Because our breathing happens whether we notice it or not, it’s easy to overlook the amazing power that the breath has to transform and change our lives. Our physical bodies depend on the breath, as each in-breath delivers new oxygen into the body and is the catalyst for kick-starting the metabolic processes that are vital in transforming nutrients into energy to help keep our body's systems operating at peak efficiency. Equally important is the out-breath which eliminates carbon dioxides and other wastes. Like so many things in the universe (light and dark, heat and cold, dry and wet, good and evil), one thing cannot exist without its opposite; and the breath, with its inhales and exhales, is no different.
Have you noticed that taking just a few deep conscious breaths intensifies your awareness? Or that a longer, deeper inhale followed by a long open-mouthed exhale with an audible “haaaaaaa” sound is a wonderful tool for releasing tension? Taking the time to actively improve and upgrade the quality of your breath can ameliorate the health and well being of each living cell in your body. And the best part is that this tool is ALWAYS with you.
Modern healthcare is proving what yogis have long known: that breath is intimately tied to health; and to the many ways we measure health. Examples include blood pressure, heart rates, and emotional states, all of which can be controlled by HOW you choose to breathe. The quality of your breath and the depth of your breath are intimately tied to your autonomic nervous system. The more shallow your breath (from the top of the chest/bottom of the throat up) the more the sympathetic branch of the nervous system is stimulated. This type of breath activates our “fight or flight response” and increases a gradual but steady chemical dump of stress hormones, adrenaline and lactic acid into our bloodstreams. When the sympathetic branch is dominant, our unconscious mind will not feel safe and relaxed enough to fully digest and assimilate the nutrients in our food. We may also have difficulty finding deep and continued sleep - which is when the body does its best healing. Repeated shallow breathing can also reek havoc on the functioning of our reproductive organs and dampen our sexual appetite. In some circles, sustained "fight or flight" breathing is known as "death breath" - or breathing just enough to keep yourself alive. Unfortunately, this is how many people tend to breathe - at least until they become yogis or adopt a routine of practicing mindful breathing techniques. Unless we make time to breathe slowly and deliberately, we never will. And unless we practice breathing slowly and calmly, we can never see it become an unconscious habit.
On the other hand, deeper and more controlled breathing - yogic breathing - engages the parasympathetic elements of the nervous system, thus in turn generating the opposite - the "relaxation response" - decreasing stress chemicals, calming, healing, nourishing, and relaxing the body. These correlations between breath and bodily health markers are so substantial, scientists are re-confirming ancient yogic wisdom that it is no longer the heart that is the prime mover of the bodily health, but rather the lungs and the quality of the breaths we breathe.
For these reasons, it is easy to see why learning to form a strong bond with - and control over - your breath is important to your overall physical and mental health. Consciously and deliberately practicing your breathing skills on your yoga mat will eventually make its way off your mat into your regular, everyday life. Thus, your breathing can become calm, liberated, and natural; and in a very real sense, each calm breath you take will get you one step closer to better health.