Breath Connects Us All

FOM September 2022

written by Monica Edelstein

“The yogi measures his span of life not by number of days, but of breaths.”
– B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Yoga

I have a history with breathing. When I was younger, I learned to play the flute, which requires controlled diaphragmatic breathing. I also suffered from various types of asthma into adulthood. When I first heard yoga described as moving with the breath, it resonated with me. Wearing a mask during the pandemic increased awareness of my breath and how it changes, flows, and moves with our practice. Ancient yoga wisdom as well as contemporary science tell us that breathing slowly and deeply is the gateway to mental tranquility. In our yoga practices, breath carries prana (vital energy) and expands our access to the physical poses. With every breath, we exchange life giving elements with trees and plants. Each inhalation introduces us to air molecules as old as the Earth itself. We breathe the same air as the sages of long ago, as one another. Breath connects us all.

Our breathing reflects our state of mind. The rhythm and quality of our breath changes when we laugh, cry, sing, worry, sleep. Contemporary science tells us that slow, deep breathing, especially with an elongated exhalation, activates the parasympathetic nervous system in charge of our “rest and digest” mode. We feel calm and relaxed. Breath and mind work in tandem. In yogic philosophy, the breath, mind, and life energy (prana) are all connected. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali tells us that through regulation of the breath, the mind becomes tranquil (YS I:34). When we focus on the breath, the mind cannot turn to other thoughts, and the fluctuations (vrittis) of the mind cease. He goes on to say that with certain forms of breathing, the veil that obscures the truth lifts, and we become aware of our true selves (YS II:52). Our minds, wills, and desires are all connected to how we breathe.

Most of the time we don’t think about the breath; it happens automatically. Unlike the beat of our hearts, though, we can choose to control the rhythm of our breath. In yoga, breathing practices are called pranayama. This comes from two Sanskrit words: Prana is the essential energy that exists in all things. It animates us and is often described as the life force or vital energy. The movements of our breath are manifestations of this energy. Prana is also connected to the mind. As Iyengar writes in Light on Life, “Prana is special because it carries awareness. It is the vehicle of consciousness.” Yama means control or regulation. We are able to direct and control prana by modifying our breathing patterns. When we work with the breath, we make the unconscious conscious and tap into life-giving energy. In Yoga of the Subtle Body, Tias Little compares the relationship of mind and breath to that of a leaf floating on a river. If we expand this analogy, we can think of prana as the force or energy that creates movement and flow in the river itself. Prana is animating energy and found in all things, living and nonliving. We cannot see prana directly, but we can observe and experience its effects just as we can wade into a flowing river. We can change the course of the river by building levees, dams, and pumping systems. Similarly, we can modify the flow of prana by practicing yoga poses that develop the strength, structure, and stability needed to contain and direct prana and by bringing conscious changes to the way we inhale and exhale. Just as we can generate power through the control of river water, we can generate and send prana via the regulation of our breath, directing it through the many energy centers (chakras) and channels (nadis) throughout the body.

Pranayama practices vary in intensity and complexity. Some are widely accessible and beneficial to all, while others (or aspects of others like breath retention or bandha activation) may be contraindicated or need to be modified for certain conditions, like high blood pressure or pregnancy. Consulting a teacher is a good idea if you have any concerns. When performed properly, we feel calm, energized, maybe even blissful. Becoming more aware of our breathing patterns is generally beneficial, as is learning to breathe through the nose and to use diaphragmatic or “belly” breathing. These help us to expand the way we use our lung capacity. As a chronic allergy sufferer, I know how difficult it can be to breathe through the nose sometimes. Be gentle with your breathing practice if you experience nasal constriction or congestion–don’t force it. Open your mouth slightly if you need to. I have found that through consistent, gentle attempts to breathe through my nose (both inhalation and exhalation), my ability to do so has increased significantly over time.

