A yogi measures the span of life by the number of breaths, not by the number of years. -Swami Sivananda

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!

Biologically

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.

Emotionally

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.

Physically

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!

MUDITA – why knowing what it is will bring us all joy and longevity.

There is no word in English to describe the emotion of being happy for someone else’s happiness. We have envy but not the opposite. We borrow the German word ‘schadenfreude’, which means taking pleasure in others’ misfortune. Awful (and sharply on the rise since the 1980s according to Google’s book search). When you consider that language and thoughts are inextricably linked, this gap in our language becomes tragic.

Mudita is a Sanskrit and Pali word. It means ‘vicarious joy’, that is joy for someone else’s joy. In this post, I hope to convince you to help me bring mudita into our vocabulary.

English has more words than any other language. Estimates vary but it’s at least 170,000 and possibly well over a million. While we don’t have a word for mudita, we do have one for ‘resembling an ostrich’ (struthious), one for ‘the legal right to cut turf or peat for fuel on common ground’ (turbary), and another for ‘the plug by which the rectum of a bear is closed during hibernation’ (tappen).

I’m not saying those words aren’t needed (I’m sure there are scientists who have devoted their entire careers to the study of tappen — brave people indeed), but it’s odd that we don’t have a word for mudita.

MUDITA CAN BRING MORE JOY TO YOU AND THOSE AROUND YOU

Research shows that word choices don’t only reflect your emotional state — they influence it too. Thinking and especially talking about positive things makes you happier. Through neuroplasticity, (the brain’s ability to strengthen connections and form new ones) using pathways of joy and happiness strengthens them.

Plus, your happiness impacts the happiness of people close to you. Incredibly, this has been shown to extend out three degrees of separation — to the friends of one’s friends’ friends (in addition to being mind-blowing, this also presents an opportunity for careful apostrophe use). Here’s a quick sketch to show the effect.

Related image

The research shows that if a person (e.g., you) is happy, then it increases the chances that everyone in this diagram becomes happy. The study showed causation, not just correlation. To keep the picture manageable, I assumed you only have 3 friends. You probably have more than that, and the effect multiplies exponentially. If you have 10 friends and they each have 10, and so on, you can reach 1,000 people with your happiness. That’s a big deal. It’s also a lot of responsibility: if you have 1,000 Facebook friends, and you post a humble brag that makes them feel less happy about their own lives, that negativity could spread through them outwards to many thousands of people.

Mudita was taught by The Buddha. He said,“I declare that the heart’s release by sympathetic joy has the sphere of infinite consciousness for its excellence.

Here’s my suggestion: ask your friend what is making them happy at the moment, and tell them “I have mudita for you.” Explain it to them and see what they think. I encourage you to experience and discuss mudita, and through this let joy multiply within us and ripple out as we spread it among our friends, families, and communities.

I promised you joy and longevity. Being more happy and less stressed leads to better health and longer lives (this seems obvious and it’s also backed by research), so adding mudita to your vocabulary really could extend your life. Especially if you help your friends to add it too!

You are enough.

It’s coming to the end of mental health awareness week and, in the studio, in the gentle conversations that often take place after a class, I hear so many stories of why people come to love yoga.
The most often told story is of the transformation that yoga has brought not just physically but to people’s sleep and ability to just ‘do’ life:

“My partner just looks at me now and says go to yoga knowing I’ll be a different person when I come back”.

Amongst my yoga teacher friends, we often share how yoga has been the thing that has helped us through tough times. When you come to your mat, you are welcomed, there is no judgement nor expectation and, if you want to spend your whole practice in child’s pose that is enough because you are more than enough. I leave you with these words. Read them regularly!