The importance of the breath
So long as the (breathing) air stays in the body, it is called life. Death consists in the passing out of the (breathing) air. It is, therefore, necessary to restrain the breath. (Hatha Yoga Pradipika II.3.)
Breathing keeps us alive
We all breathe. But – are we aware that we are breathing?
We tend not to pay attention to our breathing unless we find ourselves short of breath for some reason, perhaps during physical exercise or when ill. However, it is the breath that keeps us alive. If we do not breathe, our bodily organs cannot function well.
Breathing is normally automatic, but if we pay a little attention to our breath we can control it and learn to extend the capacity of our lungs and so improve our physical and mental health. Yoga offers us many breathing exercises, called pranayama, that can improve our health and help us stay serene and calm in any situation.
Sit comfortably – on a chair or on the floor in any of the yoguic poses you have learnt – and observe your breath. Observe the air as it enters the nostrils; observe the speed and rhythm of your breath; try to lengthen the out-breath a little and deepen the in-breath and try not to move your shoulders. Take five breaths like that and then rest. Repeat this exercise three times.
How many breaths do you take per minute?
15 to 18 breaths a minute is normal. Tortoises breathe three times a minute and live . . . some say 300 years or more. How long do we humans live?
According to yoguic teachings, the slower the breath, the longer we will live. But it’s not a matter of living as long as the tortoise; the important thing is to live well and be healthy.
The most important muscle for breathing is the diaphragm; it’s a transversal muscle that separates the thorax from the abdomen, that is, it divides the trunk into two spaces. We’re not normally aware of the movement of the diaphragm until we get the hiccups!
When the diaphragm moves up, it pushes the air out of the lungs; when it moves down, it creates a space, a void, and so air rushes into the lungs to fill this space.
You can see this movement in the clips:
You’ll see that the diaphragm exerts pressure on the abdominal organs and on the heart and lungs so stimulating these organs and giving them vitality.
When we breathe consciously, we enlarge the space inside the ribs, creating more space for the lungs and the heart so they can function more comfortably. I’ll say more about that some other time but for now I invite you to do another pranayama, or breathing, exercise. Remember that when we do pranayama exercises we have to listen to our body and we must never overdo it. When we breathe more deeply we inhale more air, more oxygen, and because we are not used to so much oxygen, we may feel dizzy. If this happens, don’t worry, return to normal breathing immediately. After a moment, you can try again.
Sit comfortably with a straight back so that you create more space in the whole body.
Do each part of this exercise for a few minutes.
* i. Observe your breath, observe your body. Is any part of your body moving?
* ii. Try to visualize your diaphragm. Imagine it. Imagine how it moves up when you exhale and down when you inhale. Try not to move your shoulders! See how your abdomen moves in and out.
* iii. Place your hands on your ribs, right below your armpits; on your in-breath push your hands away with your breath; feel how the ribs open to the sides as the diaphragm moves down.
* iv. After five breaths return to normal breathing. Repeat this exercise 3 times. When you get used to this deeper breathing you can do more repetitions.