By deepening the breath, we can expand the capacity of our lungs, diaphragm, and rib cage. Focus on breathing from the lower abdomen rather than only the upper chest. Tias Little tells us that when we direct breath to lower lungs we engage earth and water elements, which settle and deepen our respiratory rhythms. Nerves that stimulate the parasympathetic response are also located here. Remember that the rib cage expands circumferentially–not just up and down, forward and back, but also sideways. In the practice called “Three-Part Breath” we breathe into the lower abdomen, feel and observe the air rising and expanding through the rib cage, and then through the upper chest. We learn to use our lungs more fully.

The pranayama practice called sama vritti means “equal fluctuation.” This is often expressed in terms of an even duration of time for the inhalation and exhalation. We can create evenness in the quality, motion, and feeling of the breath, as well. We can observe the quality of our breath and how it changes depending on day, time, mood, activity. Practice generating an even quality in the inhalations and exhalations so the diaphragm rises and falls with a feeling of freedom, and the inhalations and exhalations become smoother and more fluid. As we work with our breath, we work with prana and mind as well, expanding our capacity and exploring equanimity in multiple dimensions.

To understand and expand our breathing even more, we can try pausing at the end of our exhalation to see if another sip of air can be released. Full exhalations create more space for the lungs to accept fresh air when we inhale. Similarly, try pausing after an inhalation and see if more air can be received. Be gentle as you engage in these practices. Focus on observing and slowly increasing capacity rather than trying to force anything. If you feel uncomfortable holding the breath, or find yourself rushing to the next inhale, soften your practice. I was surprised the first time I tried these practices, and for a while it seemed as though with each inhalation I might go on filling my lungs indefinitely and with each exhalation there was more and more to let go of. You might find you have more capacity than you’d realized.

The ujjayi breath, where the back of the throat is gently constricted to make the breath audible, can be used to bring greater awareness to the breath, focus the mind, and maintain energy during our practice. Whether we’re in a flow, alignment, or restorative class, breath is the key to unlocking energy pathways and freeing ourselves from cumbersome thought patterns. When we bring our attention to the breath as we move through physical poses, we deepen our experience of the pose. When we inhale, we create space and experience expansion of the body. As we exhale, the body and mind soften as we move inwards physically and mentally.

Both in yoga class and off the mat, we have the ability to tap into our rhythms and patterns of breath. If we find ourselves holding our breath out of anxiety, fear, or discomfort, we can slowly exhale. Perhaps the emotions will release along with the air. If we are excited or exerting ourselves, and the breath becomes overly active or hasty, we can slow our inhalations and give the body time to absorb what it is taking in before asking it to put more out into the world. Each breath we take releases us from our ego-selves and reinvests us in the symbiotic exchanges of life. In the words of B.K.S. Iyengar, “By exhaling you generously give your individual self to the universal world . . .The veil of illusion that shrouds the ‘me’ is lifted.” Tias Little teaches that since the lungs and heart are close to one another anatomically and energetically, pranayama nourishes compassion, as well. Tapping into the breath, we can more deeply observe, feel, experience, and appreciate the life energy in ourselves and the world around us. Breath connects us all.

Additional Resources

So Ham: “So” is said to be the sound of inhalation (even though we are exhaling when we sing it), and “Ham” is the sound of exhalation. If repeated silently as a mantra, try pairing “so” with the inhalation and “ham” with the exhalation.

Om Mani Padme Hum: This mantra is said to awaken compassion.

Practices that I’ve found to be the most universally accessible:

Ujjayi breath: Making the breath audible helps with focus and increases awareness of the breath. This breath also warms the body.

Three-Part Breath: Brings awareness to diaphragmatic breathing and the expansion of the lungs and rib cage.

Sama vritti (without retention): Builds awareness of breathing patterns and breath control.

Nadi Shodhana/Alternate nostril breathing (without retention): Great for opening the left and right nostrils and the Ida and Pingala nadis they connect to. (Since this practice involves touching the nose, it may not always be appropriate in an in-person class depending on the status of the pandemic and the comfort level of the students.)

