Yoga and the Breath

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A famous quote by Swami Sivananda is:  A yogi measures the span of life by the number of breaths, not by the number of years.  If you’ve ever taken a yoga class, you know how attention to breath is emphasized.  So is this all just about the physical exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the lungs?

There are subtleties in the mystery of life that most of us are not even aware of.  And so the answer is no, it’s not just about the physical act to taking a breath to feed oxygen to the blood cells.  There are a whole lot of other things going on with the breath.  Prana, or the life force, rides on the breath and nurtures our life energies.  Our conscious involvement in that process greatly affects both body and mind.  That is why conscious awareness of deep breathing through the nose is inexorably aligned to specific physical postures in yoga practice.  In fact yogis have certain practices that only focus on various breathing techniques.  That is why yoga teachers will guide us in continual breathing even through challenging poses – unlike what you do at the gym where the tendency is holding or shallow breathing when exercising with weights or aerobics.

Beyond yoga, conscious breathing through the nose switches the part of the brain that is active – from medulla oblongata (primitive brain) which controls automatic breathing, to the cerebral cortex.  This creates a healthy environment in our minds that nurtures emotional balance and relaxation.  Breathing is linked with one’s emotional state – how do you breathe when angry or fearful?  How do you breathe when you’re completely relaxed?  It’s less that the emotional state causes that breathing pattern, it’s more that the two are linked, and so it’s quite possible to produce different states of mind by changing the breathing pattern.  If you carefully monitor your nasal breathing, you will notice that throughout the day, one or the other nostril will dominate.  Yogic science explains the reasons and drivers for these subtle shifts but the takeaway is that it’s an indicator of overall well-being and that it can be controlled consciously.

Deep nasal breathing causes the movement of energy to reach all corners of the body.  It naturally opens the mind to possibilities.  It has a cleansing and purifying essence.  Blood circulation and hormonal balance are enhanced.  It allows organs to regenerate and calms the nervous system.  Deep breathing, especially specific practices prescribed by yogic science, is transformative.  Amazing that such a fundamental and essential aspect of being alive is actually a doorway to reaching the full potential for what it means to be a living being on this planet.

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