Breath is directly linked to life force energy. Yoga often uses the word prana which refers both to the breath and to the vital energies of our body. As we move breath through the body, we also move Prana. The steadiness, fullness and depth of our breath reflects the same characteristics of that vital flow of energy.
The practice of pranayama, the fourth limb of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, is the practice of intentionally directing the movement of the breath. It requires practice to become aware of our breath and to direct it intentionally. As we focus our attention on the movement of our inhales and exhales, our awareness is drawn inward to experience ourselves on a deeper, less distracted level. So how does this benefit us? What are the effects of breath control?
On the physiological level, breath is literally life. The oxygen we take into our bodies through breath is processed through our lungs and heart into our blood where it is transferred throughout the body to every single cell. Within the cells, oxygen is the catalyst for the chemical reaction that creates energy, it keeps our cells alive. Our cells breathe. Breath equals prana equals life. The more effective our breathing, the healthier our bodies are on the cellular level. The health of our cells affects the well being of the entirety of our anatomy: our abdominal organs, our brain, our muscles, bones, skin, blood… literally everything.
While breathing is something that happens naturally without our effort it is also something that we can control, direct, and manipulate. It can happen on the subconscious level as well as the conscious level, a function of the autonomic as well as the somatic nervous systems. It is the only system in the body like this. The autonomic nervous system is divided into the sympathetic, our fight, flight, or freeze response, and parasympathetic, our rest and digest function. You may easily observe how the breath responds within these two functions. When we are stressed, experiencing some extreme emotion or circumstance, our breath becomes quick, forceful, possibly erratic.
When we are at rest, calm, and peaceful, our breath slows, and lengthens, even quiets. Our breath responds to our state of mind and emotions. This relationship also exists in the reverse. Our nervous system is affected by our breath. By intentionally slowing, lengthening, deepening the breath, we send a message via the diagram and vegas nerve throughout our body that all is well, we are safe, we are at peace, slowing the heart rate and initiating relaxation. Through the breath, we can control the state of our minds and emotions, we can control our experiences.
In our asana practice, we are increasingly challenging the steadiness of our breath. The first layer of an asana practice, especially a vinyasa method, is the breath. The breath establishes a rhythm and dynamic, and we then layer movement over it. Ideally the movement and positions of our bodies do not alter the pace, rhythm, or tone of our breath. Of course, this is difficult, this is the challenge, this is the point. We are intentionally creating increasingly intense situations for our nervous system and then requiring our breath to remain steady, requiring our nervous system to remain steady. This practice over time lengthens the space between impulses, allowing us the time to make intentional discriminative choices of response rather than pre-thought reaction. Establishing control of breath affects the experience of our nervous system, allowing us to grab the reins of our impulses, directing thought and eventually life force energy.
Pranayama practice similarly creates a challenge for our nervous system but instead of maintaining an even steadiness of breath, it varies the rhythm and pace of breath, working with retentions and alternating the use of the nostrils. By challenging the extremes of breath, it challenges the experience of the nervous system and asks us to remain calm, remain at peace, remain in control. Physiologically, it strengthens the muscles of respiration and increases lung capacity which improves the efficacy of the function of breathing.
New research is still being done on the breath, particularly how it affects our brain and its functions. One recent study I’ve heard about focused on different mindfulness practices, like yoga asana and meditation.
They found that the common link that resulted in neurological benefits was the attention to the breath. Another breath study of epileptics came to a similar conclusion, they observed that different types of controlled breathing activated different regions of the brain, noting that simply focusing on controlling the breath may be the key. Our focused intention lights up otherwise un-accessed parts of the brain. A third study I recently came across was related to how breath affects the cleansing function of brain fluid. The fluid of the brain is meant to draw out impurities and toxins to be filtered and released from the body. The depth and breadth of the breath seemed to increase the volume and effectiveness of this process which has implications for diseases like Alzheimers.
The breath is our link between the conscious and subconscious mind. It is the communication between our body’s experience and our mind’s awareness. It is connection. The breath supports the vitality of every key cell in our body, affecting the functionality of every system. It is the force that drives vitality, prana. It is life. Giving attention to breath in our yogic practices provides deep and broad benefits to our body, mind, and spirit.
Angelique Sandas is a life long student of movement and the interconnectedness of mind body and spirit. It began with gymnastics and dance, initiating her love of movement, the body’s natural way of expressing ideas, emotions, and experiences. Angelique received her B.A. in dance from the University of Minnesota, graduating in 1999. It was during these years that she was first introduced to yoga. In yoga, Angelique’s relationship with movement developed new depth and meaning. Movement became a path to profound inner transformation. She was inspired to share what she was learning and felt drawn to teach. In 2003, Angelique traveled to Thailand to study with Paul Dallaghan in the Ashtanga yoga system as taught by K. Pattabhi Jois and received her teaching certification. She has also studied pranayama and yogic philosophy with Sri O.P. Tiwari of the Kaivalyadhama Institute, India and received advanced anatomy and adjustment training from David Keil. Until 2007, Angelique taught and practiced in Chicago. She then moved to Miami Beach where she worked closely in the Ashtanga method with her teacher and mentor Kino MacGregor as well as Tim Feldmann and Greg Nardi at Miami Life Center. Angelique ran the Mysore program at Shanti Yoga Shala in Philadelphia, PA in 2012 – 2013 and Delray Yoga Shala in Delray Beach, FL. 2014 – 2016. Currently, Angelique runs a Mysore program Ashtanga Yoga Palm Beach at Yoga Path Palm Beach in West Palm Beach, FL. She remains a dedicated instructor and a devoted student of yoga, growing into the potential of the spirit through it’s physical expression.