Cat-Cow: Roll through the spine with the inhalation (Cow) and exhalation (Cat). This builds skill in being able to pair breath with movement and takes the body through gentle spinal extension and flexion in tandem with the movement of the diaphragm. There is also some weight-bearing on the hands, which increases prana and blood flow to the lungs.

Side-bending and extending poses such as Standing Half Moon (bending to the side from Tadasana), Side-angle Pose (Parsvakonasana), Gate Pose (Parighasana), and Revolved Head-to-Knee Pose (Parivritta Janu Sirsasana) increase mobility in the side ribs.

Active backbends like Camel (Ustrasana), Upward-facing Bow/Wheel (Urdhva Dhanurasana), and Fish pose (Matsyasana) open the front body and support the action of inhalation.

Supported backbends also facilitate diaphragmatic breathing and support lung tissue. These can be performed on a bolster: Supported Fish Pose (Supta Matsyasana), Reclined Hero’s Pose (Supta Virasana), Supported Bridge (where the spine is supported by a bolster, and head and shoulders are on the floor).

Forward folds support the action of exhalation and open the hips and hamstrings in preparation for seated pranayama practices: Seated Forward Fold (Paschimottanasana), Head-to-Knee Pose (Janu Sirsasana), Bound-angle Pose (Baddha Konasana), Wide-legged Seated Forward Fold (Upavistha Konasana), Half Lotus Forward Fold (Ardha Padma Paschimottanasana).

In traditional Chinese medicine, the lung meridian begins at the thumb and runs up the inseam of the arm. Poses that involve straight elbows and weight-bearing on the hands create clear channels and increase circulation and the flow of prana to the lungs: Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana), Plank/Upward-Facing Staff Pose (Adho Mukha Dandasana), Side Plank (Vasisthasana), Handstand (Adho Mukha Vrksasana).

Standing forward folds as well as classic inversions like Headstand (Sirsasana) and Shoulderstand (Sarvangasana) are beneficial for the lower lobes of lungs.

From Caesar’s Last Breath by Sam Kean:
“We can capture the world in a single breath.”

From Light on Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar:
“The yogi measures his span of life not by number of days, but of breaths.”

From Light on Life by B.K.S. Iyengar:
“For the Inward Journey, we will need a lot of energy, and a very subtle, high-quality energy too. This never-ending exploration, occupation, and illumination requires the special energy of prana. Prana is special because it carries awareness. It is the vehicle of consciousness.”

“By exhaling you generously give your individual self to the universal world . . .The veil of illusion that shrouds the ‘me’ is lifted.”

“Because breath is life, the art of judicious, thoughtful, ungreedy breathing is a prayer of gratitude we offer to life itself.”

“If the mind descends, and it is the heart that is predominant, you are doing true, humble pranayama.”

“It is because of the possibilities that exist in the relationship between prana and citta (consciousness) that the great yogi Svatmarama in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika concludes that the breath is the key to ultimate emancipation.”

From Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras as translated by Barbara Stoler Miller in Yoga: Discipline of Freedom:
“Tranquility of thought comes through the cultivation of friendship, compassion, joy, and impartiality in spheres of pleasure or pain, virtue or vice. Or through the measured exhalation and retention of breath.” (YS I:33-34)

“When the posture of yoga is steady, then breath is controlled by regulation of the course of exhalation and inhalation.” (YS II:49)

“A fourth type of breath control goes beyond the range of exhalation and inhalation. Then the cover over the light of truth dissolves.” (YS II:51-52)

From Yoga of the Subtle Body by Tias Little:
“The diaphragm is the centerpiece of the body whose movement sparks life into every fiber, cell, and synapse.”

“When the mind suspends on the current of breath like a leaf bobbing in the current and when we follow our breath without distraction, a sense of deep calm prevails.”

“The heart-lung chakra is heralded for being the epicenter of devotional feeling. This feeling, called bhava in Sanskrit, includes sentiment of tenderness and love. It is a state where empathy and kindness flourish, in part due to a genuine capacity to feel suffering, both personal suffering and the pain of all sentient beings.”