Our breath is critical to life. Humans can go without food for a few weeks, without water for a few days, but without breath for only minutes. In fact, checking whether someone is still breathing is one way that we often check to see if someone is alive.
Given this crucial nature of breath to life, it is not surprising that humans have tended to think of breath as being like spirit as an animating force within us. The Hebrew scriptures used the word ruach, or breath, for spirit. Likewise, the Greek New Testament uses the word pneuma, again meaning breath, for spirit. And yoga speaks of prana as both breath and as vital life force, which could be thought of as another way to speak of our spirit. Each of these ancient traditions speaks of this same connection between our breath and our spirit.
In yoga, this connection between breath and our vital life force tends to be given greater emphasis through the discipline of pranayama, the science of controlling or disciplining the breath. By controlling our breath, we are able to also control the state of our vital life force, or spirit. There are breathe exercises that help to energize us, exercises that help to calm us, exercises to help balance us, and exercises to bring greater health and wholeness. The breath can also be used as means of focus during meditation.
We coordinate the breath with our movements during our asana (postures) practice by inhaling as our body expands and exhaling as our body contracts. In this way, our breath supports our movements and our movements facilitate deeper and fuller breathing. As we do this, the condition of our breath can inform us about whether we are moving too aggressively when our breathing becomes strained, and in this way it helps us to remain present to our own body’s needs in that moment.
As a beginning yoga student, I remember often ignoring the breathing cues that my teacher gave as we progressed through our asana practice. My focus was entirely on trying to master the postures. However, as I’ve grown into my practice over the years, I find that the coordination of breath and movement deepens my practice and makes it more fruitful.