As the mind goes, so goes the breath;
as the breath goes, so goes the mind.
By Grace Welch, M.Y.

When a student comes into a Yoga class they are surprised to learn that one of the first lessons they are taught is how to breathe! How can this be? They think, "I have been breathing since I was born, and now I have to learn how to breathe differently?"

One of the main differences between Yoga and other forms of physical exercise, is that the breath is coordinated with the action, and becomes an integral part of the movement. Yoga is an inside out practice and it starts with the breath. In classical Hatha Yoga, all breathing is done through the nostrils, inhale and exhale, with the lips softly together. Mouth breathing is only done for some advanced and special breathing techniques, not normally included in a regular yoga class.

Proper yogic breathing enables the student to breath fully and rhythmically, making use of all, not just part of the lungs, to increase the intake of oxygen. Most people are oxygen-starved, resulting in fatigue and low resistance to disease. Students experience a great charge of energy after their first class of breathing techniques, because their blood becomes thoroughly oxygenated, and with complete and conscious exhalations, they are discharging toxins, stress and fatigue, resulting in a feeling of deep relaxation.

To practice yogic breathing at home in loose clothing (nothing restrictive around the waist or chest) try the following:

Lie on the floor, perfectly symmetrical, spine straight, press the small of the back into the floor; separate the legs three feet apart, arms away from the body about six inches, palms up. Head should be straight above your spine (not tilted to either side), neck is long on the floor, and the chin inclined toward your chest. If you need to, you may place a small pillow under your head, if this is more comfortable. Tongue is resting on the bottom of your mouth, and the teeth are not touching. Close your eyes.

Use your abdominal muscles (not your chest muscles) to move the air in and out. As you inhale, the abdomen rises, as you exhale the abdomen falls. To check if you are breathing correctly, place your hands gently over your abdomen, with the middle fingers touching directly over your navel. As you inhale, the abdomen will rise slowly, separating the fingertips, and when you exhale the tips of the fingers will come together and touch. Now, with your internal vision, watch your breath - follow it as it enters your body through your nostrils, goes down the windpipe into your lungs. Visualize that the air is a white ribbon of light, and is bringing oxygen, vital energy, prana the life force, into your body, which mixes with your bloodstream and is carried to every cell in your body; and as you exhale, visualize that you are getting rid of stress, tension and fatigue.

Abdominal breathing, which is deep breathing, is one of the three basic types of breathing; the others are clavicular (shallow), and intercoastal (middle). A full yogic breath combines all three. What is happening when you breathe this way is that on the inhale the abdomen expands and the diaphragm moves down, allowing air to fill your lungs as well as massaging the abdominal organs; and when you exhale, the abdomen contracts and the diaphragm moves up, massaging the heart.

To de-stress, try to make the exhalations twice as long as the inhalations, because it is in the exhalations that you are able to relax fully. For instance, if you are inhaling to a slow count of four, exhale to a slow count of eight. Regular practice of this technique on a conscious level, will gradually change the way you breathe. When a stressful situation occurs in your life, you will know how to de-stress, it will become part of your magic arsenal of self-care.

The mind and the breath are interdependent; when you are angry or scared your breathing is shallow, rapid and irregular; conversely, when you are relaxed or deep in thought your breathing becomes slow. Use this test: listen for a moment to the lowest sound in the room. Notice how you unconsciously slowed down or suspended your breath? Your state of mind is reflected in the way you breathe. By controlling the breath you can control your mind; by regulating your breath you are not only increasing your intake of oxygen and vital energy, but preparing yourself for the practice of concentration and meditation.*

*Source for portions of this article is "The Sivananda Companion to Yoga" (Firestone: Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York).