To the uninitiated, yoga may seem like little more than a way to contort the body into unnatural poses. But in actuality, the poses are just a very small aspect of what is essentially a full-spectrum spiritual practice. Breathing is the key component, and asana, or poses, represent only a single fraction of the whole piece that is yoga. Breath awareness is called pranayama.
The very meaning of the word yoga is "to yoke, to bring together into union." The practice of yoga is about the blending of opposites, and the achievement of unity of body and mind via the combination of effort and surrender.
In many yogic texts yoga is said to restrain fluctuations of the mind.Yoga practitioners learn to still their minds and stretch their bodies through a blend of perseverance and non-attachment. This allows for internal transformation and connection to be experienced.
Although many modern advertisements depict yoga with fashion models putting their bodies into complicated handstands, the practice is a very old one which has offered wisdom and supported the human race for thousands of years. Within that wisdom is a very potent secret: breathing.
Asana practice or doing the poses is really a means to an end. The reason we move the body in every possible direction with a combination of moves is so that we can connect with and open our channels of energy. The more open these channels are, the stronger our cells and organs are, and the better our overall health and well-being will be.
Opening the energy channels also increases the amount of prana or vital life force energy that is flowing through our bodies. It is prana that is the most important part of the physical practice of yoga, and not so much the poses themselves. The deep, intentional breathing which accompanies the poses removes energetic blockages and serves to purify the body, increasing prana flow.
But it’s important to note that not all breathing increases prana. For example, shallow, short, chest breaths actually trigger the body’s stress response, and actually deplete energy. But when you breathe deeply and with your full body, you can enter the flow, open energy channels and increase prana.
Most of us are enmeshed in our busy lives, too stiff and fixed mentally and physically for only deep breathing to have any positive effect. This is where asana comes in. The physical movement of the asansa breaks this stiffness and makes us more flexible, which allows for the flow of energy through the entire body. Each physical movement in the asana is intended for the purpose of supporting the movement of energy through the body.
One can practice as many yoga poses. But if deep breathing isn’t taking place, the practice will not benefit the body. Breathing is what causes the movement of energy and what helps the body relax. An already-stiff body that tries to shape itself into different poses will only injure itself. But when we breathe deeply, we open ourselves to feel more emotions, as well as synchs us in tune with what’s happening in our bodies. Breathing deeply in yoga actually helps avoid injury.
Deep breathing also allows us to experience our true essence. The flow that the steady in and out action of breathing creates stimulates a transformation in the body and mind, purifying and cleansing them so that our true essence shines forth. Circulation is increased, hormonal balance is cultivated, the organs are regenerated and the nervous system is pacified.
Yoga is intended to be far more than just a good physical workout. Breathing deeply allows us to access our transformative power. It opens us up to yoga’s ability to rejuvenate and refines our minds and bodies. Finally, deep breathing helps us find our way to unity.
Benefits of yogic breathing include:
Reduced stress, anxiety, and depression
Increased calm and relaxation
Lowers cortisol in the body
Stabilizes and lowers blood pressure
Aids with insomnia and sleeplessness
Improves core strength
Expels carbon dioxide and increases oxygen
Helps manage irritable bowel syndrome
To summarise - practicing deep yogic breathing through the nose, whether on the mat in a flow practice, meditating, or just to chill out at your desk, brings with it a myriad of benefits to the body and mind. One of the things we love about yogic breathing is exactly what we love about the practice of yoga in general: it benefits everybody and is available to everyone, right now.