Often when we attend any asana class, we will be reminded to “breathe consciously” when we are entering and exiting a pose or simply just holding a pose. It is through the breath that we are able to navigate through different levels of consciousness. Breathing consciously also has an organic effect on our mental, emotional, and physical state.
Being fully aware of our breath is a method for being present. When we bring our focus to the breath; we let go of the past and future and in turn we are focused on the moment. For this reason, breathing consciously is its own meditation.
When we breathe consciously we activate a different part of our brain. The autonomic function of unconscious breathing is controlled by the medulla oblongata in the brain, while conscious breathing comes from the more developed areas of the brain in the cerebral cortex. Activating the cerebral cortex has a relaxing and balancing effect on the emotions. By bringing our attention to the breath, we are able to control aspects of the mind, causing our consciousness to rise from instinctual to awareness.
Conscious alteration of our breathing pattern, can produce different states of mind. For example, deliberately slowing down the breath has an impact on our emotional state. When the cerebral cortex is activated through consciously controlling the exhalation, it sends inhibitory impulses to the respiratory centre in the midbrain. These inhibitory impulses from the cortex activates the hypothalamus, which is concerned with emotions, and relaxes this area. Conscious deep inhalation and especially exhalation has a soothing effect on our emotional state.
In the early stages of my yoga journey, whenever I got into a pose that challenged me a great deal, I would subconsciously hold my breath, clench my teeth and tense my shoulders, accompanied with emotions of stress, annoyance along with a voice that told me it was too hard and I should give up. Yet, when I focused on my breath, backed off a little and worked through it patiently, it created a space for my mind; it becomes quieter and a sense of calm awareness washes over me. It is in that moment that the breath has allowed me to delve deeper into the pose and appreciate the stillness and awareness from within.