The Breath

After nine cosy months in our mother’s womb, where all our basic needs such as breathing, eating and dealing with waste are taken care of for us, we finally make it out into the atmosphere, and take that first important breath, which is three times more powerful than any breath we will ever take.

From then onwards we pretty much take the breath for granted, not paying much attention to it at all; until later in life – if we are lucky – we come across a spiritual discipline, which teaches us that not only can we improve the quality of our lives, and the state of our minds tremendously by learning to be aware of it, and ultimately ‘unobstruct’ it, i.e. unlearn old restraining breathing habits; but with the breath, we can literally prolong our lives. It is often said that we have only a set number of breaths available in one lifetime, so it’s well worth learning to deepen and lengthen the breath to increase our life span.

The breath provides us with what we need, which is prana – life force, and it gets rid of what we don’t need – toxins.

The ‘rishis’ – the seers of ancient times – already recognized that our breathing changes and adapts to our needs according to our physical activity. Even more interestingly, it changes according to our emotional and mental state as well. Just think about how you are breathing when you are feeling flat or depressed as opposed to when you are angry or excited, inspired or focused.

Our yoga practice encourages us to take charge of our physical, emotional and mental well-being by turning the cause and effect relationship around, to influence our state of being by using certain breathing patterns, according to our needs.

Why yoga, and especially the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga system is so powerful, is that through the linking of movement to breath with mental focus, we are able to free up energy blockages in our muscles, joints, organs etc. which brings about health and well-being.

But how to breathe properly?

Gregor Maehle gives an excellent explanation of the advantages of chest breathing over abdominal breathing in his first book ‘Ashtanga Yoga – Practice & Philosophy’ (p.10). He basically describes that sitting in a ‘couch potatoe’-kind of way weakens our abdominal muscles; therefore our back muscles are unable to erect our spine sufficiently, nor open our chest to use our full lung capacity. During every ‘healthy’ breath we take, our intercostals (the muscles between our ribs) assist in expanding our chest more fully – therefore they need to be flexible and strong. Then the lungs inflate and contract more efficiently, which gives our heart a massage during each inhalation, as it is located between the lungs. This greatly assists in preventing any cardio-pulmonary diseases, and provides us with a lot of energy. So when we were small, the adults who reprimanded us when we were slouching, and told us to correct our posture, seem to have had a very valuable point!

When standing tall, we automatically experience a gentle toning of our abdominal muscles, which then translates into our Uddiyana Bandha during asana practice.

Richard Freeman, a beautiful, wise, and amazingly knowledgeable Ashtanga teacher, one of the fist to practice with Guruji – Sri K Pattabhi Jois – explains that ‘the mind and the inner breath swim together like two fish in tandem’. This is one of the reasons why mindful practice linked with breath, is so much more effective than simple exercise.

Once we have become intimate friends with our breath, and have started to recognize its movement throughout our body, we will understand how longer exhalations calm us, and longer inhalations invigorate us. Then we might like to explore the more advanced practices of pranayama, the so-called ‘kumbhakas’ or breath retentions. They have an exponentially greater effect on our system than simple inhalations and exhalations. Their quality greatly differs if held after the inhalation or after the exhalation.

The breath is available to us anywhere and anytime, as a tool to focus on or meditate upon, until we die. We can use it beautifully to enliven us, calm us, heal us, and with dedication, to bring us to a state of ecstasy. Let’s take advantage of this wonderful gift, and learn how to continuously pay attention to it.

For the next week or so – as an exercise – find out exactly how you are breathing during certain activities e.g. when lying down, walking, climbing stairs, defecating etc. Do you drink before, during or after your inhalation or exhalation? How does the quality of your breath change in your asana practice from day to day? You’ll be surprised at what you do with your breath when going through daily life.

A great inspiration to me in getting to know my own breath like a very close friend, was a passage in TKV Desikachar’s book about his father ‘Health, Healing & Beyond – Yoga and the Living Tradition of Krishnamacharya’. He describes a time when everyone was becoming greatly concerned about Krishnamacharya, when he fell ill in his late nineties, and they were expecting his demise. Krishnamacharya confidently dispelled all their worries by explaining: ‘I am not going to die, I know my breath!’

OM Shanti,