Breathing- a process that instills life into our being at birth and continues till we exist! Breathing is not merely a chemical exchange of gases which sustains life, but a powerful link between us and our cosmos.
It is essentially a portal of letting in the flow of energy or ‘Prana’– vital force or cosmic energy from the universe into our body. According to Yoga and Ayurveda, it is Prana which keeps our body and mind alive. Due to its impact on the energy circulation in our body, breathing impacts physical, mental as well as the spiritual aspect of our being. The entire philosophy and technique of ‘Pranayama’ of Hatha Yoga is based on the singular principle of breathing. Pranayama was conceived to cleanse and ensure unimpeded flow of Prana through the fine energy channels of our body and mind and thereby banish any impurities out of our system. (Hatha Yoga Pradeepika)Ancient Yogic philosophers realized and harnessed the power of Prana– which is an absolute requirement for attaining deep meditative absorption or Samadhi.
Unlike other subconscious processes like beating of our heart, digestion etc., breathing can be consciously controlled or subconsciously continued. Like author Micheal Kay says- it is truly the link between conscious and subconscious aspect of our being.
However, most of us are victims of faulty, improper or rather incomplete breathing. Although a subconscious act, breathing does require a mindful and conscious effort every once in a while to ensure healthy and wholesome breathing.
What is faulty breathing?
If your regular breathing predominantly involves movements of chest and shoulders or neck muscles then it is most likely to be a faulty breathing technique. Also, breathing through the mouth (in absence of any underlying medical condition) is faulty. Normal breathing should only cause inward and outward movements of our abdomen due to the respiratory movements of our diaphragm (a muscular sheet which separates our chest cavity from the abdominal cavity). Chest breathing without the use of diaphragm can lead to insufficient breathing- a root cause for many diseases!
What triggers faulty breathing?
Many of us get into the habit of taking shallow breaths using our chest rather than using our diaphragm for deep and complete breathing. Commonest causes of shallow chest breathing are-
- Anxiety, anger and negative emotions
- Faulty posture (e.g. hunching)
- Faulty diet- (causes intestinal bloating, inflammation etc. can trigger chest breathing by restricting the movement of the diaphragm.)
Improper breathing not only impedes the flow of energy in our body, but can also give rise to many diseases. Diaphragm is one of the chief muscular components of the muscular ‘core’ of our body which imparts stability to our spine. Diaphragmatic breathing is essential for building and maintaining the stability and strength especially of our lower spine. Improper chest breathing can weaken the spine eventually leading to lower back discomfort and pain.1, 2
Habitual chest breathing can have the following effects:
- Fatigue and low energy levels
- Lower back pain
- Frequent yawning
- Spasm of muscles due to insufficient oxygen levels
- Mental fog, irritability, agitation, emotional disturbances, poor concentration and memory
- Weakened Immune system
- Predisposition to lung and cardiovascular diseases
How to achieve proper breathing?
Stress and faulty lifestyle are the core causes of improper breathing. Hence, relaxation and through the practice or Yoga, Tai Chi etc is a must. Relaxing Yoga poses like Shavasana (Corpse Pose), Shashakasana (Hare pose), Makarasana (Crocodile pose) in relieving physical as well as mental stress and promote good posture. Asanas like Ushtrasana (Camel Pose), Marjaryasana (Cat stretch pose), Bhujangasana (Cobra pose), Matsyasana (Fish pose), Tadasana (Tree pose) etc. help in cleansing the respiratory system, strengthen the diaphragm and facilitate normal abdominal breathing.
Pranayama– which literally means control of prana is perhaps the most effective means of achieving or re-establishing normal, abdominal breathing pattern. Although Yogic breathing involves abdominal, thoracic/chest and clavicular/shoulder breathing during its practice; it essentially cleanses the lungs, all the minute energy/ Prana pathways in our body and mind and promotes healthy breathing habits! Anulom- Viloma Pranyama and Bhramari Pranyama are some of the simplest yet effective pranayama which can be practiced by people of every body type. They help in deep cleansing of our energy channels, relieve stress and enhance normal breathing. Other Pranayama like Bhastrika, Ujjayi, Sheetali, Seetkari, Suryabhedana, Chandrabhendana etc. are also beneficial. However, they should be performed depending upon a person’s body type.
Kapaalbhati – a widely popularized form of yogic breathing is NOT essentially a pranayama. It is actually one of the six yogic purificatory measures. Being an advanced technique, it may not suit people with certain body types (especially Pitta body type). Also, faulty practice of Kapaalbhati can itself lead to many health complications. Hence, its practice must be done with great caution and any indiscriminate practice of this powerful cleansing method must be strongly discouraged.
Proper breathing technique achieved especially by the practice of Yoga not only takes away the side-effects of improper shallow breathing, but enhances the vitality of our body and mind. Breathing right also strengthens voice and makes it strong and commanding.
Conscious efforts towards enhancing the subconscious process of breathing process indeed adds ‘Prana’ i.e. life to your living! So, be mindful, breathe well and reconnect with yourself and the Universe!
- Venu Akuthota, Andrea Ferreiro, Tamara Moore, and Michael Fredericson, Core Stability Exercise Principles, Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, University of Colorado School of Medicine, Aurora, CO; Sports and Orthopedic Leaders Physical Therapy, Oakland, CA;Division of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, CA