Hi There Again! I know we are a few days late on this week’s blog post, and I hope you forgive us for that. We are currently en route from Austin, Texas to Truckee, California for summer work, and the number of hours we’ve spent driving and exploring has meant less time to devote to creating content for you.
But in the process of this latest adventure, and in preparation for setting up our summer home in Truckee, we keep coming back to the importance of breath. I think we both are anxious to nest for the summer and have a home base from which to operate.
Setting up and breaking down “home” every day while on the road can be tiresome, but we’re lucky to have the adventure, and our commitment to de-stressing ourselves starts with breathing when we feel like we’re starting to get overwhelmed, so this week’s blog post is dedicated to the importance of breath in yoga.
The Science of Conscientious Breathing
Fittingly consistent with our recent stops along the road, I found this article on the Science of Breathing published by the University of New Mexico. The article discusses the difference between “metabolic control” of our breath and “behavioral control.”
Metabolic control is essentially the breathing that happens when you’re not thinking about your breath. According to the article, “The respiratory center in the brainstem is responsible for controlling a person’s breathing rate. It sends a message to the respiratory muscles telling them when to breathe. The medulla, located nearest the spinal cord, directs the spinal cord to maintain breathing, and the pons, a part of the brain very near the medulla, provides further smoothing of the respiration pattern. This control is automatic, involuntary and continuous.”
But unlike other visceral functions, such as digestion, breathing can also be controlled voluntarily. According to the article, “The behavioral, or voluntary control of breathing is located in the cortex of the brain and describes that aspect of breathing with conscious control, such as a self-initiated change in breathing before a vigorous exertion or effort. Speaking, singing and playing some instruments (e.g. clarinet, flute, saxophone, trumpet, etc.) are good examples of the behavioral control of breathing and are short-lived interventions.”
In yoga, we refer to the behavior control of our breath as “pranayama breathing.” Studies have found that “pranayama breathing has been shown to positively affect immune function, hypertension, asthma, autonomic nervous system imbalances, and psychological or stress-related disorders.”
The human body inhales and exhales an average of 20,000 times per day. As such, bringing more mindfulness to our breathing can have a number of physiological benefits, including improving cognitive performance.
One surprising study even found that participants could effectively regulate their body temperature through conscious breathing. In this study, participants were wrapped in wet sheets before entering into deep states of meditation. Through intense breath control, these participants were able to dry these sheets to a point where they began to steam.
How Breath Deepens Your Practice
Many modern yoga practices are full of movement. They involve a series of “asanas” (poses) that help to improve your balance, flexibility, and strength. As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, I used to see yogis on my Instagram feed mastering these incredible poses that I never dreamed I could even attempt. As a result, I spent a number of years feeling like yoga wasn’t really for me.
Once I opened my mind to yoga, however, I found that these poses and postures were only one part of anyone’s yoga practice. I found hour-long classes that only involved a handful of poses because each was held for three to five minutes. These classes forced me to concentrate on my breath and deepen into these poses.
Through these classes, I found an enhanced understanding of, and connection to, my body and I recognized the benefits that conscious breathing had on my mental state. I also began to use breath in my day-to-day life to create what I’ll call ‘moments of mini-meditation’.
Coming back to your breath, whether during a difficult pose in yoga class or during everyday moments of stress, will help you stay grounded and rooted. This practice will ultimately make you more like the palm tree, able to bend greatly with the winds of change, but never break.
Tips for Keying Into Your Breath
Awareness of your breath is the first tip you should keep in mind. When you’re trying new poses, it’s easy to think about where your hips are pointing, how straight or rounded your back is, and so on, so forth. When you realize you’ve lost awareness of your breath, bring it back with a deep inhale and exhalation.
There are a number of pranayama techniques that you can use to improve your awareness of breath, whether that’s during a yoga class or just part of your morning or evening meditation.
Some of these pranayama techniques include Ujjayi (also known as Ocean or Victorious breathing), Nada Shodhana (or Alternate-Nostril breathing), Kumbaka (breath retention), and Kapalabhati (known commonly as breath-of-fire or skull-shining breath). This article describes in depth how to practice each of these breathing techniques.
For starters, I want to offer one more tip. Next time you finish a yoga class (whether it’s ours or at a studio near you), bring your hands to your chest and belly when the class moves into the final Shavasana (or any other supine — ‘lying down’ — pose).
Focus on feeling your hands receiving your breath. Instead of focusing on the act of breathing, place your attention on feeling breath coming and going under your hands. On every inhale, feel your belly and chest expand into your hands and mentally welcome all the positive, beneficial energy your body is receiving.
What Is Yoga Without Breath?
In my opinion, it’s simply stretching (which is still very healthy!). Your breath is perhaps the most important aspect of your yoga practice. This is why many instructors will tell you to focus back on your breath at multiple points throughout a yoga class. It is also why they will tell you to return to child’s pose if a particular pose is too difficult for you to maintain that regular flow of inhales and exhales.
There’s no shame in child’s pose. Indeed, some of us may find greater benefits in clueing into our breath in child’s pose for 20 minutes rather than flying through a series of asanas. Your practice is unique to you and should be treated as such. Honor what you’re feeling today, and find a moment of stillness just for you. Believe me, it’ll go a long way!
More ‘Slow Life’ Resources!
If you’re interested in yoga and meditations, check out this week’s 7-Minute Guided Chakra Meditation with Terrapan. We’ve already recorded our yoga class to upload this week, so stay tuned for that as well!
If you need to find a new yoga studio close to where you live, or as you’re traveling on the road, be sure to check out Yoga Finder!
If you liked this article, please leave a comment below! If you have a question about anything, feel free to leave that below as well and I’ll do my best to respond hastily. As always, I wish you happiness and health, Namaste!