Yoga, Breath Awareness and Pranayama

Uncontrolled, habitual breathing is how we usually breathe, without influencing or exercising any conscious control over our breath.  Breathing itself, in biological terms, is our method of gaseous exchange, also referred to as respiration.  It is how our body expels carbon dioxide and takes in its vital supply of oxygen, used in every cell of our body – giving energy to muscles and glands and aiding mental processes.  We breathe in and out over 21,600 times a day throughout our daily routine and in our sleep.  Although there are times when we choose to voluntarily alter our breath, for example when blowing out the candles on a birthday cake, taking a large breath in before holding the breath when swimming under water or in controlled breathing exercises such as pranayama in yoga, on the whole our breath is involuntary or uncontrolled. 

The mechanics of breathingThe impact of breathing on health and of health on breathing 

‘The rate and depth of breathing can be consciously modified.  However, the underlying need to breathe is controlled by an area of the brain where responses to regulate the breathing muscles occur according to the levels of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the blood.’ (The Concise Human Body Book, p.168)   We breathe, to survive, without thinking about it.  Our breath will change automatically in response to a stimulus in order to control and regulate our body’s levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide.  For example, during exercise our breath will become deeper and more rapid as an automatic response to the increased use of oxygen by the muscles. 

Air enters the body through the nostrils.  It travels through the nasal cavity, the pharynx (throat), the larynx (voice box) which links to the trachea (wind pipe) and on to the bronchi (the two tubes leading to the lungs).  The bronchi then divide into smaller branches.  The smallest are the bronchioles which end in microscopic sacs, called the alveoli, where gaseous exchange occurs by diffusion (flow from high to low density).  Flow of air into and out of the lungs is generated by differences in pressure which is caused by the diaphragm and intercostal muscles contracting (thus decreasing the air pressure in the lungs and causing the body to draw air in) and relaxing (a passive action which expels air from the body again as we breathe out). 

‘The breath is the most vital process of the body….Rhythmic, deep and slow respiration stimulates and is stimulated by calm, content states of mind.’ (APMB - Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha p.373)  Yet, most people do not breathe efficiently.  In describing habitual breathing I have deliberately not used the word natural as most of us do not breathe deeply and rhythmically as an infant, in a calm state or in sleep, would.  We have got into bad habits!  Most people only use a fraction of their lung capacity in uncontrolled habitual breathing.  This shallow breathing deprives the body of oxygen and vital energy or life force (prana).  Insufficient oxygen can lead to general fatigue and lethargy.  Shallow breathing can cause residual toxins to remain in the body as stale air is not fully expelled.  This build negatively impacts on our body’s ability to create healthy cells leading to reduced resistance to disease.  Our uncontrolled habitual breathing may also be irregular.  According to Swami Satyananda Saraswati (APMB) irregular breathing disrupts the rhythm of the brain causing physical, emotional and mental blocks, a state of imbalance and disease.  Conversely, she asserts that established regular breathing breaks this negative cycle.  Therefore, instead of breathing to survive, we can breathe to thrive.  Our breath can positively or negatively affect our health.

So what has an impact on how we breathe?  What are the barriers to efficient intake of breath?

Minor health issues, such as nasal congestion or restriction, caused by a cold virus or mild allergies can affect the passage of air through the nose.  These common ailments may cause us, temporarily, to breathe through our mouth which is less efficient as the nasal passages warm, moisten and filter the air which enters our bodies.  Nasal breathing has great benefits to health as the passage of air through the nostrils stimulates nerves which work on energy channels and receptors of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, helping to keep them balanced.  Breathing through the mouth also reinforces hyperventilation thus causing the problems associated with shallow breathing as discussed earlier.  Another common cause of hyperventilation is stress.  When we are anxious we tend to take shallow breaths and breathe at a faster rate. Hyperventilation reduces oxygen to the brain. (1 minute of hyperventilating can decrease the oxygen to the brain by 40%)  Also, prolonged periods of stress can cause restrictions due to tight muscles thus reducing the efficiency of our breath.  Muscular tension in the abdomen restricts the natural movement of the diaphragm and tension in the chest or throat prevents muscles from softening fully to allow the diaphragm to take the main effort of the breath.  Obesity can also have an impact on the movement of these muscles and the ribcage.  Asthma is an increasingly common health issue which can be caused by allergies to some food types, pollen, dust, pollution and pet hair. This condition causes obstruction or narrowing of the airways to the lungs and can be serious. 

