The Power of the Breath: Bridge between Mind and Body
Breathing Is Both Conscious and Unconscious
Focusing on the breath is prominent in the study of yoga and meditation. It seems that I am continually reminding my yoga students to take conscious, mindful breaths as they stretch and move. Often, a student will say to me, "I am forgetting to breathe!" Obviously they're not forgetting to breathe -- they're just not fully conscious of each breath as they take it in.
Breathing is the only function in our bodies that we do both consciously and unconsciously, Without this ability, our lives would be more complicated. Felicity Green, one of my favorite master Iyengar yoga teachers, says that dolphins must always think about each breath that they take. When it is time for rest, they put one half of their brain to sleep and swim in a circle. Later they put the other half of their brain to sleep and swim in the opposite direction!
Advantages of Conscious Breathing
Since we do not have to think about our breath in order for our bodies to function, what are some of the advantages of making our breathing a more conscious process?
1. Improved health
Many illnesses such as irregular heart rhythms, hypertension and disorders of circulation and digestion can be caused or worsened by sustained stress. The body's mobilization to fight, flight or freeze can become a chronic condition in our fast-paced culture.
Spending some time each day in consciously breathing can actually reprogram our bodies, reduce the experience of stress, improve health, and be a powerful intervention for certain illnesses. Because the function of breathing is something we do both voluntarily and involuntarily, it allows us to directly affect the autonomic (involuntary) nervous system.
Slow, sustained, conscious breathing produces different brain wave activity than is present under normal conditions. Herbert Benson, M.D., who first researched this phenomenon, called it the Relaxation Response.
When we focus awareness on our breath and do deep, diaphragmatic or soft-belly breathing, we allow an internal transformation to begin. We become more alive in the present moment and more quiet and tranquil on the inside. In short, we learn to relax, to become the master of our stress.
Try it right now.
Begin to be aware of the gentle inflow and outflow of air in your body. Relax your eyes, your shoulders, and let your tongue drop away from the roof of your mouth. Really notice the feeling of the breath, the physical experience of the breath in your body.
See if you can imagine a small balloon in your belly. As you breathe in, imagine that balloon gently expanding. As you breathe out, allow the balloon to retract. Stay with this soft-belly breathing for a few breaths. Then, as you breathe in, say to yourself the word "Be." As you breathe out, say to yourself the word, "Calm."
What do you notice as a result of your few moments of breath awareness?
2. Deepened experience of the Divine
In many ancient languages, the word for breath has multiple meanings. Prana - the Sanskrit word for breath - also means spirit, life energy, or universal energy. Likewise in Hebrew and in Greek the words for spirit and breath are the same - ruach in Hebrew, pneuma in Greek. In Latin, anima means both breath and soul; spiritus has the dual meaning of breath and spirit. Our English word inspiration also refers to this duality, denoting the act of breathing in as well as becoming inhabited by Spirit.
This lesson in language points to the belief that breath is more than just an exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in our bodies - it is in fact the stirring of the nonphysical essence within us, the movement of spirit in matter. It is my belief that when we consciously breathe, we are also inviting in more of Spirit and expanding our experience and understanding of the Divine.
3. Enhanced self-awareness and self-understanding
In the yogic breathing practice called pranayama we learn to control and harness the patterns of breathing and thus the flow of life energy in the body. By doing so, we can affect the nervous system in powerful and health-giving ways. Through this practice, we can also learn to direct the breath into particular areas of the lungs and expand their capacity to take in more oxygen with each breath.
Patanjali, the teacher and scribe who first codified the teachings of yoga, said that when one begins the practice of learning to control the breath through pranayama, "it removes the veils." The breath is normally under subconscious control; when we begin to bring it under our conscious control, we gradually become more aware of other parts of ourselves which have been unconscious. We become more aware of ourselves in new ways. We begin to know ourselves more deeply.
The Breath as Ally in Our Lives
The breath can be a powerful ally in our lives. It is always present to receive our conscious focus and guide us to deeper mindfulness. If we only allow it, the breath can link body, mind, heart and soul together -- improving our health, connecting us to our spiritual nature and deepening our understanding of ourselves in new and fresh ways.
Be with your breath!