We all know breathing is important. Without it we die. Ok that’s basic. However, centuries of yogis have put a huge emphasis on the breath and in fact yoga isn’t yoga without yogic breathing. So what’s the big deal?
Yoga masters have given a great deal of attention to pranayama, the yogic style of breathing, so much so that it is a vast science all to itself. Basic pranayama begins with a simple technique: you just breath in to the lowest part of your belly first, fill up entirely with breath and exhale from the top of the chest down, ending each breath by pressing all the breath out and emptying your lungs completely before taking your next inhale. This has several immediate benefits including increasing oxygen intake by 7 times, expanding lung capacity, increasing mental focus, and oxygenating all the cells of the body.
For the everyday athlete, understanding the importance of the breath can be a game changer. Maximum oxygen intake is a crucial physiological variable determining performance and endurance for competitive athletes as well as people with active lifestyles. Studies prove that increased oxygen intake allows athletes to exercise longer and more intensely. And since tension is the athlete's downfall, (well, everyone’s downfall) and lack of focus is a barrier to success in anything you are trying to achieve, practicing breathing techniques that increase oxygen, reduce stress and require focus are highly beneficial.
High performance people are incredibly focused. Yoga’s secret weapon is its ability to get you to quiet down and put all mental energy on the task at hand. Practicing pranayama while moving through postures gives you the same results as if you were able to sit still and clear your mind in meditation. It quite possibly is the most powerful and valuable treasure yoga has to offer.
Aside from the physical benefits, one of the most important links between the advantages of yoga and the breath begin with the powerful inverse relationship the breath has with our emotional state. Have you ever noticed that when you are scared, angry or stressing out your breath shortens, gets quicker and becomes more shallow? As your heart beat increases with your emotions in that moment your breath follows suit.
Yogis of old began the practice of yoga with meditation. Meditation has been proven to provide stress reduction, mental clarity, lower blood pressure, lengthened attention span, decreased anxiety, improved emotional health, pain control and sometimes the attainment of higher states of consciousness. Meditation is the act of quieting down the incessant chatter of the mind. The habitual rhetoric I like to call it that is a natural human affliction. Our mind’s job is to categorize, judge, and scrutinize all that we experience. And although the thinking mind has its role for sure, it also has a way of running a muck and over analyzing, well, everything, often causing stress and anxiety which in turn have very real negative physical effects on the body. Every emotion causes physical reactions from our hearts, to our nervous system to our brainwaves. Gratitude actually increases dopamine levels in the brain while stress can literally make your heart stop beating.
When we associate our self with our thinking mind we loose site of the fact that we are not our thoughts, we are something else entirely. How do I know this? Because there is a part of me that is witnessing my thoughts and feelings. I can change my thoughts at any time (and therefore my feelings) so they can’t possibly be all that I am.
Meditation is achieved through intense focus of the mind. It is nearly impossible to completely empty your mind of all thought, unless I guess you are a monk with no job, or family or responsibility or shoes up on a beautiful mountain top somewhere serene. For those of us living normal lives, trying to just sit and be void of thought can actually cause frustration and disappointment and end up giving us the opposite effect of what we are going for. The good news? You can also get the benefits of meditation if you just focus on ONE thing. Like a phrase repeated over and over, or the breath or an object. This is where yoga comes in.
Yoga is a meditation in motion. The formula of yoga is mental focus + sustained physical effort + breath control. Linking the breath to the movement, meaning you move at the speed of your breath with the intention of keeping the breath deep and slow and the movement fluid and controlled, is at the very heart of yoga. Because when you get in control of your breathing, when you learn how to notice it and slow it down over and over again in the middle of something physically (and sometimes emotionally) challenging, you are practicing controlling your reactions. This is how yoga has a measurable positive impact on your emotional and mental wellbeing. You are practicing controlling your reactions to things. You are choosing to remain calm amongst adversity. So when you step off the mat and back into your life you can apply this to your daily challenges and greatly reduce your stress response and increase your performance.
Learn to control your mind and you can control your reactions. Learn to control your reactions and you can master your life.
Simple Breath Meditation
Sit comfortably, you can lean against a wall or lay down as well, as long as your back is straight and you have plenty of room to breathe.
Close your eyes
Place your right hand on your chest and your left hand on your stomach just above your navel.
Draw your breath as deeply and slowly as you can into the low belly below your navel. Try not to let your breath move your hands, meaning keep it only in the low belly.
Exhale and empty completely before you inhale again just into the low belly.
Do this three times.
Now place your left hand on your belly below your navel and breathe just into the mid belly, the stomach area.
The breath will have to expand laterally so allow it to move into your side waists and back body but don’t let it move up into your chest or down into your abdomen.
Do this three times, exhaling completely each time.
After your third exhale here, move your right hand down to your stomach. left hand remains on your low abdomen so you can feel if the breath is sneaking into the places you are trying to keep still and empty
Breath just into your chest. Feel your collar bones rise and fall, feel the breath into the space between your shoulder blades and allow your neck to lengthen with each breath
Do this three times.
Now, remove your hands and take 3 full breaths, filling up bottom to tp and emptying the breath out from top to bottom. Press all the breath out at the end of each exhale and take a slight pause until you feel the subtle desire to inhale again.
Do this entire practice once or in rounds. Take it slow. Feel the breath into your body. Remind yourself to relax your jaw, neck and shoulders and to keep your chest broad and your back long as you do it.