Relearning to Breathe through Yoga

To breathe, is the most natural thing in the world – or so they say. Years ago, watching my baby boy sleeping, I would watch him breathe in what seemed like a whole body activity. His belly expanded like a balloon when he breathed in and his belly pushed downward completely emptying itself as he exhaled.  When I watched him breathe in this way, I felt my whole body relax. There was nothing as beautiful as watching him sleep. 

In my yoga classes, I notice the many ways we have interrupted what are supposed to be the most natural things in the world. The most noteworthy is breathing. One particular experience stands out to me. A woman comes in for a private session. Her husband has recently died, and her body is full of tension, exhaustion and grief.  When we work on the mat together, I notice that she is barely breathing.  Her tension is so deep and has been so constant, she is almost holding her breath.  So, we sit there breathing together. We close our lips and breathe in through the nose and out through the nose.  Repeating until the tension leaves her body.

When I tried to breathe in this way in my first yoga class I almost passed out from lack of oxygen. Athletes are notorious mouth breathers, and I needed some practice. When the instructor asked me to tune into my breathing, the effort seemed enormous. I would try to control my breath which caused me to come close to hyperventilating. It’s been fourteen years of yoga, and I feel it’s taken this long to relearn what I did so naturally on the day I was born.

In yoga we learn Pranaya, a way of breathing that brings breath into different parts of our body. It teaches us to expand from the belly and drive breath into the deepest parts of ourselves.  Sometimes we notice where the breath is stuck, where the body has stopped moving and breathing freely to.

Once we begin to understand how important breath is to our wellbeing, we can start to use it to our advantage. Once we understand how we stop breathing when we are stressed, how we breathe fast when we are excited or scared, and how we exhale longer when we become relaxed, we can use breath to influence our mental and physical states. I guess I knew this intuitively as an athlete.  If I was feeling flat before a race, I would breathe in short and fast to bring up my activation level. If I found myself not being able to harness the butterflies, I would breathe slow and long. 

Now I understand how breath affects our nervous system and how slow deep breathing activates our parasympathetic nervous system to help promote calmness and restore equilibrium. Years of studying yoga has changed my relationship with breath – and once you become aware, you can never go back. So next time somebody tells you to take a deep breath, accept their advice. Take a moment, smile, exhale that tension and let your body do the most natural thing in the world.