A well-known Sanskrit proverb says, “For breath is life, and if you breathe well, you will live long on Earth.” Over the course of a day, we take 17,000 to 30,000 breaths, but we’d probably never know it because it happens so naturally. Do you recall the last time you thought about inhaling and exhaling? Unless you’re doing intense physical activity or are feeling under the weather, you probably don’t give breathing—something so critical to life—a second thought.
Oxygen: Our Body's Most Vital Nutrient
When we do yoga, however, the breath is a fundamental part of our practice and we’re urged to focus on the bodily function that keeps us alive. Being present on our yoga mats and connecting with our breath helps us become more aware of different levels of consciousness and replenishes our bodies with oxygen, our body’s most vital nutrient. Conscious breathing, either in isolation or combined with asanas, enables us to connect with our energy within and has many positive benefits for our body, mind and spirit.
Pranayama and Breath Control
We’ve often heard our yoga instructors speak about prana and pranayama, but what do they mean and why are they so important in our practice? From Sanskrit, prana means "the vital life energy that animates the lungs." However, it is different from the breath. Pranayama is translated as "the formal practice of controlling our breath." (Learn more in The Practice of Pranayama.)
Controlling our breath through pranayama enables higher volumes of oxygen to reach the body’s cells, tissues, nerves, glands and internal organs, helping engage the abdominal muscles and open the diaphragm. There are also immediate benefits you’ll feel after a yoga session that incorporates deep breathing, such as reduced anxiety and depression, increased energy levels and relaxation. In addition to the many physical benefits of deep breathing, it can assist with calming the mind so we react less intensely to negative emotions. As you continue to deepen your yoga practice, be mindful of your breath and notice how it has the power to change your practice. (Read about The Art of Mindfulness.)
There are several exercises, asanas and pranayama techniques that can be practiced on their own or combined with asanas to help purify the mind, body and assist our practice. Try incorporating these simple techniques the next time you roll out your yoga mat.
Uttanasana (standing forward bend) and adho mukha svanasana (downward-facing dog pose), some of the most common forward bending asanas, are an ideal opportunity to cleanse the body by expelling carbon dioxide from the lungs. Deep exhalations help make the torso more compact and exhalation can assist with deepening your forward folds.
Heart-opening asanas, such as dhanurasana (bow pose) or ustrasana (camel pose), help open the chest so there’s more space to fill the lungs with oxygen. After a series of heart-opening postures that incorporate deep inhalations, we tend to feel more energized. These postures can be practiced in isolation to focus more on the breath or be added to a longer practice. (Learn 5 Heart-Opening Asanas.)
Pranayama techniques, such as kapalabhati (skull shining breath), are typically practiced sitting on the floor with an erect spine. Kapalabhati is a fast breathing technique that helps force stale air out of the lungs. Like blowing out a candle, the mouth expels short, quick breaths through a small opening in the mouth while the belly snaps inward toward the navel. If you’re feeling low on energy, try closing your practice with this energizing breathing technique—it will leave you feeling recharged. (Read more about The Practice of Pranayama.)
A More Enlightened Practice
As you step off your mat, how do you feel after incorporating conscious breathing into your yoga practice? Yoga teaches us to be more mindful and by turning our attention to the breath—whether it is inhaling, exhaling or pranayama techniques—we will have a more enlightened practice.