If we breathe automatically and hardly think about it during the day, why is breath emphasized so much during a yoga class? And how is it even possible to breathe incorrectly?
These questions are common among beginner yogis, and they’re worth discussing! Awareness of breath, as well as synchronizing breath to movement, is an integral part of yoga and what makes it so much more than an exercise routine.
Mechanically speaking, the act of breathing can be either automatic (an unconscious, involuntary behavior) or deliberate (a conscious, voluntary behavior). By making an automatic behavior deliberate, we begin to affect our neurological programming through a state of intentional awareness. This conscious breathing affects us biologically, emotionally and physically. And now for the science!
During most of the day when we’re breathing unconsciously, our breath is controlled by the medulla oblongata (the primitive part of the brain). When we switch to conscious breathing, it stimulates the cerebral cortex (the more evolved areas of the brain). It’s in that moment that the magic starts to happen! Activating the cerebral cortex has a relaxing and balancing effect on our emotions, which leads us into the next benefit of intentional breath.
When you begin to tune into your breath like this, emotional stress and random thoughts vanish. Your whole system gets a break. Your body’s energy begins flowing freely, disrupting any emotional and physical blockages and freeing your body and mind. This results in that “feel good” effect you experience after a yoga practice.
In our physical yoga practice, the breath works side-by-side with our structural alignment. Our natural tendency is to hold our breath or use stress-induced breathing (short and shallow) while holding a posture, especially in a challenging pose. This creates stress and tension in the body. That’s why you always hear yoga teachers reminding students to continue breathing intentionally during the toughest poses and sequences.
Still not convinced about the power of the breath? Try taking deep breaths for the next 30 seconds. You will realize the calming effect deep, controlled breathing has on your nerves, stress, and muscle fatigue. Even the one you hadn’t realized. Pranayama yoga makes you habitual of breathing deeply, and being in control of your breath. As a result, gradually, you become and then remain more aware, calm, and relaxed at all times. So, shoulders back, head up….and breathe!