Why is the breath important in yoga?

Before we start our practice we spend a bit of time settling in, focusing on the breath. Why is this important you may ask.

Breath is life - we are born with it and it remains our constant companion until the end. Breathing is an involuntary movement that is controlled by our autonomic nervous system. We may think of breathing as a separate part of our body, in fact, we may think about each part of our body (head, hands, feet, for example) as separate units from the mind or lungs. But, have you noticed any changes in your breathing for example when you are faced with challenging situations or people? How do you breathe when you are tired, frustrated or anxious? Are you showing your emotions through erratic, shallow or restricted (top of chest) breathing? Are you switching on the sympathetic nervous system, ie the fight or flight response?

In yoga through relaxation and breathing techniques (pranayama) we try to take control of our breathing and switch on instead the parasympathetic nervous system, ie the rest and digest response, and that in turns calms the mind. So developing breathing awareness in class is important and breathing with the full length of our breath, free of restrictions, contributes to our energy levels, state of mind, digestive system and so on.

There is quite a bit of research done that shows correlation between the state of mind and how we breathe, and how this influences our overall wellbeing. Yoga breathing techniques have many benefits: they can ease migraines, tone the muscles, lower blood pressure, alleviate menopausal hot flashes, improve the production of cells for immune system activation and relieve anxiety.

In phrases like ‘You took my breath away’ or ‘it was breathtaking!’ or even ‘You are breathing down my neck!’ we refer to the breath to convey feelings and emotions, perhaps without even thinking about it. So it should not come as a surprise that the breath is connected to the mind. In class, we look to establish smooth, steady and slow breathing, to calm and quieten the mind and come to the present moment, to restore, replenish and nourish body and mind.

Yoga, relaxation, breathing and meditation will not be able to solve any concerns, worries or issues that we may face. However, what they can do, is to give us more control how we feel and react. They gives us an opportunity to learn how to stay calm and centred in the midst of a life’s storm, how to feel grounded and have an anchor to hold onto when we are faced with life’s challenges, how to think about solutions in a calmer state of mind and how to live in the present moment, taking one day, one step, one moment at a time.

I found this poem in a book I am reading. It is from a Vietnamese monk called Thich Nhat Nanh:

Breathing in, I calm body and mind.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment
I know this is the only moment.


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