The Importance of Breath in Yoga
By Timothy Burgin
Breathing is a crucial component of a hatha yoga practice. Not only does focused, conscious breathing allows you to deliver more oxygen to your body, but it also allows you to hold challenging yoga poses longer. In addition to these primary benefits, controlled and deep breathing encourages your body to relax both physically and mentally, further enriching your practice.
What is Pranayama?
First, a few definitions: Prana means breath or cosmic force. Ayama means to extend or draw out. Pranayama is the practice of breath control.
Pranayama is mentioned in the fourth limb of Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga. According to the Yoga Sutras, “That asana being acquired, the movements of inhalation and exhalation should be controlled. This is pranayama.”
There are three main parts of a pranayama practice:
- Inhalation control (bahya vritti) – Controlling the amount of time or force of the inhalation.
- Exhalation control (abhyantara vritti) – Controlling the amount of time or force of the expiration.
- Breath retention (stambha vritti) - Controlling the amount of time the breath is held in or out.
Pranayama is typically practiced while seated in lotus, half-lotus, or other seated cross-legged pose. However, it is not advisable for the beginner to practice pranayama if he/she is uncomfortable in the asana. If it is difficult to sit cross-legged, try placing a pillow under your sitting bones while on the floor, sitting in a chair or even lying down.
There are many different types of yoga breathing exercises. Some are easy, others are advanced and complex. Some pranayamas are calming; others are energizing or balancing. A basic diaphragmatic breathing technique called Dirga Pranayama. This three-part breath or complete breath is best used while practicing the hatha yoga poses. Practicing this full conscious breath while holding and moving through poses will deepen your yoga practice and help you further master the fundamentals of all of the other yoga breathing exercises. Once you have learned the fundamentals of yogic breathing you can then incorporate these pranayama techniques during yoga postures.
1. Focusing Breath During Practice
Breathing occurs automatically—so much so that we rarely stop to check how we are breathing. And during periods of stress or tension, our breath often becomes shallower and quicker. Yoga asks that we tune into our breath and truly expand our lungs. Focusing our breathing in this way strengthens the entire respiratory system. It also begins creating muscle memory, which means that even without conscious thought, the lungs expand to fuller capacity as we go about our daily routines.
2. Building Strength Through the Breath
Controlled breathing can also help you better control your movements as well as hold a pose for a more extended period of time. Deep breathing improves your neuro-muscular coordination, allowing you to move smoothly from posture to posture. Consciously opening the chest, breathing through the nose, expanding the belly and contracting it not only encourages correct posture but encourages the body to exercise the muscles as it is meant to do.
3. Increasing Oxygen by Breathing Deeply
Our bodies crave oxygen. The brain, nervous system, and blood especially rely on oxygen to function optimally. Increasing the body’s oxygen intake helps to purify the blood as well as rid the body of toxins. Organs begin to function optimally instead of minimally. The mind often finds a more profound relaxation too; focusing on breath pushes inconsequential thoughts and troubles away, inviting a more meditative state of mind.
The breath should never be taken for granted. In fact, it is as important to work towards perfecting your breathing technique as it is to perfect your posture technique. Each yoga session should begin by focusing on the breath. This attentiveness to the breath should continue long past the session’s conclusion. Remember to check in with yourself throughout your practice and note the fullness of your inhalations and exhalations. Challenge yourself to breathe as deeply as you can as you enjoy the energy yoga brings to you. Breathe on!
Pranayama, or the ability to control one’s breath, aims to assist the individual in delivering more oxygen throughout the body using proper breathing techniques. Proper techniques draw air in through the nose while allowing the lungs to fill to capacity. In our daily lives, our postures and inattentiveness to our breathing often result in shallow, rather than full, breathing. In our yoga practice, heart-lifted postures and attentiveness to our breathing result in deep, full breaths which resonate throughout the body.
Words of Caution
Pranayama is the purposeful control of the breath – either through duration, breath retention on the inhale or the exhale. Because we are dealing with the control of the breath, practicing pranayama can cause dizziness, light-headedness, hyperventilation, or even loss of consciousness.
It is imperative to practice pranayama with caution. If you ever feel any adverse symptoms, you should stop the practice immediately and return to the normal breath. If you already have breathing problems such as asthma, you should not practice pranayama alone.
I do not provide these words of caution to scare you or prevent you from practicing. Pranayama is exceptionally beneficial when done correctly, and those with breathing problems may genuinely benefit. I am just advising you to use common sense and do not push yourself. Breath control should be done gradually.
Most people naturally breath very shallowly. This is primarily due to stress and tension in the body. You may be surprised just how challenging these beginner exercises are. Do not be upset or frustrated by this.
My own personal experience with pranayama proved frustrating at first. I am a healthy, young woman, and it was difficult for me to retain the breath for even a few counts when I first began practicing. Please rest assured, it does get more comfortable with time. However, pushing yourself or forcing it is not only counterproductive; it can be dangerous.
Timothy Burgin is a Kripalu & Pranakriya trained yoga instructor living and teaching in Asheville, NC. Timothy has been serving as the Executive Director of YogaBasics.com since 2000. He has also authored two yoga books and has written over 500 articles on the practice and philosophy of yoga.