Why is the breath so important in yoga...?
Anyone who's spent time either meditating or doing simple breathing exercises will remember that calm feeling that comes over them as they find themselves focusing on their breath. If you haven't done it yet (or even if you have) give it a try now...
Take a minute or two out to just close your eyes and start to hear and feel your breath. Focus as much of your awareness as possible on simply feeling the sensation of expansion in your body as you breathe in and the gentle contraction of your body as your breathe back out. Listen attentively to the sounds of your breath. When you open your eyes, before you carry on reading further, have you noticed any changes?
Did you get a sense of how your mind and body began to feel a little calmer? Perhaps your shoulders and jaw relaxed? Perhaps just for a moment, you noticed how everything that goes on around you all of the time becomes a little less important.
When we are in our everyday mind space we can become overly caught up in the thoughts we are having, what these thoughts mean and where they lead us. Our thoughts create a reality that is often based in the future or in the past, possibly leaving us anxious about what is to come or worried/angry/upset about what has passed.
We often forget that we are anything other than our thoughts. Our mind can become a whirlwind of activity that takes us over and it has become normal for many of us to live our lives in this mind space. We have lost connection to that deeply peaceful part of ourselves that exists within.
Yogi's don't just use breathing techniques to create a feeling of peace though, they are used to help create free flowing energy through the body since this is thought to be a pre-requisite of good health. Different breathing techniques are also chosen to evoke different effects, for example, a balanced and centred calm can be induced through alternate nostril breathing whereas a focused and energised calm can be created with 'breath of fire' - pumping air into and out of the naval as you breathe.
The Sanksrit word for breathing techniques is Pranayama. To understand the purpose of breath practice in yoga we can break this word down into parts: 'Prana' (energy/life force) 'yama' (control/restriction) or 'ayama' (expansion/freedom). We can then realise that the purpose of pranayama in yoga is to 'control our life force energy and create greater expansion & freedom' bringing us towards a more perfect health.
The combination of breath with movement of the body helps begin the process of changing the powerful and frequently unconscious hold our thoughts can have over our wellbeing. We are reminded that we are not just our thoughts, we have a body, and our body has sensations. More importantly still, we are reminded that we have a deeper more peaceful nature within.
Inside this space of greater silence it is true that we may find many things that we have been running from. We may initially find it an uncomfortable place to be. But, with a little practise and patience, and by letting go of our expectations we can instead allow whatever happens to just be. Simple breathing techniques (such as the short exercise described above) are so helpful in creating something to return to each time we are distracted by thoughts and feelings and led away from that deeper, more peaceful self within. From this space, we can observe our mind and body, we can notice the more rooted thoughts that likely come back time and time again, unconsciously stopping us from living a more freer and peaceful life.
It's fair to say I'm definitely not expecting to become an enlightened being during my lifetime, but I am enjoying the lovely moments of enligtenment that happen through connection with my deeper self. This deeper and more peaceful part of us doesn't go away when our thoughts become haywire and the external stimuli of life takes over. Instead it is we who have left it behind. So close your eyes and remember to breathe consciously, bring yourself back to the doorway of peace within.
Yoga Instructor, Counsellor and Founder of Yoga2Talk Therapy