Go to one of the many yoga classes on offer and you’ve probably noticed how many times you get reminded to breath. The link between yoga and breathing is a big deal in the yoga world, but why exactly?! You may be thinking at this point, ‘well breathing is a pretty big deal to me in general, you know, to avoid unpleasant side effects such as dying’. So why is this already involuntary reflex highlighted as such an important element to any self respecting yoga practice?
Why is there so much focus on breathing in yoga?
A lot of yoga practitioners will tell you that not only is breath important in yoga, but that yoga is breath. Swami Sivananda once said that “A yogi measures the span of life by the number of breaths, not by the number of years”. It’s not really the breathing itself, it’s about conscious breathing. Conscious breathing becomes prana, which is where we get the term pranayama from. Prana differs slightly in meaning from breath. Whereas breathing is the process, prana is the energy stored within the breath. It’s the life force in our breath. Yogic tradition says that when we breath without awareness in our normal everyday life, we are lacking in this prana. During your yoga class, by giving attention to your breath you are actively increasing energy levels (prana).
Different yoga styles of breathing:
1. Controlled breathing
When we first start practicing yoga we learn to take steady, deep breaths in and out through the nose. Slowing the breath in this way creates a physical reaction within the body that results in relaxation. Controlled breathing activates the cerebral cortex, which sends a message to the hypothalamus (which regulates emotions) telling it to relax. This is why focusing on breathing can be especially great as part of a bedtime yoga routine.
2. Ujjayi breathing
When you become totally comfortable with conscious and controlled breath, then many people try ujjayi breath, sometimes known as victorious breath. This vocal breathing involves constricting the back of the throat slightly to create a sound much like the ocean waves. Hearing the breath can help focus your attention on it. This is especially useful when the mind gets distracted during a particularly challenging pose or by your friends super cute new yoga pants.
3. Pranayama (breathing exercises)
Pranayama is the formal practice of controlling the breath, often through special techniques and sequences. There are actually many different breathing exercises that you can incorporate into your usual yoga routine. Each are designed to create a different effect, such as single nasal breathing for balancing the two hemispheres of the brain and fire breath for cleansing and strengthening.
Whatever style of breathing you opt for, its powerful impact on the body, mind and energy levels is why yoga and breathing go hand in hand, and why the breath is one of the most important elements of any yoga practice.