The average adult human breathes 21,600 times a day. Most of these breathes happen just below the level of consciousness so that we are never really aware of them. Yet the action of the breath is profound, for without it we would cease to be alive.
Breathing is a function that is both involuntary and voluntary. There are systems in the body that automatically regulate the need for breath but at the same time, we can choose to take a deep breath or even change the force of our exhale, like blowing out a candle. Changes in our breath can also be triggered by emotions, stress or past trauma. All of these influences create a link between the mind and the body through the breath and if we are not attentive, these influences overtime can create dysfunctional breathing habits.
The yoga tradition teaches that the breath is the greatest tool we have to make the shift from unconscious to conscious living. Yoga teaches us that prana – or life force – is the energy that rides along with the breath and is what animates our existence in this body. When we lose our awareness of our breath, we lose our connection to prana. This disconnection to prana creates an energetic environment of disharmony.
Learning to regulate and control our breath, and therefore prana, is one of the most important aspects of a yoga practice. So important, that it has its own dedicated limb on Patanjali’s 8 Limbed Path – Pranayama. For when we can regulate our breath, we can impact not only our nervous system and circulatory systems, but we can change the experience of our mental and emotional realm as well. This experience with the breath can be more profound still. Once we have created a relationship with our breath and prana, we can start to mold and shape it in particular ways through specific practices. These practices, or kriyas, are done to mobilize or concentrate prana for particular outcomes – like dissolving fears or increasing mental capacity. Ultimately, when we are intimately connected to our breath and can control the movement of prana, we are able to shift our experience toward samadhi, or enlightenment.
Why Posture Matters
The power of the breath is incredible and powerful, but first we must learn how to breathe properly. One of the key components of being able to breathe well is to have good posture. Many of us in western society struggle with weak backs due to long hours of sitting during the day. When our backs are weak, we tend to round forward which restricts the ability of our muscles of respiration to work effectively.
There are many yoga postures, or asanas, that can help us strengthen our back and open our front. Backbends such as cobra or locust and lateral poses such as gate pose are wonderful to add to your daily routine. There are also many other things we can do in our daily life to help as well:
- When sitting, ensure that your lumbar curve is supported. Use a small towel or a lumbar support in your car.
- Take breaks from sitting and either stand or go for a short walk.
- Roll your shoulders and squeeze your shoulder blades on to your back frequently throughout the day to keep your upper back enlivened.
- Start to create the habit of being mindful of your posture. Check in every so often and just notice and then adjust.
Practice Breath Awareness
In order to fully experience the power of our breath, we must first become truly and completely aware of our breath and our underlying habits and patterns that have been created over our life. If we are aware enough to the subtle shifts of the breath, we can sense when our breath is moving into an unhelpful pattern of stress or tension and make the choice to move towards peace. Practice the simple sequence below for 5-10 minutes a few times a week to start the process of connecting and understanding your breath.
- Lie down comfortably on your back. Support your head, neck and legs as you like. Rest your arms by your sides and close your eyes.
- Without changing anything, bring your awareness to your breath. Observe your inhale filling you up and enlivening you and your exhale emptying and relaxing you.
- Allow the breath to settle into the space of your abdomen so the navel gently lifts and lowers with each breath. The chest is relatively still.
- With the least amount of effort possible, attempt to refine your breath into a smooth circular motion.
- Stay aware and continue to gently shape your breath in this quite manner. Practice for about 5-10 minutes. As you experience each breath, attempt to use less and less effort until you are completely absorbed in the subtle flow of your breath.
Balance and Replenish Your Energy
As we progress in our awareness of our breath, we can start to connect to the underlying force of energy that moves with the breath – prana. Prana runs through nadis, or channels, with three main channels – Ida (lunar), Pingala (solar) and Sushumna (central). Where all three of these channels intersect, you will find a major chakra point.