Before yoga, I never really paid much attention to my breathing. It was just something my body did, like blinking or swallowing, nothing very interesting or worth my attention. I think most people live their entire lives without really thinking about their breath. Even a lot of people that do yoga still don’t have a strong connection with their breathing. I certainly still have a LONG way to go myself with that aspect of my practice.
When I first began doing yoga, I was only concerned with “doing it right.” Certain poses were paired with inhales, others were paired with exhales. That much I knew. However, it was still difficult to keep this in mind when bending my body into, at that time, strange and unfamiliar positions. I didn’t know the significance of breathing in a certain way as I practiced. I was just trying to follow along. As my practice grew though, so did my connection with my breath and my understanding of its importance.
The breath is possibly the most important aspect of yoga. Not only that, but it is one of the easiest parts of practice to take with you into your daily life. You don’t need to do a 90 minute class to destress. Just a few deep, conscious breaths can work wonders. I used to think it was magical how, for some reason, doing yoga always managed to calm me down. Now I finally realize that it isn’t necessarily because of the movements and postures, it is because when I practice yoga, I am breathing differently.
It seems hard to believe at first, but the way we breathe can completely change how we experience life. There is a feedback loop between our mental state and our breath. When we are feeling anxious or upset, our breath naturally becomes quick and shallow. Our bodies are trying to prepare us to fight or flee. I’m sure this was once far more useful to us than it is in modern times. The good thing is, while our mental state effects our breath, the reverse is also true. We can use our breath to change our state of mind.
The next time you are feeling less than ideal, take a step back and notice your breathing. Is it quick and mainly staying up in your chest? If it is, try taking at least 5 mindful, full breaths. Consciously directing each inhale down into the belly, using the diaphragm. Try making the exhale twice as long as the inhale, pushing out every bit of air. Breathing in this way naturally calms down our nervous system. We are using our breath to show the mind that we are okay.
The most incredible thing is, this always works. Always. Even when I have moments where it feels like it’s not working, I realize it isn’t that it isn’t working, it’s that I am just having a hard time controlling my breath. I let my mind carry me away too quickly. I am not able to stay with my breath long enough to utilize it. But with practice it becomes easier to do no matter what state our minds are in. We are able to use our breath to help us wherever we are, whatever we are doing.
I used to roll my eyes at the constant obsession with the breath in yoga. I didn’t see what the big deal was. Now I understand the emphasis. It can be frustrating not being able to express to someone what immense power we all have that we are not tapping into. However much you preach about breath work though, it is up to each individual to find out its importance for themselves.