Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment I know this is a wonderful moment. Thich Nhat Hanh
New life is introduced into this world with the first breath, and the transition called death begins with the last. It seems obvious that we all know how to breathe because the action is part of the autonomic system — a natural function without the need for conscious effort. But what is conscious breathing? Breathwork practitioners have shown that specific methods of breathing, including ancient yogic techniques, increase health and vitality, as well as create a greater integration between mind, body, and spirit.
Spirit is the animating or vital principle of all beings. The English word “spirit” has its origins in the Latin spiritus, a word that derives from an Indo-European root meaning “to breathe.” Thus, the life force is infused and promoted with each breath.
What is conscious breathing?
Conscious breathing, also known as pranayama, is a cornerstone of yogic practice and focuses on controlling and regulating the breath. It ushers in a seemingly mystical ability to soothe and revitalize us on many levels. With breathwork, prana — the vital force that harmoniously circulates in the body and the universe — it is cultivated and moved with intent throughout the body.
The sage Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutra, states that when a person is angry or agitated, his breath is fast, disturbed and shallow. When a person is calm, his breath is soft and undisturbed. Swami Satchidananda adds, “What yoga teaches us is that not only our emotions control the quality of our breath, but we can control the mind and our emotions by controlling the breath.”
So what is conscious breathing? Automatic breathing in and out is a biological process, but if you breathe with total awareness, something dramatic occurs. Breathing changes from an unconscious default process into one that purposefully brings life-initiating, -sustaining, and -healing prana to the body.
What yoga teaches us is that not only our emotions control the quality of our breath, but we can control the mind and our emotions by controlling the breath.
Through breath, Gurudev Amritji Desai taught his students, “we are not only connected to the life-giving functions within our bodies, but also to the external ecological world through which we receive the life-sustaining energy of prana through air, food, and sunshine, mineral, plant, and animal life.” Breath is a conduit to the unlimited supply of prana that sustains all life, the ecological balance of the planet, and the evolution of all species. While it has been established that there is a strong connection between the physical body and the mind, our modern sciences are only beginning to recognize the essential role and impact that breath has on our physical and mental makeup.
The Iceman Teaches Scientists a Lesson
A decade ago, Dutch breathing guru Wim Hof proved to scientists in a laboratory-controlled environment that breathwork yields wondrous health results. By way of his simple-to-practice breathing regimen, stimulation of the body by exposure to cold temperatures, and meditative exercises, Hof showed the scientific community that a human being can influence his autonomic nervous system and immune response, including the ability to ward off disease.
“If you oxygenize the body the way we do it,” explained Hof, “the oxygen gets into the tissue. [Regular] breathing doesn’t do that…What happens in the brain stem, the brain says, ‘There is no oxygen anymore.’ Then it triggers adrenaline to shoot out throughout the body. Adrenaline is for survival, but this time it is completely controlled … the adrenaline shoots out throughout the body and resets it to the best functionality.”Yoga instructor Clare Hudson, who took Wim Hof’s course on breathing and meditation, agrees. She wrote, “I feel like unhappiness is partly caused by being in a certain place and wanting to be somewhere else. The Wim Hof Method works in a similar way to mindfulness — it grounds you into the present moment — where you can’t not feel happy and more content. Perhaps at peace is a more apt way of putting it.”
Yoga practitioner and researcher Jessica Levine wrote that the ancient Indian practice of alternating between the right and left nostrils as you inhale and exhale unblocks and purifies the nadis. A nadi is a channel through which energies (including prana) of the physical body, the subtle body, and the causal body flow. Nadis connect throughout the chakras — energy passages that carry life force and cosmic energy through the body.
Levine described how the breathing exercise is performed: Sit comfortably and close your right hand in a gentle fist in front of your nose, then extend your thumb and ring finger. Gently close your right nostril with your thumb and inhale through the left nostril, then close it with your ring finger. Open the right nostril and exhale slowly through it; then inhale through the right nostril, then close it.
Breathing Consciously Makes a Difference
Yoga teacher and energy healer Christie Pitko wrote that we take around 23,000 breaths per day, mostly unconscious. But if we were to begin practicing breathwork, then the results are life- and health-altering, with some of these benefits: a calmer mind and body, reduction of stress and anxiety; fuller and more complete breathing; increased oxygen supply to the blood, brain, heart, organs, and limbs; reduction of appetite and weight gain; healthier and more productive lungs; a release of muscular tension; and preparation for deeper meditation. And, of course, there’s what Wim Hof proved to the world — a significantly more productive immune system, greater systemic alkalinity, increased energy, and less inflammation.
Of course, there are many mind-body-spirit methods of breathing from cultures all over the world, including Taoist Qigong breathing, Tibetan Pranayama, shamanic breathwork, breathing practices associated with Zen meditation, and more. They all seem to point to one universal truth — that we are more than just physical beings lost in a confusing world. Rather, we are the world itself, and the breath that flows in and out of us does so through all things and through all of time.