help to improve breathing patterns, increase breath 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. Sit in a chair if necessary. 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 up 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 to both sides of the brain.