When I first started practicing yoga nearly 15 years ago I don’t think my teacher even mentioned breathing, and if they did, I was too busy trying to pretzel myself into the next pose (that I wasn’t quite ready for), to hear it. I had no idea that yoga poses (asana) were only 1/8th of what I needed to be doing, and I certainly didn’t view yoga as a spiritual practice. It was all flexibility, strength, balance and toning – no different from a spin class or body pump class, and certainly no more influential in my life outside of the gym.
So what is it that is so miraculous about breathing? In yoga, pranayama (breath work) has been practiced for thousands of years, and it is only now that modern science is attempting to explain what generations of yogis have intuitively understood. In simple combinations of three motions - one by which we draw the breath in, another by which we expel it out, and the third action in which the breath is held in the lungs, or stopped from entering the lungs – we are able to create exercises designed to have a myriad of different effects on our physical bodies and consciousness levels.
In recent years there have been numerous studies relating to pranayama – looking at everything from its effects on pulmonary (lung) and cardiovascular (heart) function, to its ability to impact on our emotional health and its capacity to make changes to the body on a cellular level. While many of the mechanisms of action for this are still unclear, results seem to indicate nothing but positive associations with a regular pranayama practice (and even more if you look at combined yoga asana and pranayama practice). Science is catching up slowly to what yogis have known for centuries. Breathing will improve your health and happiness.
Focusing on our breath pulls us in to the present moment. When we focus on our breath all of our thoughts about the past and our worries for our future cease to exist for a few moments. We feel clarity - a brief union between our mind and our soul - however fleeting. The next time you feel your anxiety levels rising – whether you’re annoyed, frustrated, angry, scared or unsure of what to do next - just take three deep breaths, in and out through the nose, using your full lung capacity, diaphragm to collarbone. Then make your decision. Decide whether you’re going to yell, or run, or go through with that thing that terrifies you, but make that decision with clarity.
We can also use our breath to pull us into the present moment at times of immense joy, happiness and love. Next time you find yourself in a beautiful place, a beautiful situation, part of a heartfelt embrace - take three deep breaths. I promise that you will have a life of less regrets, of deeper happiness, of greater peace.
Three deep breaths have helped me avoid numerous unnecessary arguments with loved ones, potentially getting fired and making more than one pretty poor decision. Three deep breaths pushed me to book that one way ticket to the other side of the world (solo), sign up for teacher training and tell the love of my life that he is the one for me.
I always love to remember this passage by Eckhart Tolle on breathing:
“Someone recently showed me the annual prospectus of a large spiritual organization. When I looked through it, I was impressed by the wide choice of interesting seminars and workshops. It reminded me of a smorgasbord, one of those Scandinavian buffets where you can take your pick from a huge variety of enticing dishes. The person asked me whether I could recommend one or two courses. “I don’t know,” I said. “They all look so interesting. But I do know this,” I added. “Be aware of your breathing as often as you are able, whenever you remember. Do that for one year, and it will be more powerfully transformative than attending all of these courses. And it’s free.” - from A New Earth, Awakening to your Life’s Purpose, Eckhart Tolle, Page 244