Yoga means union, and we practice to learn who we are and connect to our true selves. Looked at in that way, yoga is a life-long journey. That said, there are more immediate benefits of practicing yoga. Connecting with the breath is one of them. Let’s look at why breathing is such an important part of our yoga practice.
Why Yogis Focus on Connecting with the Breath
Most yoga teachers emphasize the importance of conscious breathing. Pay attention to the cues you hear in class, and I’ll bet the one you hear most often is “breathe”!
In fact, many teachers refer to the breath in odd ways only yogis understand. Here are a two I hear my teachers say often:
- Find your breath. (Was it every lost?)
- Inhale your right (or left) leg up.
Why is breathing in yoga so important? Even apart from yoga, we breathe to live. Our breath is the force that moves oxygen throughout the body. And having a well-oxygenated body is essential to health.
We also feel more relaxed and energized (yes, you can feel both at the same time) when we breathe properly.
How Well Are You Connecting with the Breath?
Try this experiment. Place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. Take a deep breath. Which part of your body expands first?
If you’re like most people, your chest expanded first. If you breathe like a yogi, your belly expanded first.
Why does this matter? When we expand the belly, we open the lower part of our lungs and allow them to fill with air. If we skip this step and breathe only from the chest, our lungs can’t full expand, so they take in less air. More air means more oxygen. And more oxygen means a lot!
Belly breathing—also called diaphragmatic breathing—helps slow down the breath as well. It allows us to focus more on connecting with the breath in a mindful way, because we’re not rushed.
The ancients believed we have a finite number of breaths to take in our lifetime. If we want to live longer, we need to slow down the pace and take longer, deeper breaths.
Balancing Mind and Body by Connecting with the Breath
Yogis are not only concerned with breathing deeply and slowly. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, an important yogic text, outlines eight breathing practices that benefit yogis.
For example, have you ever wondered why we have two nostrils? According to yoga masters, it’s because each of them works on energy centers associated with the opposite side of the body.
The right nostril is associated with heating energy and the left with cooling energy. Most of us are not balanced but experience too much of one type of energy or the other. The good news is we can practice alternate nostril breathing to stay in balance.
If we’re already out of balance and need to bring up one or the other types of energy, we can do left or right nostril breathing on its own. So when you’re feeling stressed and anxious, left nostril breathing can calm your body and mind. When you’re feeling unfocused and lethargic, right nostril breathing may help.
As one of my teachers often says, the breath is the gateway to the mind. That’s why it’s one of the most important tools we use in yoga!