Why is there so much focus on the breath in yoga? What is the link between yoga and breath, and why is it so important (besides the fact that it keeps us alive)?
In a typical yoga class, we are instructed to consciously breathe, connect to our breath, breathe deeply, retain our breath, etc. But what impact does this breath have on us and our practice?
Breath And Length Of Life
A yogi measures the span of life by the number of breaths, not by the number of years. - Swami Sivananda
It is said that if you breathe 15 times per minute, you will live to 75 or 80 years. If you breathe 10 times per minute you will live to 100. The speed at which you breathe will dictate the length of life. If you breathe fast, your life will be shortened.
One of the major roles of breath is that it purifies our blood stream. The quickest and most effective way to purify they body is by taking in extra supplies of oxygen from the air we breathe. By purifying the blood stream, every part of the body benefits, as well as the mind. If the mind doesn't get enough fresh oxygen, the result is mental sluggishness, negative thoughts, depression and, eventually, a decline in vision and hearing.
We are continually instructed to “breathe consciously” when we are in yoga class. Breathing consciously is the essence of yoga as it assists us in connecting with the subtle energy within. It is through the breath that we are able to navigate different levels of consciousness. Moreover, breathing consciously has a biological effect on our mental, emotional and physical state.
Firstly, connecting with your breath is a method for being present. When you concentrate on each aspect of the breathing process, you are present; you let go of the past and future and are focused on the moment inside the breath. This is why breathing consciously is its own meditation. But this is just the beginning of why conscious breathing is important.
When you breathe consciously you also activate a different part of your brain. Unconscious breathing is controlled by the medulla oblongata in the brain stem, the primitive part of the brain, while conscious breathing comes from the more evolved areas of the brain in the cerebral cortex. So conscious breathing stimulates the cerebral cortex and the more evolved areas of the brain. Consciously breathing sends impulses from the cortex to the connecting areas that impact emotions. Activating the cerebral cortex has a relaxing and balancing effect on the emotions. In essence, by consciously breathing, you are controlling which aspects of the mind dominate, causing your consciousness to rise from the primitive/instinctual to the evolved/elevated.
Prana And Pranayama
In yoga we learn to control prana, the vital force, through breath practices (pranayama). We use the breath in pranayama to learn to control prana, but don’t confuse prana with breath. Prana is the energy that animates the lungs. It is NOT the breath. Using the breath is the easiest method for training prana. Once you are able to control prana through pranayama you are better able to control the movement of prana to other organs and areas of the body.
Breath + Prana + Mind
Basically we can look at the breath like the oil in a car, prana as the gasoline, and the mind as the engine. By understanding their relationship to one another you are better equipped to move your life forward, and repair it when there is a bump in the road.