The respiratory system is unique in that it is both involuntary (something that occurs without conscious thought) and voluntary (something that we can control by lengthening, shortening or holding the breath). In yoga the control of the breath is known as pranayama.
Our breath is synonymous with our life. Life enters with first inhalation and leaves with final exhalation. Breath serves as an extension of the prana, or life force, as it moves in the body. This gentle rhythm is our constant companion.
When we are born our breath is full, flowing and uninhibited. It is a whole body experience. This happens as the pelvic floor expands and descends on inhalations and contracts and lifts on exhalations. The collarbone lifts and rolls upward on inhalation and descends on exhalation. The upper arms externally rotate on inhalation and internally rotate on exhalation.
Most people do not fully utilize their breath, compromising their physical and emotional health. The first step to remedy this is breath awareness, simply observing the breath. Is it erratic, short, long, or shallow? Can you maintain focus on the breath or are you easily distracted?
The breath rejuvenates the body, allowing oxygen into the blood stream to bathe each cell with its life-giving force. Internal organs, all the body systems, the brain, etc., all require oxygen to perform their proper function.
By learning to control our breathing, we can influence our emotional state, our ability to concentrate and the way energy moves in our bodies. Breathing exercises develop the ability to calm and control the breath, allowing us to focus the mind and manage emotions.
Pranayama practice strengthens all of the muscles involved in breathing and helps to expand the capacity of the lungs.
Most of us breathe very shallowly into the lungs and don’t give much thought to how we breathe. Yoga breathing exercises focus the attention on the breath and teach us how to better use our lungs, which benefits the entire body. Certain types of breathing exercises can also help clear the nasal passages and even calm the central nervous system, which has both physical and mental benefits.