Last Sunday, I completed one of the most physically, mentally, and spiritually arduous days I have ever had. I was soaked in sweat and shaky — both from nerves and exhaustion. I had spent most of the day alternating between praying and chanting, chanting and praying, and now that I was blowing out the candles as dusk settled, I felt a deep sense of accomplishment. I had just completed my yoga teacher training final oral exam and, after months of preparation, had taught my first hatha yoga class. I surveyed the roomful of prone people before me as they meditated in shavasana — corpse pose — and reveled in their relaxation.
This was, I knew, the most important moment of their yoga practice — the ten minutes at the end of class where they do nothing else but breathe, and it was my job to gently guide them here so they could harvest the beautiful fruits they had sown when they arrived on their mats that day.
Breathing is one of life’s few imperatives, but its role in leading a physically healthy, balanced life is often overlooked and even neglected in the literature on truly living well. Yet, when you study Eastern traditions, they show us that breathing is primary in cultivating wellness.
If you look at people who are living well, it seems that they are breathing well too. Thoughtful people will pause for a count before answering an angry email or call — they’ll take a breath and move forward without the irritated reflex that might guide the less reflective. I’ve seen enlightened parents of unruly youngsters close their eyes and take a few deep breaths before facing the most recent disciplinary problem their child has created. These people who pause enjoy less drama, less anger and therefore less stress — and more wellness compared to those who never take a moment to take a breath.
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The world’s great meditators and enlightened masters say that their daily practice of focused, calm breathing is what gives them their unshakable equanimity. They seem ageless, and master meditators have been known to control their involuntary responses through a focus on breathing and calming the mind.
In his book, The Relaxation Response, Dr. Herbert Benson describes an experiment where Tibetan monks were wrapped in wet sheets at temperatures near freezing. The monks could raise their body temperatures to such a degree that the sheets were soon steaming and dry in a situation where most of us would be in danger of hypothermia. They explained they were able to do this by simply focusing on their breathing.
Wow — It seems that being a breathing expert can literally save your life in a situation where a mere mortal would shrivel and perish. What a powerful glimpse into what the breath can do.
Luckily, some of this excellent Eastern wellness has made its way West, largely in the form of ubiquitous yoga studios. A lot of people think yoga is a bit of fancy, organized stretching, but at its heart, yoga teaches us explicitly that the breath is the entry-point to the mind-body connection.
The practice of yoga begins, fundamentally, with synchronizing breaths with movements. A sun salutation always begins with an inhale as you reach your arms up overhead and then an exhale as you swan dive and fold forward and so on throughout— one movement for each breath through the entire sequence. Moving in this way forces you to control your breathing.
Our bodies are infused with what is known as “prana,” or “qi” in eastern traditions. It refers to the “lifeforce” or energy that flows through our bodies along the meridians (or “nadis,” in Sanskrit) which are the various energy pathways that course through our bodies. Yogis aim to access and control prana by controlling the breath and by associating each steady, controlled breath with a particular movement through a specific sequence of poses. The idea is that conscious breathing helps us harness this lifeforce and move it through our bodies in a way that is healing, calming, and hopefully guides us to a deeper sense of awareness. A yoga sequence is specifically designed to move prana through the seven main chakras in a specific order — hopefully to achieve a positive, mind-calming effect.
When I first started practicing yoga over 15 years ago, I admit, I thought it was all about the physical poses, and I didn’t understand how important the breathing was. Sometimes I would even catch myself holding my breath, straining in a pose, until the teacher reminded me to breathe in, and breathe out. Anybody who’s just starting out in a yoga practice has probably had that experience — face turning red, straining to get a pose just right — forgetting to breathe.
There is a saying in India that where the mind goes, the prana follows. We see this in every day life. If our minds are agitated we’ll often breathe heavily. If we’re anxious or stressed we may take shallow, erratic breaths, and it’s a downward spiral from there as the fight or flight response begins to set in. Our prana will be muddled and can disrupt the vital functions of our bodies. Yoga teaches that in the reverse way— if you regulate the breath first, you regulate the mind automatically. If a calm and regulated mind can stave off hypothermia for Tibetan monks, imagine what it can do for the wellness we invite into our own bodies. I’ve learned that my breath is the most accessible pathway to developing an inner tranquility. Whether I’m stepping onto the yoga mat or into a big meeting at work, I know that my prana, my lifeforce, will function to assist me and keep me healthy and centered as long as I remember the one thing I absolutely cannot live without — breathing.