Mindful Mondays: The Breath of Yoga
If you go to any yoga class I (Teryn) teach, you’ll notice I often start the class off with a breathing exercise. There are a lot of different breathing techniques in yoga, because yoga incorporates the breath into a lot of what we do. So why is that?
Yoga is all about learning to notice the breath and start communicating to the body through the breath. It’s a link to breathe with movement very intentionally, and there are a plethora of breathing practices that can help you start regulating you breath in deeper ways so that you can navigate the challenges you encounter throughout life.
Pranayama of Yoga
This is something the yogis (practitioners of yoga) figured out hundreds if not thousands of years ago. The yogis back then called it pranayama, and they believed that the breath was somehow linked to the life, the spirit, the energy force of a human being. This was very spiritualized in their culture—some of them truly believed if you regulated your breath well enough, you could have the chance of living forever—and modern day yogis might laugh at some of the language and ideas surrounding their historical search for transcendence. Yet somehow, hundreds and hundreds of years ago, yogis still believed the breath was essential in regulating our bodies and minds in profound ways—ways that the Western world never really understood until modern times. As the modern forms of yoga (which are much more fitness/movement-oriented than ancient forms) have grown in popularity, so did the breathing techniques around yoga. While the West largely laughed at yoga at the beginning, Western science began to get increasingly interested in the breath and movement, noting more and more health benefits. More and more studies have been conducted, and a startling conclusion began to emerge:
There’s a lot of science behind breathing! It’s actually not a weird thing at all. The breath actually is an essential tool that regulates our bodies in deeper ways than we thought possible! And it really does, in many ways, affect our energy and mind in powerful ways.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System and Sympathetic Nervous System
Part of your nervous system is called the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). This part of your nervous system controls a lot of the unconscious things your body does on an everyday basis: heart rate, digestion, breathing, etc. The ANS has two major components to it called the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) and the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). The Sympathetic Nervous System is activated when you feel threatened or in danger. Your heart rate increases, your digestion shuts down, you might get ready to run, etc. All of this is relatively unconscious behavior that just happens when threatened or when in heightened stress. The Parasympathetic Nervous System counteracts the SNS. It helps calm you down, bring your body into a restful and relaxing state, digest your food, have all your organs functioning, etc. Again, this is all unconscious: your body just does these things every day without you thinking much about it.
But guess what? The breath is a significant way that your body communicates to the PNS or SNS.
For example, when you get scared or stressed, you start breathing heavily. You inhale very quickly and your exhale gets shorter. Your chest becomes constricted because you’re stiff. Everything becomes tense. That’s part of the SNS. And if your SNS is activated too much, you start living in a chronic state of stress and anxiety—which makes your immune system not function well, leading to many health and energy issues. (Most of us nowadays live in a chronic state of stress.) So how do you calm down? You start exhaling slowly, which then turns on the Parasympathetic Nervous System. As you exhale and start breathing more slowly, you start signaling to your body that it’s time to slow down, to calm down, to not panic. If you continue to learn how to control and regulate your breath, your chronic stress levels go down, your immune system can be healthier, and you can have more energy.
The breath is a very real way to manage your physical and mental state.
So much of what we do is unconscious until we learn how to be very aware of what we’re doing. Once we’re aware, we can train our breath in very real ways to work with us and communicate
important things to our inner world. So maybe there’s something to that pranayama after all, at least scientifically…
Take a moment to sit in a quiet place. Put a hand near your neck to feel your pulse. Start inhaling and exhaling deeply. Take about a minute or two to notice the heart beat and what happens when you inhale vs. exhale.
Do you notice something about your heart rate? In a normal state of being, your heart rate will slow on the exhale and increase on the inhale. With every inhale, you’re activating the SNS, and with every exhale, you activate the PNS. With every breathe, you’re literally telling your body something. It’s unconscious, but it’s there.
If you breathed in a more conscious manner, what might that do to your internal state?