By Inna Costantini
Breathing is a fundamental survival mechanism that over time has revealed to have connections with the mind, and -potentially- deeper states of awareness. All living beings need to breathe: it is a primary response for life, but as humans, we have, over time fine tuned our knowledge of the breathing process.
The state of being alive – consciously or not- involves a continuous flow of inhales and exhales. We may be able to survive for days without water, months without solid food, but only a few minutes without breathing.
Perhaps it is this vital implication that has led humans to develop so much interest in the process of breathing. Could this mechanical process mean more than just being alive? In the context of spiritual practices, one would argue that breathing offers a bridge between body and mind – by controlling breath, one may be able to control the mind.
Breathing is one of the few bodily functions which, to some extent, can be controlled both consciously and unconsciously. For instance, when we feel angry, stressed or anxious, the breath is often fast or shallow. But when we are calm and at ease, breathing is generally long, even and undisturbed. What we can observe through our fluctuating emotions is that the quality of breath changes. The argument for practicing yoga and pranayama is that we can develop a greater influence over emotions – and the mind- through breath control.
How does this scientifically stand up?
The physiological process of breathing sustains life. Fact.
For humans (and mammals), breathing in involves the contraction of the diaphragm, a muscle located horizontally between the chest and stomach cavities. On the inhalation, the diaphragm moves down and presses the organs downwards to increase the volume in the chest cavity, thus creating space and a vacuum suction for the lungs to expand and draw in air. On the exhalation, the diaphragm relaxes and releases back up into the thoracic cavity.
Diaphragmatic breathing is the most natural way of breathing. Yet through poor posture, stress or anxiety, tension will usually build up, resulting in dysfunctional breathing patterns: these commonly involve upper chest and rapid breathing, which can then lead to over-breathing and thus creating more stress. Rapid breathing expels too much carbon dioxide, and can make us feel agitated and send our nervous system into overdrive.
In technical terms, diaphragmatic breathing, where neither the lower belly nor the upper chest move, optimises the carbon dioxide-oxygen balance by making sure that we retain more carbon dioxide in the system. Many see this type of breathing as optimal, especially when associated with slower breaths.
In fact, many yoga and meditation practices focus on the therapeutic aspect of breathing by working on the control of the diaphragm rather than the chest. It does take time to learn and understand, and re-training our breathing patterns can be challenging. Some very simple breathing techniques may be useful ways to re-learn a beneficial pattern of breathing.
Elongating the breath for instance, may be a useful -and yet fairly basic- tool to learn how to slow down. A way to practice is to begin lying on the back. Allow your body to soften into the ground, and then notice the abdomen. Gradually allowing the spine to release, and noticing the pattern of breathing. Let there be no pause between the breaths and slowly start to consciously slow down the pace of breathing.
This process of slowing down is both very simple and a gentle way to listen to the body’s natural responses. Over time, one can naturally develop a slower and more natural state of breathing, giving the mind more space to become calmer.
In hatha yoga, the key to balance the nervous system is through conscious breathing. Another simple way to control our response to stress could be to focus on lengthening the exhalation. This stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for slowing down the heart rate and thus relaxing the body. In moments of stress, our natural reaction is to shorten the exhalations and increase the rate of the inhales, which in turn stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and prepares the body for a fight/flight situation. Shorter breaths that only involve chest expansion can be stressful for the body.
It seems important on a physiological level to breathe slowly and deeply. This is so beneficial because when we do so, we can then support the parasympathetic nervous system and activate the ‘relaxation response’, thus reducing stress and its effects. Over time, our ability to face challenges and adverse situations increases, and perhaps we can allow our minds to become more focused and still. The simple act of focusing the breath tends to take the thinking mind out of the equation, therefore releasing the entrapment of what we ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ be doing or thinking. So perhaps by controlling breath, one may -eventually- be able to control the mind.
Inna has been practising yoga for over a decade and teaching since 2008. With a background in media, anthropology and a stint in PR, she experimented with a variety of yoga paths, before deciding to trade her desk for a yoga mat, and embark on an intensive yoga training course in India.
Inna is fascinated by yoga in all its forms, its effects, and the intricate links between physical and mental well-being. As a teacher, she loves seeing the changes in people, being a witness, an observer and sometimes a guide, and inspiring students and friends to practice, evolve and grow stronger on so many levels. Inna is also a freelance writer and loves sharing her passion for yoga, travel and the environment both off the mat and across the globe.
Photography by Coni Hörler