Cultivating an awareness of the breath and developing good habits of breathing are key components of healing, transformation, and spiritual practice. The breath is the most accessible and helpful tool we have for making progress in these areas. In particular, diaphragmatic breathing regulates and balances the nervous system, supporting physical, mental, and emotional health and well-being.
We can learn to cultivate specific skills for proper breathing that will help us in all aspects of our life. We might think of this set of skills as yogic breathing, or simply healthy breathing. Here are these skills in brief (you can learn them step by step in our Foundations of Yogic Breathing workshop):
4 Skills for Proper Breathing
1. Nose Breathing
Form the habit of breathing through the nose rather than through the mouth.
Develop the ability to focus on the breath—inhalation and exhalation. This automatically helps train your breath to be deeper and more even.
3. Breathing Diaphragmatically
Learn to breathe diaphragmatically, rather than in your chest. (When you inhale, the diaphragm presses downward, causing the abdomen to expand. When you exhale, the diaphragm relaxes and the abdomen falls.)
4. Strengthening the Diaphragm
Then you’ll want to strengthen the diaphragm to make diaphragmatic breathing more effective, connected, and efficient. This is generally done with breath training practices such as crocodile pose (makarasana) and sandbag breathing.
After you’ve started working with the four breathing skills, begin to observe the presence or lack of the following 5 qualities of proper breathing in your breath, and work with specific breathing practices to develop them.
5 Qualities of Proper Breathing
This essentially means that the breath is diaphragmatic in nature. However, even though we may always be breathing diaphragmatically to some extent, it is good to work with the two breath training exercises mentioned above to strengthen the diaphragm.
When we observe the breath we can see that there are likely to be places in the breath cycle where the breath feels rough, stuck, or jagged. As you continue to relax and observe these rough places, they can begin to become more smooth.
This means that the inhalation and the exhalation are about the same in length and in quality. It may be that the inhalation feels easier than the exhalation or vice versa. The inhalation is nourishing—it fills, and the exhalation is cleansing—it empties. Ideally, there is a balance of both cleansing and nourishing in the breath cycle.
There is a common tendency to hold the breath momentarily between the inhalation and the exhalation and/or between the exhalation and the inhalation. This is a sign of deeper tension at the level of the nervous system, and it places strain on the heart over time. By relaxing at the transition points of the breath cycle, this gap can gradually be bridged. With time and practice, the breath will begin to flow in a more seamless circle of inhalation and exhalation.
Often there is some noise in the breath, but when the breath is naturally quiet, it reflects a quieter state of mind. Practices that intentionally work with a louder breath are considered to be pranayama and are done with the proper preparation and awareness.
Anatomy of Breathing and the Diaphragm
It might be helpful to think about where the breathing is happening in our body. The diaphragm is the main muscle of breathing. It divides the torso into two separate parts: the chest and the abdomen. The diaphragm lies below the lungs. As we inhale, it contracts and pulls the lungs down, expanding them from the bottom, downward and outward. This deepens the breath. During this contraction, the diaphragm presses down on the internal abdominal organs, causing the abdomen to expand. As we exhale, the diaphragm relaxes and is pushed upward by the organs and pulled upward by the lungs.
Breath and the Nervous System
The breath is a barometer for the nervous system. As the nervous system becomes imbalanced, breathing changes, becoming shallow, tense, and jerky. This change is then registered by the mind and begins to create internal distress, which sustains poor breathing, which promotes a state of distress. In this way, an internal cycle begins and is reinforced. Stress then takes on a life of its own, even persisting after the original stressor has been resolved. Learning to breathe correctly with awareness is the only way to break this powerful cycle.
Activation of the sympathetic nervous system is also known as the stress response, or the “fight or flight” mode. This part of the nervous system takes over when, triggered by a stressor, the breath becomes rapid and shallow and is moving primarily in the upper part of the chest. Although this state is useful for moments when we must act quickly or when we are in danger, too much time spent here reinforces stress and can open the door to chronic illness and prolonged mental and emotional imbalance.
The parasympathetic nervous system supports rest, relaxation, and rejuvenation. This response is triggered, in part, by deep, diaphragmatic breathing. Yogic breathing and relaxation practices help us to access this state.
Both the sympathetic and parasympathetic responses serve a purpose. Ultimately, we are looking for balance and some degree of mastery over the nervous system, so that we see the purpose of each state and can use the practices of yoga to find a place of inner equilibrium. Yoga helps us to establish—and maintain—this balance of the two.