The importance of focusing on the breath when practicing Yoga.
I’ve been considering that more and more my teaching and practice is dominated by focusing on the breath. I don’t think I can do Yoga without conscious breathing. For me the breath is Yoga and I thought I’d write this article about why it is so important.
Usually when we exercise we stimulate our Sympathetic Nervous System-SNS.This is your active, adrenalin fuelled,flight/ fight response. The SNS responds quickly to our environment and involves high levels of energy. It makes us stronger, more alert and less vulnerable to danger. It fills the body with high levels of the hormones cortisol and norepinephrine. In small amounts these hormones are ok but long term they can affect our immune system,decrease bone density and sometimes lead to muscle atrophy, mood swings and sleep deprivation.
Yoga works on triggering our Parasympathetic nervous system- PNS. The PNS conserves energy, lowers stress,reduces blood pressure,strengthens immune system and lifts your mood. The PNS is responsible for ongoing, mellow steady-state activity. The feeling of it is relaxation and contentment. The good news is that our PNS state is actually our fundamental homeostasis, our true state. Though we can often rarely feel this way if we are constantly in our SNS as many people are.
How does Yoga do this? Through deep regular breathing. Change your breath and you can instantly change how you feel both physically,mentally and emotionally.
Most of us exist in a chronic state of SNS- over activation.We believe that this is the norm and until we experience something different or our health deteriorates we do little to change this. We are too busy,too active and very rarely switch off. We work,play and exercise in this way. Even some Yoga trends are feeding our SNS state. Intense power Yoga or Hot Yoga classes can be SNS driven and leave little time for PNS return. For me that really misses the whole point of Yoga. Ideally we want the breath and the PNS to dominate. Initially there may be some SNS activation to get us going, to lift our energy but deep,regular breathing soon brings us to our relaxed state and if the breath is allowed to lead the practice then the overall experience of Yoga is a nurturing and uplifting one.
Scientific research has shown that we could survive without our SNS but that we would soon die without our PNS. Yoga strengthens the PNS and minimises the bodies tendency to activate the SNS. I’m certainly living proof of this. Most of the time I’m super mellow and relaxed on and off the Yoga mat! In our Yoga practice we remain calm because of the breath. A posture may stimulate a stress response but the breath helps us override it and stay calm.
Merging the pose with your breath will increase your sensitivity in the pose. You will feel what’s happening and be able to respond accordingly. When you hold the breath tension increases and your sensitivity lessens. Learning to feel deeply is one of the most important lessons in Yoga. This learning comes from your connection to the breath.
Conscious breathing like Ujjayi breath is a very effective centering technique. You hold your attention on the sound so you are continually drawn back to it. In Yoga this attention and focus is called Dharana. With this focus emerges more presence and ultimately more energy. You can feel your body filling up with it. It stops your mind wandering.If your mind wanders the body soon becomes tired and your energy disperses. Your breath is the real source of your energy and enthusiasm. When you practice if you find your mind and body beginning to tire deliberately bring more attention and energy to your breath. You will find your attention sharpens and your energy lifts.
Strengthening your capacity for attention is the key to Yoga and your breath is the key to unlocking that strength. The other aspect that the breath brings is it brings the asana to life but also initiates the flow from one posture to another. It is dynamic stillness. We hold the posture but the breath creates movement and expansion from within. It’s what moves the practice from the external physical structure to the internal more subtle body. If we move with the breath we support our body from the inside. We move within our own bodies abilities and are less likely to injure ourselves because we are moving from a place of consciousness.
So much to think about though really it is as simple as breathing in and out. Always when you practice ask yourself “can I breathe fully and freely in this pose? Is my breath dominating?” If it’s no then you are more than likely out of alignment, gone too far into the pose for your own capabilities or are thinking too much about it! Come out of the pose, back off, return to your breath..always. The breath is more important than the asana. The breath is boss. Give yourself over to this and your whole experience of Yoga will change. You will want to practice, you will want to get on your mat. You will feel more energised,more relaxed and more content. The breath is boss…let it rule.