They say yoga is all about the breathing.
‘No breathing, no yoga’
‘Breathing properly, no pain coming’
‘The man who perfectly controls his breathing, gains mastery over life and death’
‘Feel pain? Breathe’
I could go on all day spouting quotes about breathing.
On a physiological level, controlled breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which lowers the levels of the fight or flight hormone, cortisol. Cortisol stimulates a heightened response to danger, usually of the life-threatening variety. Blood pressure rises, inflammatory response is heightened in preparation of physical injuries, energy is diverted from ‘low-priority’ functions such as the immune system and effects of insulin on blood-sugar levels are diminished, since the body is in need of a glucose boost whether is it to fight or flee. While essential in small doses, the prolonged presence of this hormone in the blood stream is not good for health.
Activation of the parasympathetic nervous system promotes healing, as blood pressure is brought back into normal ranges, and focus is reassigned back to other functions within the body such as the immune system.
How can you tell when you might have too much cortisol flowing through your veins? Easy! Even after a full night’s sleep, you wake up still feeling exhausted; you often feel under the weather; your digestion is not the best; you suffer from headaches and backaches; you are prone to feeling blue.
So, in a nutshell, if you suffer from too much stress, your cortisol levels will rise and stay elevated. Prolonged presence of cortisol in the bloodstream is not good for long-term health. To reduce cortisol, the parasympathetic nervous system has to kick in and one of the ways to activate it is to….breathe!
Breathing makes up one of the eight limbs of yoga, in the form of pranayama. The eight limbs are separated into external and internal practices. Breathing, along with restraint, observance and posture comprise the external practice, while sense control, concentration, meditation and contemplation comprise the internal practice.
Along with asana, breathing constitutes a vital part of any physical yoga practice. In fact, one shouldn’t be taken without the other. Breathing is believed to have a stronger effect on one’s nervous system than asanas. According to Sri K Pattabhi Jois, “A regular practice of postures with regulated breathing can cure many diseases. In order to cure contagious diseases a doctor’s help may be required, but not to cure chronic diseases. Chronic diseases can be healed by postures and breathing practices.”
To forget your breath while performing asana creates agitation in the mind and tension in the body. Somehow, the breath infuses what would otherwise be mechanical exercises or calisthenics with a certain elegance and meaning. Hence, ‘no breathing, no yoga’. Your yoga practice can be likened to a mala or a string of pearls, where every pearl or bead is linked to the next via string or twine. One cannot be without the other or the whole thing will unravel.
I believe that my breathing sets the entire tone for my practice. I can go through the exact same sequence on two different days and emerge with completely different results on each day. Energy levels aside, on a day when I take the time to consciously set an intention to observe my breathing, my practice can take on a different hue. When the stars align, it can feel more deliberate and profound, peaceful and quiet.
But what charms me about it all is that these qualities, while satisfying to the soul, are extremely elusive! I can only do what I can every time I step on the mat. The rest I leave it up to faith and the stars. I cannot chase it; I can only let it happen. If it does, I leave my mat with a sense of gratitude and humility that it did. If it doesn’t, I leave my mat still satisfied and hopeful in the knowledge that tomorrow is yet another day for me to ‘let it happen’.
Ashtanga yoga teacher,
Art of Yoga
8 May 2014