Breathing is a thing in yoga, almost every yoga teacher will point out its importance. The breath initiates the movement, follow the breath, and generally speaking breathe in when you make upward movements and breathe out when you go down, backwards or twist.
The focus on breath stems from the ancient yogis who believed we were only given a certain amount of breaths in our life. So the longer you made them, the longer you would live. There is no evidence in favour or against this idea, but what we do know nowadays is that a steady & long breath and the awareness it creates in our mind and body can help us to improve our health. And therefore, maybe even prolong our lives.
Breath is ’smart’, as the quality of our breath tells us how we are doing during our practice. When you lose your steady and stable breath, then it is time to reflect within: why is this happening? Am I pushing myself too hard? Am I distracted? Is my mind wandering? It is a good point of reference, because often it is hard for people to really feel what is going on in the body and mind.
In yoga we breathe through the nose. One reason is because the nose helps you keep the dirt from the air out of your respiratory system. It also helps you to not directly breath in cold air into our lungs. It is this cold air, that increases our chances of getting a cold or cools down the body quicker that necessary, causing problem in the muscles.
There is also a wide variety of breathing exercises yogi’s practice, which I consider a very interesting subject to deepen your practice with. According to Krischnamacharya, the father of modern yoga, the breath was the key element to a healthy and long life. One of his long-time students A.G. Mohan wrote in his book about Krishnamacharya that his guru would say “ that the breath was controlling the inner functions of the body. (…) If you practice asanas with control over the breath and long pranayama (means: lengthen the breath or control the breath), your pulse rate should come down over time”. Which indicates a healthy heart and potentially a longer life.
But most important to Krishnamacharya was the fact that it helps you to control the mind. A.G. Mohan one of his favorite quotes from the master: “To cure the ills of the body, use the body. To cure the wandering of the mind, use pranayama”.
In other words, doing the asanas, the physical part of yoga, supports you in keeping a healthy, strong body, so we do not disturb our mind with illness. But when the mind is disturbed, the most powerful tool to use is the breath.
“There is no greater austerity than pranayama to remove impurities”. So breath is the key to a healthy body, a calm mind and potentially a longer life.
So when you go to a yoga class try to be aware of your breath, give it more attention then the physical outcome of the pose. Read your breath, learn what it tells you. But most importantly, learn your own rhythm. In many classes a teacher will tell you to inhale with a certain pose and exhale with another. This is based on the ‘fact’ that for most people this will support the outcome of the pose better. However, when it feels uncomfortable for you, don’t force yourself to breathe along. Find your own practice, your own rhythm. Follow the teacher when his/her speed and rhythm connects with yours, but don’t be shy to have your own.
Because in the end, yoga is about discovering yourself; Your own body, your own mind and your own powerful tool: the breath.