As beginning students inquire and contemplate the path of yoga, they want to know its’ purpose. Often, they are told, it’s to prepare the body for meditation. I believe breath work is at the heart of this preparation. If yoga is the union of body, mind and spirit, our breath is what connects and unites all three. By practicing breathing, we practice being human.
When we start something new, something different, something we haven’t done before, we intrinsically know it is best to take it one step at a time– one foot in front of the other. It helps us move along the path and continue the journey. If for any reason we stop or sit down or reverse direction, we know we can start again by simply picking up our foot and moving forward.
In yoga, we take it one breath at a time. From the moment we step on the mat until the last relaxation pose we do, we pay attention to our breathing. Sometimes, we simply watch the breath and notice our own natural rhythm. The difference between what happens to our minds and our bodies when we hold our breath and when we exhale deeply with a sigh. By regulating our breath, we can increase our energy, bring calmness to any situation, relax more deeply and concentrate more fully.
The science of breath tells us we breathe between 12 and 20 times a minute without even thinking about it. On the low end, that’s 17,280 breaths per day. Approximately 600 million from our first breath to our last. In between, we catch our breath, wait with bated breath, find ourselves out of breath (maybe even gasping for breath) and then, there are those moments when we need a breath of fresh air to find ourselves and become fully present for anything that takes our breath away.
Breath is the heart of yoga practice—the connection between the mind and the body. Breath quiets the mind, slows the heart rate, relaxes the muscles and gives us the energy to stay longer in a posture. I often tell my students to “come back to the breath” or “let the breath power your posture.” By deliberately breathing and bringing our awareness back to the breath and into the body, we stop all the resistance that comes from thinking too much. We begin to live deliberately.
As Marcia Moore points out in the first yoga book I ever read, Yoga, Youth and Reincarnation, “you will resist the exercises in the beginning and will think of a dozen reasons for dropping out, just as the person first going to an analyst tries to rationalize quitting because of cost and time.”
Yoga is not just an exercise; it is the practice of being human. Breath helps us focus on this practice of being human. In doing so, we begin to understand how breath connects our minds, bodies and spirits. This is why so many psychologists, athletes and spiritual advisers teach breathing techniques because breath influences heart rate, blood pressure, circulation, digestion, nervousness, performance and overall well being.
We know this is true. When we’re afraid or in a negative state of mind, the breath becomes shallow, rapid and irregular. If we are depressed, it is also shallow only slower as if we are barely breathing. But when we are “on a roll” and in a positive state of mind, what athletes call “the zone” our breath is deep and regular. We feel creative, solutions come to us easily, we’re thinking, speaking and moving clearly, so relaxed it’s as if everything is happening in slow motion. We are, in fact, inspired.
In almost every language, the word breath is synonymous with spirit. The Latin words spiritus and anima, the Greek pneuma, the Hindi pranayama, Arabic rUH and nafs and the Hebrew ephesh and ruakh not only mean breath but the essence of life itself. To breathe deeply is to be inspired, relaxed, happy and alive. Or as the poet Mary Oliver observes in Rules for the Dance, breath is an indicator, perhaps the most vital one, of mood. Breath as our own personal tie with all the rhythms of the natural world, of which we are a part, from which we can never break apart while we live. Breath is our first language.”
In yoga, we learn to use our breath intentionally to pause the ongoing demands of life and to bring our attention inward and take a break from our busy outer lives. Like breathing itself, we repeat and repeat, again, returning our concentration and focus to the breath. Breathing deeply and consciously. This is how we stay alive. This is how we live in the moment. This is how we live longer, more intentionally and in harmony with our environment.