When a baby is in utero, their mother’s placenta is the source of their breath. Oxygen and carbon dioxide flow through the placenta, providing the baby with all they need while still growing in the womb. About ten seconds after birth, the baby takes its first true breath. The central nervous system’s response to the sudden changes creates the sound of a gasp, shining light on the amazing feat the child has just endured through labor.
Breath is a symbol for life. In the medical world, a person’s ability to breathe is of the utmost importance. If there are two individuals in the E.R. waiting room, where one is having a heart attack and the other cannot breathe, the medical staff will triage and tend to the patient gasping for air first. Breathing is the vehicle that drives cellular respiration, fueling our cells with the energy they need for our bodies to function. Every breath we take ignites vitality within us.
“Breath is indispensable for life.” – Krishnamacharya. In yoga, breath is emphasized during both asana and pranayama practices. T.K. Desikachar, a revered yoga teacher, spoke of pranayama at length: “Prana refers to ‘that which is infinitely everywhere.’ With reference to us humans, prana can be described as something that flows continuously from somewhere inside us, filling us and keeping us alive; it is vitality.” (Desikachar, 1995). He described pranayama as a preparation for meditation; a way of linking mind to breath. Though there are many techniques, it’s important to remember that we must not disturb the breath as a whole. If any practice invokes discomfort or inhibits us in any way, we are not in a place for that method at that time.
There are a number of studies showing the benefits of pranayama practice, including improvements in cardiovascular health and increasing Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS) responses (think: rest and digest vs. fight or flight). However, it’s important to note that breathing techniques can also cause anxiousness, and other unwanted ramifications. Pranayama should be introduced slowly and mindfully so that we may listen to our body and mind’s responses to what we’re inviting within us. It should never replace proper medical or psychological care, and you should consult with your doctor if you have any questions or concerns before beginning a pranayama practice.
Finally, I’ll leave you with this. There is no right or wrong way to breathe. We inhale and exhale all day without trying, so you should never feel like you need to change something about your breath to have a great experience with yoga. If and when you are ready to explore unfamiliar ways of breathing, the option will be there for you. And that consent is an ongoing conversation you should have with yourself. If you are practicing a technique and you do not wish to practice anymore, then don’t. Come back to it another time. You always have a choice.
If you head over to Meditate with Me, you’ll find a few free meditation videos I have created, using the breath in mind. More will be added in the months to come, and I’m even thinking of adding a library of pranayama practices. Please let me know if there’s anything else I can add that will be of value to you.