Yoga is a process of self-discovery. It is traditional but also experimental, disciplined but also explorative, and relaxing yet stimulating while incorporating both movement and stillness. And it becomes all of these things through the intentional and deliberate use of the breath. Conscious diaphragmatic breathing soothes the nervous system and creates a sense of well-being. It also heightens our awareness. It pulls us out of the part of our “thinking” mind that is running a constant inner commentary analyzing and judging what is happening, did happen, or may happen around us. It connects us to a deeper state of consciousness that is without the words, the story, the verbal chatter of our thoughts. And by doing so, it guides us to a truer understanding of who we actually are. In truth, the breath is the most important element of yoga practice.
Conscious diaphragmatic breathing soothes the nervous system and creates a sense of well-being. It also heightens our awareness.
Developing an understanding of the ways in which the breath affects us on biological, mental, and energetic levels reminds us of its importance, not only in yoga, but also when it comes to cultivating balance and peace in our daily lives. Starting right now, every moment of our lives has the potential to be enriched by the quality of our breath. That's because the breath is with us all of the time!
Try this: Begin to quiet your mind by focusing on slowing down your exhalations while letting the inhalations gently expand your belly. Feel the breath rising all the way up to the top of your rib cage. It starts by spreading low ribs, then mid ribs, and then right up under the armpits. Either close your eyes or soften your gaze, and take your next four deep breaths like this.
Were you able to relax? If so, what enabled this to take place? When we intentionally slow down the breath, the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) is triggered. The parasympathetic nervous system is often referred to as the “rest and digest” nervous system. It's counter to the sympathetic nervous system (also known as the “fight or flight” nervous system). When the PSNS is triggered, heart rate slows down and stress-related chemicals, such as cortisol and adrenaline, are inhibited from being released. Instead, blood vessels open to increase the irrigation, nourishment, and oxygenation of our cells (especially through our digestive and reproductive organs). And the body begins to relax and feel at ease.
Tension in the body often arises from unconscious muscle contractions. Because muscle contractions take effort, tension tires and fatigues us. It can also lead to soreness and pain because when a muscle is chronically constricted, a lack of blood flow results. A lack of blood flow means our cells' need for nourishment, such as oxygen, isn’t being met and the buildup of waste, such as carbon dioxide, isn’t being flushed out of the muscle tissues. This causes the muscles to ache.
You can feel this for yourself by making a fist for longer than is comfortable. Notice how it is instinctual to want to shake your hand out after you release it to get the blood flowing again? This is because the cells have become starved for oxygen. Muscles are not intended to hold tension for long periods of time. When you sit at your computer for too long, for example, the muscles of your upper back are in a constant state of work to resist the pull of gravity and face-planting you into your keyboard. Those muscles have to ask for support. The support comes from the fascia, or connective tissue, that is everywhere in our bodies, making what Tom Myers calls a “strap-like matrix” around the muscle by secreting collagen in and around it which hardens it for structural support. If a part of the body aches or is in pain because of a lack of blood flow, adding more tension and restriction to the area is not going to make it feel better.
Muscle tension can come from various aspects of our life such as poor posture and repetitive actions, like the above example of working on a computer all day. These activities can cause imbalances in our skeletal alignment, such as rounded shoulders, tight chest and inner arm muscles, or a forward tilt of the head. Sitting for long periods of time can lead to a flattened lumbar curve, weak core muscles, and tight hip flexors. As our bodies constantly fight for homeostasis and balance, we find that compensatory muscles have to be recruited to do work they were not intended for to fight the pull of gravity. These are examples of how tension settles into the body because of what we are doing.
Now let's look at how tension relates to our thoughts, and how working with the breath can help us shift out of negative or self-defeating thought patterns.
Many of us can relate to having thoughts which create panic and fear, and possibly some physical reactions as well (sweat, jitters, tears, a racing heart, or vomit, even.) Whether it’s the images that go through the mind when your child doesn't come home on time, or the apprehension of an upcoming presentation at work, the truth is that thoughts aren't present-moment experiences, they are only happening in our imaginations. The time to call upon our breath is exactly in these moments. Bringing our awareness to the physical act of breathing quiets the thoughts that are creating all the disturbance and shifts us out of the SNS-dominant state.
And asana practice is actually an ideal place to practice this. We (in this instance, intentionally) face something difficult (a hard pose, a long hold), and we attune to our breath while we're there, relaxing, smoothing, and deepening it as needed. In this way then, we learn to turn to the breath in response to difficulty, challenge, and/or discomfort.
Unfortunately, we may not even know or be able to recognize that we are putting tension into our bodies through stressful thoughts because we have become accustomed to a continual sense of irritability, lack of fulfillment, and anxiety. Our thoughts rarely, if ever, quiet down long enough for us to get some perspective on what is actually happening within us. Because stressful thinking causes physical tension, making us tight, sore, achy, and exhausted, it also changes the way we breathe by making our breaths more shallow. But knowing that we can do the reverse—work with the breath to change the quality of our thoughts—to release this tension (of both body and mind) can be incredibly empowering!
Reconnecting with the breath frees us from the captivity of our thoughts and self-defeating belief patterns.
By bringing our awareness to how we are breathing, we can use the breath to create a much-needed rest between what we are thinking and how it affects us physically and emotionally. Reconnecting to the breath brings us out of captivity by our thoughts and self-defeating belief patterns by centering our awareness in the physical inner space of the body.
Similarly, when we attune to the breath—something that is so precious to our existence we cannot live but minutes without it—our consciousness is elevated. We are alert and fully aware, we become truly present. And the most important part is this: We come to understand who we truly are by experiencing our most authentic and natural selves. And this is the experience of yoga.