If it happens automatically, and we don’t think about it during the day, why is it emphasized so much during class? And how is it possible to breathe incorrectly?
Mechanically speaking, the act of breathing is both automatic (unconscious, an involuntary behavior) and deliberate (conscious, a voluntary behavior). In both cases, the way we breathe is affecting our nervous system. By making an automatic behavior deliberate, we begin to affect our deepest neurological programming through a state of intentional awareness. By controlling something that happens automatically, something else changes and we feel different.
Aside from blinking, breathing is one of the very few mechanical behaviors that we can bring under conscious control. Most of us cannot willfully stop our kidney from filtering the way it does, or the stomach from churning the way it does.
Pranayama was originally invented as a method for relieving sick people of their ailments (think anxiety, asthma, overwhelm) in order to free the body of a blockage and ultimately to bring it back to natural, healthy function. Conscious breathing can create an environment in the body-mind system that increases or decreases energy. It can activate or disengage the stress response. It can activate or startle the relaxation response.
Yoga uses conscious breathing practices as a way to increase mindful awareness. From awareness we can then create optimized behaviors and healthy habits. Just like the reality of our physical forms, breath happens in the now-moment. We cannot breathe in the past, and we cannot yet breathe in the future. Regardless of whether your breath is involuntary or performed consciously, breathing is a present-moment reality. When we tether our attention to the reality of our breath, the mind becomes more present-moment focused.
There is no clear-cut answer to the question of “How am I supposed to be breathing?” because there are many breathing exercises (pranayama), each one offering a different purpose—the way a hammer is used for nails and a screwdriver is used for screws. In class, the teacher may lead you through several different breathing exercises. Just know that in most cases, breathing in a yoga class is deliberate and observed. It is seldom ever an afterthought. Creating the healthy habit of present-moment awareness and establishing a strong practice of mindfulness are the cornerstones of a sustainable yoga practice. Stick with the breathwork and enjoy the body breathing!