The breath is a reflection of our mental state and vice versa, yet often this connection goes unnoticed, even when it is ruling our behavior. If you have ever realized that you were holding your breath then taken a few full deep breaths, you may know the feeling of softening places you weren’t even aware were becoming tense. The connection between our breath, body, and mind is beautiful, fierce, fragile, and sometimes less under our control than we would like to believe. The effects of mindful yogic breathing are powerful and should be explored by every serious yoga student. Even beginners can access and experience the powerful benefits of a simple pranayama practice.
Controlling the breath
Have you ever noticed that becoming aware of your breath almost instantly begins to change it? Attempting to simply observe the breath can be as challenging as practicing breathing exercises that intentionally alter it. Even with the clear and calm state of mind we attempt to cultivate in order to practice pranayama, these practices are challenging. Now imagine having no control over your breath. You can’t take a full breath in or out, you can’t slow the breath down, or you can’t stop coughing long enough to really breathe. While many of us are fortunate to not experience asthma, panic attacks, or hyperventilation, these phenomena illustrate how tenuous our connection to breath can be.
Even if you aren’t prone to these conditions, you have most likely experienced breath-related fear at some point, perhaps due to choking while swimming, eating, or drinking. Even the most experienced practitioner of meditation and/or pranayama may find themselves panicking in these situations. Yet, as one yogini and mother of a child with asthma wrote, the more you panic about not being able to breathe, the harder it is to breathe. This cycle can be hard to stop once it begins; the best prevention is to become mindfully aware of the breath and to practice slowing the breath before a crisis arises.
You have a clear choice: you can learn to control the breath or you can let your breath control and affect your mental and emotional state. Pranayama is a powerful practice that will take much time to master yet you can begin to reap its benefits almost immediately.
The Benefits of Pranayama
There have been over 1000 medical and research studies that have looked into the health benefits of yogic breathing. While specific pranayama practices all have unique qualities and effects, it is important to note the general benefits of pranayama. If you wish to use pranayama for any of these benefits you must fully research the specific technique to practice it properly and to understand any counterindications or negative side effects.
- Reduces stress—Slow types of pranayama are traditionally considered calming and research has shown these practices can lower one’s measured stress hormones. Several studies have shown a practice of yoga breathing to have a significant reduction in perceived stress and can create a notable improvement in one’s overall well-being.
- Reduces anxiety and calms the mind—Slow deep yogic breathing has been shown to reduce anxiety in patients undergoing coronary angiography and to reduce test anxiety in students. Another study of breast cancer patients who practiced pranayama reported fewer amounts of worry and anxiety than the control group.
- Reduces fatigue and boosts energy—Fast types of pranayamas (like Kapalabhati and Bhastrika) are traditionally known to boost prana or life-force energy in the body. Medical studies have found yogic breathing to help reduce fatigue and improve the quality of life in chemotherapy patients.
- Lowers high blood pressure—Several studies have shown that slow deep yogic breathing can help relieve hypertension symptoms by slowing the heart rate and lowering high blood pressure.
- Strengthens the respiratory system—Both slow and fast types of pranayama have been shown to increase lung capacity and to improve pulmonary functions. Several studies have shown practicing pranayama can stabilize and reduce symptoms in patients with asthma.
- Improves mental focus and concentration—Learning and practicing yogic breathing requires focus and physical awareness. Research findings suggest slow and fast types of pranayama can promote cognitive mental functions.
- Boosts immune system—Research has shown that yogic breathing decreases pro-inflammatory markers and stimulates the immune system.
Experiment with your breathing
Try out some different breathing exercises. See how they make you feel after. Do you feel calm or slightly more agitated? When you find one that leaves you feeling calm, memorize it. Practice it enough that when you need it, switching into it is easy and natural, not another source of stress.
As you try out and practice other types of pranayama you will slowly build up a diverse set of tools to draw upon. Create a practice of checking in with yourself on a mental, energetic, and emotional level. Each time you check give yourself the opportunity to either reinforce your positive state or shift it to something more desired by changing your breathing. You may want to document your experiments and progress in a journal.
Mindful, active breathing is not something we only practice in yoga class, and awareness of it shouldn’t be either. We share a world that sometimes seems to be continually moving faster and getting crazier. Donna Fahri, author of The Breathing Book notes, “the process of breathing is the most accurate metaphor we have for the way that we personally approach life, how we live our lives, and how we react to the inevitable changes that life brings us.” Even if you are in perfect health and have enjoyed a long life of trouble free breathing, remember to breathe consciously from time to time. You never know when you may need it, or what unexpected tension you may release in the meantime!
Share your experience!
How do you use the breath in your daily life or to help you in stressful situations? What benefits have you seen in your life from your pranayama practice? Let us know in the comments below!