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Yoga Breathing: Practice and Benefits

Jul 16, 2008
When was the last time you stopped to take a deep breath, the kind of breath that fills your lungs and then carries away your stress in a long exhale? Like a heartbeat, breathing is integral to our well-being, but it is not something we stop to think about or remember. The breath carries oxygen and nutrients throughout the body, and removes impurities from our blood and organs for excretion as we exhale. Breathing problems such as asthma and emphysema can have a significant health impact, but how often do we think about breathing when we are healthy?

In fact, there are numerous benefits to be had from practicing conscious breathing. In the yoga world, this is known as pranayama, or "life-breath-extension." The thought behind pranayama is that by learning to extend and channel the breath, we use the body's natural power to heal itself. The short term benefits of yoga breathing practice are relaxation, improved focus and detoxification of the body. The long term benefits can include such important goals as lowering blood pressure, improving sleep patterns, encouraging weight loss and improving metabolic rate. By improving our manner of breathing, we combat the negative effects of stress and the chaotic lifestyles imposed on us by this hectic world.

As an experiment, let us see how stress affects breathing. As you read this sentence, think about something stressful affecting you right now. Wait. Notice how your throat tightens and how your chest feels heavy? Your breathing may grow shallower, moving less air in and out of the body as you breathe. As your body relies on the breath to cleanse the blood and move oxygen around the body, the shallower the breath, the more restricted the oxygen flow in the body and the more toxins that are allowed to build up. Your body has to work harder. If you remain in a state of elevated stress for too long, it may eventually cause problems such as fatigue and high blood pressure.

How can we counteract the effects of stress on our breathing? Yoga breathing is usually performed sitting down, in a chair or on the floor, and can take anywhere from five minutes to more than an hour. Generally, the more advanced your level, the longer you might feel comfortable practicing. You do not need any equipment, although you may wish to listen to restful music, or to audio instructions that help you achieve a state of deep breathing such as Guided Yoga's online yoga breathing program.

You should begin your pranayama practice by learning to become aware of your breathing--what is the natural rhythm of your breath? At first, do not try to change your breathing patterns, just relax all your muscles and allow your mind to focus on the breath. Pay attention to it, and notice the lengths of your inhales and exhales. Is your exhale the same length as your inhale? Do you take long breaths, or short, sharp breaths? Do you feel any tension in the breath?

Also take awareness of how the breath affects the body. Do your shoulders rise and tense up as you breathe in? Do you notice a release of tension as you exhale? What happens to the breath when you consciously relax tense muscles? You might notice that the breath has begun to deepen and become smoother.

At this point, your pranayama practice will probably begin to guide you toward some control of your breath. You will want to find a breath that is a little longer than your normal breath, and constant in the lengths of inhale and exhale. You can begin by counting as you breathe, for instance, "Breathe in... two... three... four; Breathe out... two... three... four." Do not try to push yourself to lengthen the breath if it causes any tension, lightheadedness or discomfort. Your well-being comes first and you should stop at any sign of discomfort.

How should yoga breath feel? Although the breath may be deeper than what you are accustomed to, it should decrease tension in the muscles, and it never should cause tension! You will want to find a smooth, even breath that expands the ribs on the inhale and empties the lungs on the exhale. On your inhale, picture the breath circulating in your body, relaxing and detoxifying. On the exhale, imagine exhaling tension and toxins from the body.

In our busy modern lives, our breathing can be inhibited by everything from stress to pollution, raising a variety of health concerns. But we can regain our feeling of well-being by taking a few minutes to breathe deeply and calmly, and yoga breathing is a long-established way to bring this healthier breathing into our daily lives.
About the Author
Ashley Hecht is one of the founders of Guided Yoga ( www.guidedyoga.com), an online yoga studio bringing personalized yoga and yoga breathing classes to yogis of all skill levels, and dedicated to improving the quality of the online yoga experience. CONTACT: ashley@guidedyoga.com ( www.guidedyoga.com)
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