Breath: it’s what gives us life when we are born and what ends our life when we die. It’s life-giving, and like the heart pumping, it never stops throughout our life.
Just like the heart, breathing happens naturally and automatically, yet unlike the heartbeat, we can change the rate of our breathing at any given moment. Slowing down the breath directly affects the brain: when we become aware of the breath and take deep, slow inhales and exhales, our mind begins to slow down. This helps ease anxiety, worry, stress, and brings us into the present moment.
In yoga we call breathing exercises pranayama: prana = life force, ayama = to extend or expand. So essentially, working with the breath is a way of not only calming the mind, but increasing our prana, or life force.
A Sanskrit word (the oldest language originating in India), Prana is to yogis what Chi/Qi is to Chinese Medicine. It is the life force that animates us all. It's what we carry through our life, delivered by our breath.
When we use various pranayama practices, we are expanding and increasing our prana (also called life force energy). Without proper cultivation of our prana, we may feel tired, stressed, burned out, anxious, sick, and depressed. When working with the breath in specific ways, you can decrease stagnation, disease and mental distress in the body and experience increased health and vitality every day.
The mind follows the breath, and the body follows the mind. So, in yoga we see the breath as the number one tool to change your life. It's free, and you can do it anytime!
The average person takes 14 to 20 breaths per minute, and science says that's about three times the amount we need to feel our best.1
Here's what happens to the body and mind when we slow down our breath:
Eight breaths per minute:
You'll feel more relaxed, less stressed and experience increased mental awareness. This can create a chain reaction to begin to heal the body as well. The parasympathetic nervous system is influenced too—where we go from fight-or-flight to rest and digest quickly by the use of this practice.
Four breaths per minute:
You'll experience positive shifts in your mental function, intense awareness, increased visual clarity, and heightened body sensitivity. The pituitary and pineal glands begin to coordinate at an enhanced level, producing a meditative state.
One breath per minute:
You'll experience a balancing of the left and right brain, decreased anxiety, fear, and worry, and you'll feel more present. This also opens up the opportunity for a deeper connection to Spirit/Source and heightened intuitive abilities.
The nervous system (the body's stimulus and stress regulator) is greatly impacted by the breath.
The autonomic nervous system governs the body's sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and restore) responses. This affects the heart rate and digestion and prepares the body for potential threats. Ages ago this worked for survival when running from a bear was a real threat and a reality—but now the "stressor" can be anything and everything, from emails to traffic to notifications on your phone. Today our nervous systems have become overloaded and fried due to modern technology.
Researchers believe that fast breathing pings the brain at a higher rate, triggering it to activate the sympathetic nervous system. This turns up stress hormones, heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, sweat production, and anxiety. Slowing your breathing induces the parasympathetic response, dialing down all of the above as it turns up relaxation, calm, and mental clarity.2
Pranayama is a big part of the Kundalini Yoga practice. Many yoga sets and meditations include specific breaths and will be noted. The most common are: long deep breathing, breath of fire, and suspension of breath. They can be used on their own or as part of various practices. If you are just getting started, explore more in-depth below:
Long Deep Breathing: We recommend you begin your pranayama journey by learning how to master slow, deep breathing. This can be used anytime to calm the body and mind and bring you into the present moment.
Breath of Fire: Breath of Fire is a foundational technology that is energizing, cleansing, immune-boosting, and strengthening for the nervous system and electromagnetic field.
Alternate-Nostril Breathing: This simple yet powerful technique creates a deep sense of well-being and harmony by balancing the right and left hemispheres of the brain.