Our lung capacity may also be affected by other serious health problems such as pneumonia, where the tiny sacs in our lungs (alveoli) fill with mucus and fluid and inhibit gaseous exchange.  This has an impact on the functions of the whole body.  Smoking has an extremely negative effect on efficient breathing as the toxic substances contained in tobacco can damage or eradicate the millions of cilia lining the airway which causes stagnant mucus and inhaled debris to build up.  This can lead to bronchitis and emphysema which also have a debilitating effect on the whole body in addition to the increased risk of Cancer of the lungs or throat, which smoking brings.

Poor posture such as stooping, which may be more common as we age, can restrict the expansion of our chest and lungs as we breathe.  Breathing can also be, temporarily, affected by physical changes in our body, for example by pregnancy which can cause restricted lung capacity as the baby grows and the uterus expands.  This is certainly something I experienced during the latter stages of my pregnancies which added to my fatigue.  I was very aware of needing to breathe more heavily during activities, which would not normally affect me, such as climbing the stairs. 

By having awareness of our breath; of the most efficient way to breathe and of the obstacles to efficient breathing, we can aid our health and the quality and longevity of our life.  This awareness should bring improved habits.  

What is 'Conscious, Controlled Breathing'? 

In ‘conscious, controlled breathing’ the breath changes from unconscious to conscious and becomes more regular.  We can take control of our breath by choosing to switch from automatic mode.  We can choose to alter the speed and length of each breath.  This is important because; just as our physical and emotional state has an impact on the breath, so our breath can have an impact on our physical and emotional state.  ‘The quality of our breath influences our state of mind and vice-versa.’  (The Heart of Yoga, Desikachar)

 One aim of ‘conscious, controlled breathing’ is to optimize our physiological functions by increasing our breathing capacity.  Through yoga; using postures movement and breathing techniques it is possible to increase our breathing capacity and thus our physical and mental health and energy levels.  Breath control is one of the tools of yoga which help to achieve its goal of orientation, clarity and stability of the mind (YS 1.2) 

By strengthening and flexing the muscles around the lungs we can increase our lung capacity and therefore improve our breath intake and the efficiency of gaseous exchange which takes place.  Our intake of prana will also increase and this will lead to increased energy levels and well-being.  Yoga asanas provide physical preparation for controlled breathing techniques; allowing us to absorb the benefits of improved breathing capacity and improved breathing enhances performance of asana .  Yet, physical fitness is only one half of general wellbeing.  Controlled breathing also improves our psychological and mental health.  By controlling our breath properly we can reach a calmer state and enjoy reduced stress and increased clarity and stability of mind.

In his book ‘The Heart of Yoga’, Desikachar refers to the powerful influences of the mind on the breath; our breath quickens when we are excited, it becomes quieter and deeper in relaxation.  This relationship works in two directions; we can influence the body, its systems, and also the mind, by controlling our breath.  Conscious, controlled breathing is sometimes referred to as ‘the complete yogic breath’; it is enhanced by increased lung capacity and is a prerequisite for efficient pranayama.

Desikachar makes several practical recommendations to help with conscious control of the breath, as follows:

·         To consciously link the breath with the movement of the body, by allowing every movement in asana practise to be led by the breath.

·         Aim to make both the inhalation and the exhalation of the breath fuller and deeper than it would normally be by consciously expanding and contracting the chest and abdomen.

·         Narrow the throat to reduce the flow of breath and make a sound as we breathe in and out (Ujjayi breathing).

·         Lengthen the natural pause between inhalation and exhalation.


In ‘Pranayama,’ inhalation, exhalation and retention within asana, or a sequence of postures, are under conscious control and take on a more regular pattern.  Breath becomes more subtle and each breath becomes longer in duration.  There are various techniques which can help to attain this level of breathing but it is important to build up to this level slowly and deliberately, as pranayama can be very stimulating emotionally.

By including work on the breath within my yoga lessons I aim to allow students to maximise the benefit they receive from yoga, in terms of relaxation and stress relief as well as health and well -being.  The role of breathing in yoga practice is vital.   As David Coulter puts it,

“Think of your body as a musical instrument, a wind instrument.  Your breath, accordingly, is the wind through the instrument.  As such, it is the single most important aspect of yoga technique.” 

What is Pranayama? 

“Pranayama is the conscious, deliberate regulation of the breath replacing unconscious patterns of breathing.  It is possible only after a reasonable mastery of asana practice.”

“It involves the regulation of the exhalation, the inhalation, and the suspension of the breath.  The breath transcends the level of consciousness.”

