When most people think about yoga, they think about the connection of movement and breath. But why is that so important?
We all breathe. It is the first thing and last thing we will do in our lives, and literally every moment in between, we are breathing. Breath is linked to life itself. So why is it important to learn about, become conscious of and train our breathing when it will just continue anyway?
Connection of breath to nervous system/stress
Breathing is both a conscious and unconscious activity. In that way it is both a participant and an agent of the autonomic nervous system, which controls the aspects of our bodily functions beyond our conscious control. The autonomic nervous system has two aspects, the sympathetic nervous system, our flight/ fight or freeze response which prepares us for activity, and the parasympathetic, which is responsible for our rest and digest states.
A faster breath is both symptom and cause of the sympathetic nervous system. So, by slowing down the breath, and dropping into the parasympathetic nervous system, we receive the benefits, both immediate and long term, of reduced stress including the good feeling of relaxation, better sleep, digestion, creativity and reflection.
Correlation between breathing and health
In the modern world, we operate predominantly in the sympathetic nervous system, often in an overstimulated or stressful way. Some doctors and researchers believe that almost every health issue has a stress related component.
There is growing scientific evidence that specific breath techniques can improve health. This is clear in stress related conditions, like PTSD, but also in other types of disease. In the flight, fight or freeze state, the body prioritizes action over healing, so our immune system function is supressed. Breathing has been shown to affect metabolism, insulin secretion and inflammation, which are all linked to health and disease.
Connection of breath to mindful awareness
Learning to “calm the mind” is one of the hardest, and most fundamental aspects of yoga and meditation. The nature of the mind is to think, so it is obvious how big a challenge this is. Personally, the way I have found to “calm the mind”, is to connect to my feeling sense. It seems that when I am observing feeling, my thoughts have less pull over me (not that they stop!)
Our bodies are designed for efficiency, so when a part of the body is consistent or still, it is more difficult to bring in awareness. But the breath is always moving. As an object of meditation, it can be an access point to awareness of the physical body. The breath also mirrors the emotional state, for example a short, high breath is both cause and effect of anxiety. The act of witnessing and focusing on the qualities of the breath cultivates mindful awareness.