“You can lead a person to a yoga mat, but you cannot make them breathe.” This saying, based on the proverb about horses and water, was written by me and evolved out of one thing I never anticipated I would encounter as a yoga teacher: the resistance to breathing.
The Effects of Conscious Breathing
Yes, breathing. Of course, we’re always breathing, but to breathe consciously is a different matter altogether. Pranayama, or yogic breathing, is defined by the late, renowned teacher, B.K.S. Iyengar as “a conscious prolongation of inhalation, retention, and exhalation.” Iyengar devoted an entire book to the topic in which he attributes to the practice of pranayama “a steady mind, strong will-power, and sound judgment.”
Iyengar goes on to outline the numerous physiological effects of conscious breathing, something widely recognized by a variety of healing and personal transformation modalities. Yet this practice with such far-reaching benefits is more difficult for the majority of people than the most challenging yoga pose (asana). And it just might be the next frontier of yoga’s development worldwide.
Some say the eight limbs of yoga can be viewed as rungs on a ladder or stages – each one leading to the next in ordered progression. Pranayama, being the fourth limb or rung, follows asana, which up until now has been the most emphasized aspect of yoga in the West.
According to teachers like Iyengar, it’s important for students to reach a certain level of proficiency with asana before introducing pranayama, which includes thousands of techniques and practices. If you look at the collective body of yoga practitioners in the same way you would look at an individual student, then perhaps we’re at a place in our understanding where we’re ready to bring the diligent focus we’ve brought to asana to pranayama. I hope so.
The Benefits of Conscious Breathing
In my daily practice as a student and as a teacher, I see and feel firsthand the power of conscious breathing. In addition to the mental and emotional benefits, there are visible physical upsides, as well. I’ve noticed when I can guide students to a place where they are truly breathing consciously, then their bodies intelligently align themselves in response to that breath.
So rather than relying on my alignment cues, students get to experience their breath as primary guide. It’s an awe-inspiring thing to see. And I do feel pranayama can be taught to beginning students and used primarily for long holds, seated, and deep stretch postures. Getting your body into the initial shape of a pose is one thing, but conscious breathing takes the pose to an entirely new place of freedom.
For example, I can put my hand on a student’s body where I see she is clinching or holding excess tension and instruct her to breathe more deeply. If she does it, I can see the area release, open, and align. And because the body and mind are so connected, that release in the body is affecting her mind, freeing up mental space, and giving her access to new perspectives and possibilities. This is why I sometimes call the breath magical.
Conscious Breathing for Health and Well-Being
But the breath is actually quite logical. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali describes pranayama as a way to break unconscious breathing patterns, making the breath long, easy, and smooth. If you tune into your breath at any given moment, you might notice it’s anything but those three.
Most people’s habitual breath pattern mirrors and induces anxiety more than it does relaxation. The nervous system – including autonomic, sympathetic, and parasympathetic – gives directives to all bodily functions. Because this nervous system responds to the breath, which is itself a function of the autonomic nervous system, it’s understandable why the ramifications of conscious breathing are not only good for quieting the mind, but also for the health of the physical body.
Breath, body, and consciousness are intricately connected, if not one and the same thing. If you do a little research, you’ll see that some healing lineages use the word “bodymind.” They’ve found it a more accurate depiction that brings better results than keeping the two separate. In a yoga class, I’ll often instruct students to breathe the way they want their mind to be or to breathe the way they want the pose to feel in their bodies. This always brings a noticeable shift to the room, both energetically and physically.
This conscious breathing, yogic breathing, or pranayama starts to follow us off the mat, facilitating positive changes in our everyday life. We might find the breath coming to our rescue when on the verge of some knee-jerk reaction to our spouse or children. In a situation where we normally would go into panic, we’ll find a few deep breaths talking us down from the ledge. The ways pranayama can be integrated into daily life are countless – while driving, talking, sitting, eating, writing, running, playing sports, and socializing. We’re always breathing, so breath is something to which we always have access. It’s a no-brainer that conscious breathing would be so powerful and hands-on in supporting our emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual well-being.
Listen and Integrate Conscious Breathing
The next time you’re on your yoga mat, I hope you will pay a little (if not a lot) more attention to your breath. Listen to the teacher’s instructions related to breathing and integrate them. If you’re currently practicing with teachers who don’t focus on pranayama, then either transition to ones that do or take it upon yourself to bring pranayama into your asana practice. Once you feel the benefits, you will crave them and come back for more.
There is a shift occurring. As a collective body on the yogic path, we are ready to build on our strong asana foundation and to embrace pranayama. This will lead us to the final three limbs of yoga – concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana), and unity with the true self (samadhi). Not a bad destination if I don’t say so myself. These words of Iyengar describe the symbolic potential conscious breathing holds and shows we’ve only just begun our exploration:
In inhalation we experience the full “I,” human potential fulfilled and raised like a brimming cup in offering to the Cosmic Divine. In exhalation we experience the empty “I,” the divine void, a nothingness that is complete and perfect, a death that is not the end of life.
1. Iyengar, BKS., Light on Life, Rodale Books, 2006.
2. Iyengar, BKS Light on Pranayama, Crossroad Publishing Company, 1985.
3. Stlies, M., Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Red Wheel, Boston. 2002.
4. Turley, M., “Should Every Yogi Keep a Journal.” MindBodyGreen. 2012.
Photos courtesy of Savannah Wishart.