In honour of International Yoga Day, we thought we’d discuss an aspect of yoga which is often underestimated - the breath. Whilst we are well aware of the physical benefits of yoga, the benefits of conscious breathing are a little less tangible.
It can be tempting to sidestep breath-work on the yoga mat, however, an awareness of breath and the synchronisation of breathing and movement is one of the key elements of yoga. Conscious breathing improves concentration, increases mindfulness, releases tension and serves as an inner guide or teacher. It allows us to manoeuvre throughout different levels of consciousness, and is a form of basic meditation in itself.
Prana versus pranayama
When practising yoga, conscious breathing allows us to connect with the energy - or universal life force - within ourselves. This force is referred to as prana, and we can learn to control or increase its flow through pranayama - the regulation of our breathing. It can be easy to perceive prana and pranayama as being one and the same, however prana can be understood as the energy which ‘animates the lungs’ and is not to be confused with the breath itself.
Pranayama is centered around the three main stages of breathing: inhalation, retention and exhalation. During a yoga class, we are often made to manipulate the breath - we may shorten the length of our inhalations, breathe in a syncopated manner, hold our breath and release it or extend our exhalations. By mixing up our breathing pattern, we help to stimulate the cerebral cortex where the move evolved or elevated parts of our brain are contained. This impacts our state of mind in a number of positive ways by balancing emotions, reducing stress levels and calming anxiety.
Practices and technique
There are a large number of pranayama breathing practices we can work into our yoga routines. The ujjayi pranayama, or ocean breath for example, is known for its soothing, gentle sound like that of the sea and is deeply relaxing. The nadi shodhana pranayama, or alternate nostril breath, can help to lower blood pressure and improve mental focus. The kapalbhati pranayama, or breath of fire, is a great way to energise the body and snap out of any afternoon lethargy.
Whilst styles of yoga may differ between classes or teachers, the pairing of breath with movements is generally quite similar. When bending forward, we should exhale. When opening the chest we should inhale and when twisting we should exhale. By understanding the important relationship between yoga and the breath, or prana and pranayama, we can help to elevate our levels of consciousness and improve our general state of health and wellness.