Patanjalis yoga sutras (Heart of Yoga) Chapter 2 Verse 49 and 57

In ‘Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha’ Pranayama is described as “A series of techniques which stimulate and increase the vital energy, ultimately bringing about perfect control over the flow of prana within the body.”

In the 'Hatha Yoga Pradipika' Swami Muktibodhananda asserts that, while Pranayama is often described as Prana yama – control of the breath, it should, more accurately, be described as Prana ayama – pranic capacity or length.  Patanjali defines pranayama as the gap between inhalation and exhalation. Retention of the breath (kumbhaka) is of key importance in pranayama.  Breath retention allows increased time for the body to exchange gases within the cells and also for pranic assimilation as breathing is a means of absorbing prana.  Kumbhaka arouses the inherent potential in the higher regions of the brain. In pranayama there are four aspects to the breath; Pooraka (inhalation) Rechaka (exhalation), Antara kumbhaka (internal breath retention) and bahir kumbhaka (external breath retention) As well as developing breath retention we must also build awareness of and have influence over the manner in which we breathe.  Pranic vibrations which influence our being are triggered by our breath and alter with our changing breath.  Through Pranayama, prana within the body is activated to a higher frequency.

What is the purpose of Pranayama?

During pranayama practice, the spine, neck and head should be upright and centred;  and the body relaxed.

Through pranayama we can influence the flow of prana within us.  As Desikachar asserts in ‘The Heart of Yoga’, “Our state of mind is closely linked to the quality of prana within…..Just as the activities of the mind influence the breath, so does the breath influence our state of mind.  Our intention as we work with the breath is to regulate it so as to calm and focus the mind for meditation. ….  Pranayama is conscious breathing.” (Heart of Yoga p.59)

 He goes on to describe how those who are sick, restless, troubled or confused have more prana outside the body than within which can lead to depression and listlessness.  Pranayama can prevent this loss of prana.

“Whatever happens in the mind influences the breath: the breath becomes quicker when we are excited and deeper and quieter when we relax.  In order to influence our prana we must be able to influence the mind.  Our actions often disturb the mind, causing prana to exude from the body.  Through daily pranayama practice we reverse this process, as a change in the breathing pattern influences the mind.” (Heart of Yoga p.55)

In the yoga sutras it is said that pranayama provides clarity of mind as it “reduces the obstacles that inhibit clear perception” and prepares the mind “for the process of direction toward a chosen goal.”

The ultimate aim of pranayama is to provide stillness of mind. APMB refers to mastering the mind through kumbhaka (breath retention) which controls prana.  Various pranayamas also provide;

  •      Balance of left and right brain activity, sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems and of spiritual energy (Nadi shodhana pranayama)

  •      Draw awareness inwards while increasing pranic capacity (Sheetali, Seetkari, Ujjayi, Bhramari and Chandra Bheda Pranayama)

  •      Arouse body and mind – creating alertness and vitality (Bhastrika, Kapalabhati and Surya Bheda Pranayama). 

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika recommends that pranayama is done daily for 'purification.' In chapter 2 verse 2 it further states; “By becoming aware of the nature of the breath and by restraining it, the whole system becomes controlled.  When you retain the breath you are stopping nervous impulses in different parts of the body and harmonizing the brain wave patterns.  In pranayama, it is the duration of breath retention which has to be increased.  The longer the breath is held, the greater the gap between nervous impulses and their responses in the brain.  When retention is held for a prolonged period, mental agitation is curtailed….. By concentrating on the breath one can still the mind, develop one-pointedness and gain entry into the deeper realms of the mind and consciousness.”

There are some general precautions which apply to the practice of any pranayama as follows:

  •      Breath retention is not recommended for those who suffer from high blood pressure, a heart condition, an ear or eye condition, or during pregnancy

  •      Asana practice is not advisable following pranayama due to the effect that pranayama has on the heart (temporary increase in size)

  •      Pranayama should only be performed after gaining a good grounding in Yama, Niyama and Asana

  •      Pranayama should only be practised on an empty stomach and it is recommended that at least half an hour is left     after pranayama before eating again

  •       Pranayama should only be practised following proper guidance

  •       During practice, the mind should be sattvic (steady and aware)

  •       Pranayama should be taken at a steady pace and balanced with other yoga practice

  •      Breath should never be forced; movement of breath should be minimised whilst duration should be maximised.  Breath should not be retained for longer than is comfortable


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