Importance of Breath Awareness

Why is it important to know one’s breath?

Swami Niranjanananda: Nothing is closer than one’s own breath. It is tangible, believable, understandable and controllable. The gentle inhalation and exhalation is sustaining and calming, it affects one’s thoughts and is itself affected by one’s activities, emotions and thoughts. Everyone experiences this daily, yet the breath is often ignored or forgotten.

In the practices of pranayama, a deep familiarity with the breath develops. Knowledge of the respiratory system aids and enhances the practices, helping to bring a better understanding of their physiological parameters.

Why does hatha yoga give so much attention to the breath?

Swami Niranjanananda: The breath has a close relationship with the body. Whether doing asana, pranayama, dhauti or any hatha yoga practice, it is essential to have control over the breath, as according to yoga the breath is a mirror of the mental and emotional state. If the mind and emotions are restless or scattered, it can be observed in the breath. If a person is lying down and has many thoughts going through the mind and cannot stop those thoughts, the breathing will be rapid, short and unsteady. The breathing process will be mainly in the upper portion of the lungs and unconsciously the person will be longing for a deep calming breath. Alternatively, if the breathing pattern of a person who is calm, not distressed or restless, is observed, the breath will be found to be calm.

According to yoga there is also a relationship between the breath and the pranic body. Many people believe that if the breath is retained for a longer period, they might even die, but this is an incorrect concept. If the breath is withheld forcibly without practice, the face will turn black, brown, blue, and finally one must breathe, or indeed, death would result. It is quite possible, however, for a siddha yogi to function without the breath for up to half an hour and still be alive. The general public sees this as a siddhi, an accomplishment, but in the tradition, restraining the breath is not thought of as a siddhi, but as a capacity of the body. It is also possible to hold air inside the body for up to forty minutes, one hour or longer. There are many things the body can do, but it is essential to understand the body and recognize its capacity.

Prana can exist without breath. The breath has a relationship with prana shakti, the life force or energy, but prana is different from the breath. The difference is that prana shakti is present in the physical body in the form of heat, energy and brilliance. The inner heat, or body temperature, is an activity of prana shakti. If one does not breathe in for two minutes, it makes no difference, but if prana does not exist inside the body even for a second, one instantly dies. In its subtle state, prana shakti exists in the form of activity. That is why there is an experience of restlessness, excitement or activity in emotion, in the expression of love, attachment, attraction, anger, desire, lust and craving.

In one sense, prana shakti is even behind the thoughts, but its form is changed and it is called chitta shakti. Prana shakti is physical and extroverted, whereas chitta shakti is internal, mental, emotional and intellectual. Hatha yoga makes an effort to awaken and balance the forces of chitta shakti and prana shakti in the body; that is why the breathing process has been emphasized in hatha yoga. External practices are performed with the body, but in order to vibrate and awaken the inner shakti it is important to have control over the breath; this is an internal process.

How does one develop awareness of prana?

Swami Niranjanananda: Yoga says to start with breath awareness. The moods and states of the mind are reflected in the way one breathes in and out. If one is agitated, nervous, tense and angry, the breathing pattern will be shallow. The breath will be short and will remain in the upper thoracic region. When one is relaxed, the breath is deep, long and relaxed. Sometimes in deep states of relaxation the breath cannot even be noticed, it is so gentle. Therefore, yogis use the breath to regulate and harmonize the physical systems, like the nervous system. They use the breath to tranquillize the functions of the mind. In this way, through the breath, awareness of prana is developed.

From Conversations on the Science of Yoga – Hatha Yoga Book 5, Pranayama