“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts.” “Breathing in, I calm body and mind. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment I know this is the only moment.”
― Thich Nhat Hanh
There are a million things that can be said about the wonderful process of breath…
On the physical level, every time we inhale, oxygen is being taken into the body from the atmosphere towards the lungs, and through the blood it is diffused to the cells where the “internal respiration” takes place. In parallel, carbon dioxide is being released from the cells with each exhale, and is being carried through the blood back to the lungs from where it is expelled by “external respiration”. The basic breathing muscle is the diaphragm which separates the organs of the thorax (lungs and heart) from the digestion organs in the belly (stomach, liver etc.). Leslie Kaminoff defines breathing in a very nice way: “respiration is the process through which we take air in and out of the lungs, and it is caused by the three-dimensional change of the abdominal and thoracic cavities. According to Kaminoff, respiration is nothing other than the modification of the spaces inside the body, and specifically of the shape of the thorax and the abdomen: with each inhale, the diaphragm contracts and sinks downwards, thus pushing down on the organs of the belly. As a result, the abdomen and the thorax are being dilated in all directions. The thoracic volume is increased; the pressure inside the lungs is decreased compared to the atmospheric pressure outside of the body, and thus the air is drawn inside. This leads to a very interesting conclusion: No matter how intensely we may experience that it works that way, WE DO NOT DRAW THE AIR IN. The force that pushes the air inside our body is external to us. The only thing we do is make space and the universe is what fills it. If you would like, take a break away from the screen and try breathing keeping that notion in mind, and observe how it changes the perception of breathing, but also, how it changes our relation to the space outside of the body.
The spontaneous/natural breath
In average and depending on our physical and psychological condition, we take 15-20 breaths per minute. But how conscious are we of even one of those breaths? The respiration is a “sensitive mirror of every neural and mental activity: irregular breathing usually denotes tension. When we are stressed, the breath is short and fast; when angry, it is short and forceful, in sadness it is irregular and we feel winded (Swami Niranjan).” In the same way, the observation of breathing itself, in addition to the information that it reveals, changes and stabilizes the respiration; and by doing that, it also changes our internal state and becomes an amazing tool for meditation, but also for mental and emotional transformation.
Conscious control of breathing and pranayama
In contrary to a simple natural breath that contains almost 0,5 liters of air, the vital capacity of our lungs (the total volume that someone can take in, in one deep inhale) is about 5 liters – a fact that shows how far away we are from our full potential, at any given moment. Through pranayama, the yogic practice that uses breathing exercises to expand our vital energy, we train our nervous and respiratory system, by changing the rhythm, the depth and the quality of our breath, and by increasing the capacity of the lungs. Without even going into complicated breathing exercises or breath holding practices, studies have proven that which yogis have intuitively and empirically discovered thousands of years ago – how beneficial can slow, diaphragmatic breathing be. It slows down the heart rate and the blood pressure, it allows more time for better gas exchange, it improves blood circulation, improving as a result the function of the organs near the diaphragm (liver, stomach, pancreas, lungs, spleen etc.), it clears the energy channels, enhances the circulation of prana inside the body and more. Most importantly, it activates the function of the parasympathetic nervous system, reduces stress, affects the levels of hormones such as endorphin, while at the same time it changes our emotional state. All of this and many other benefits render breathing exercises an incredibly healing practice.
Breathing and the mind
According to Patanjali, yoga is defined as “the control of the fluctuations of the mind”. But, it is certain that we all have experienced how difficult it is to suddenly control the mind – something that was quite clear for the first Hatha yogis. The mind relentlessly runs around in its labyrinth like “an angry monkey”, continuously making associations. The mind always revolves around the future or the past, and with this internal landscape, life passes and the present moment is lost. The only way to dominate the mind is to stabilise it, and the best anchor is breath: it is always there, like the most loyal partner, offering us something to hold on to, a steady refuge, so that we do not drift away. Through the exercise and the observation of the breath, the whole system, physically as well as mentally, starts getting under control. “When the breath (prana) is unstable, the mind wanders. But when the breath is moderated, the mind becomes stable as well” (Hatha Yoga Pradipika 2:2).
When the internal landscape calms down, the mind becomes more sensitive to the subtler levels of our existence. It is not by chance that in many ancient traditions, the word for breathing coincides with the word for spirit (in Greek we have pnevma (spirit) – pnevmonaes (lungs), in Latin Spiritus for breath/spirit etc.) The practice of breathing is a wonderful journey. It can connect us to very deep aspects of ourselves and it can have an ecstatic and meditative function.
By Anastasia Biliri
For the Neda Yoga Shala Team.