So, what’s with all the prompts to remember to breathe? It’s not like we’re going to forget—breathing happens on its own.
Slow deep breathing shifts the chemical balance of the brain away from stressed out, negative, fight or flight thinking and releases neurotransmitters that make us feel content and happy. All of the unique mental benefits of Yoga rely on this shift from uptight to peaceful—a change in perception that is brought about simply by conscious breathing.
During asana, breath awareness keeps us safe; with our awareness tethered to the breath and our physical sensations, we quickly become aware of any discomfort or strain, both of which increase the pace at which we breathe. It also keeps us grounded in the present moment, so our practice doesn't slip away while we think of other things.
On another level, using the breath as an anchor for consciousness keeps the incessant chatter of the ego at bay. Yoga is many things. One of its most famous definitions, from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, is “Yogas chitta vritti nirodha”—Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind. Continuously returning our attention to our breath throughout a Yoga class makes the practice a moving meditation.
Staying with our breath helps us start to recognize the transient nature of thought; then we can begin to untangle the perception of our thinking self from our true Self.
Try as we might, thoughts will keep popping up. Minds will wander. It’s their job to keep us safe by scanning the outer and inner environments for threats. The bigger job is to be patient and not get frustrated with the thinking mind.
Every time we catch ourselves thinking and return our attention to the breath, it’s a little victory. Every single time that happens we’re building our capacity to be fully alive to the present moment. We are taking a step toward joy and away from fear. Every single time, we move a little closer to freedom.
We don’t have to be in class to use the breath to bring us into the present moment. Try it at traffic lights, in line at the store, or between receiving and responding to texts. The breath is a talisman we cannot forget and leave at home. It is a constant reminder of our impermanence. And it is the portal into a more joyful, authentic, and love-filled life.
Breathe easy, Super Friends.