Cultivate Breath Awareness

An Essential Foundation for Life


by Anjali Desai, CYT

Everyone breathes. It’s an aspect of existence that most people take for granted. Humans are born breathing and it does not require any conscious effort to continue doing so. For the most part, people go about living daily life while being unaware of the breath. But there is much more to breathing than the fact that it gives life. Yogis unraveled the secrets of breathing and its interrelationship with the body and mind and gained mastery of breath training and control, or pranayama.

Breath in. Breath out. The yogis say the in- and out-going breaths are the two guards of the City of Life. When the guards are well coordinated, the city’s defenses are strong. When the guards are disorganized and disconnected, the city comes under attack

If we study the breath we soon realize that our breathing habits not only reflect our state of being, but have a profound effect on it as well. The manner in which we breathe influences our entire being: the mental-emotional states, the nervous system, hormonal balance, muscular tension and all the functions of the body and mind. Bad habits cause strain and stress; good habits keep us strong and healthy and create a sense of well-being.1

The breathing process has an influence upon various levels of the human body. From the subtle molecular interactions in the body, to the grosser physical movements of breathing, which propel air in and air out of the lungs. Apart from the obvious role of respiration, breathing plays an important role in working anatomical systems like circulation, digestion, reproduction and elimination. These systems of the body work efficiently if breathing is efficient.

The breath is a barometer for the nervous system. The close relationship between physical activity and breathing is familiar to most. Breathing pattern changes with the kind of activity that is being done. For example, when running, the breath is rapid and shallow. In moments of tension, agitated emotions or distress, the breath is jerky, shallow, tense and with notable sighs and pauses. When the nervous system becomes imbalanced, breathing pattern also changes. This interrelationship can help with understanding that while agitated emotions can result in agitated breathing, relaxed and calm breathing can help to calm agitated emotions during periods of distress and during everyday tensions.

Yoga uses five criteria to assess the quality of breathing. First, is the breath deep? Secondly, is it smooth? Next, is it even? And is it silent? And lastly, is the breath without pause? In yoga, this can be achieved through a five-step systematic process called breath training.

For yoga practitioners, breath training is essential as it helps in the performance of asana (physical postures), pranayama (breath control) and for deepening meditation. In Mastering the Basics, authors Sandra Anderson and Rolf Sovik, Psy.D, explain the breath training process. It starts by observing the breath flowing in and out and maintains this sustained breath awareness. The next step is to breathe through the nose. Followed by beginning diaphragmatic breath and recognizing the sensations created. This is followed by work to strengthen the diaphragm. And finally, one continues practicing all five qualities of good breathing.

It is through this process that the ability to become aware of breathing and to sustain that awareness can have long-term positive effects. Good breathing is able to be recognized, but most importantly a healthy breathing habit can be cultivated.

Anjali Desai is a student and an initiate of The Living Traditions of the Himalayan Sages and Masters. She is a 200-hour Certified Yoga Teacher from the Himalayan Institute in Honesdale, PA. To learn more about breath training, join Anjali for her upcoming workshop Establishing Breath Awareness on February 17 at Yoga Center of Collinsville located at 10 Front St.

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