Yoga Health Education: Importance of Proper Breathing

Yoga Health Education: Importance of Proper Breathing

Breath is life. We can live for days without food or water but deprive us of breath and we die in minutes. In view of this, it is astonishing how little attention is paid to the importance of proper breathing.

According to Yoga, there are two main functions of proper breathing: to bring more oxygen to the blood and thus to the brain; and to control prāna or vital energy, leading to control of the mind.

Prānāyāma – the science of breath control – consists in a series of exercises especially intended to meet these needs and to keep the body in vibrant health.

Re-learning Abdominal Breathing
Most people have forgotten how to breathe properly. They practice only chest and clavicular breathing, breathe through the mouth and make little or no use of the diaphragm – either lifting the shoulders or contracting the abdomen when they inhale. In this way, only a small amount of oxygen is taken in and only the top portion of the lungs are used, resulting in a lack of vitality and lowered resistance to disease.

The practice of Yoga demands that you reverse these habits. Breathing correctly means breathing through the nose, keeping the mouth closed, and involves a full inhalation and exhalation, which brings the full capacity of your lungs into play. As you exhale the abdomen contracts and the diaphragm moves up, massaging the heart; when you inhale, the abdomen expands and the diaphragm moves down, massaging the abdominal organs.

What is strange is the fact that abdominal breathing is the most natural type of breathing: children generally breathe with their abdomen, and both children and adults breathe abdominally during sleep. So what causes the body to lose this natural ability for abdominal breathing during waking adult life?

The main reason is simply stress. When you become stressed, the solar plexus (located in your abdomen), which is a major control center for the nervous system, becomes tense, as do the abdominal muscles, which then hinder the natural movement of the diaphragm. Fixed mental images may be another reason for compromised breathing, such as the concept of ‘manhood’ causing you to project a body image in which the chest is expanded and the abdomen is tight.

Inhale – Abdomen rises Up
Exhale – Abdomen back down towards the spine

Change your Breathe, Change your Life
Proper Breathing, one of the 5 Points of Yoga, is an important tool in the Yoga Health Educator’s practice. The Yoga Health Educator often begins by assessing the mechanics of a person’s breathing to see if they are breathing correctly. Are they breathing through the mouth or the nose? Chest breathing? Reverse breathing? Is it a rhythmical breath? How is their lung capacity? Is the breath strained? Is the person aware of their breath? Are they aware of their state of mind?

There is a direct relationship between the quality of the breath and the quality of one’s thoughts. A slow, steady and rhythmical breath pattern indicates a calm mind. In this case, the person is relaxed and has greater capacity to make positive choices. A shallow and short breath pattern indicates stress and anxiety, often with the person breathing into the upper chest (not breathing into the abdomen) and with tightness in the upper back and shoulder region. Under stress, we are less likely to make positive choices, we are prone to reactions, and will remain stuck in old habits.

The Yoga Health Educator helps to bring awareness to the breath with simple breathing exercises beginning with conscious abdominal breathing.

1. Abdominal Breathing Exercise
Lie down in savasana. Place your right hand on your abdomen or use a pillow on the abdomen. Inhale, feel the abdomen rise; exhale, feel the abdomen descend. Count to 3 with each inhale and exhale to create a steady rhythmical breath pattern. Practice 3-5 minutes.

2. Full Yogic Breath
If you are comfortable with the abdominal breath, you can try the full yogic breath. A full yogic breath combines abdominal (deep), chest (middle) and clavicular (shallow) breathing with a deep breath and continuing the inhalation through the intercostal (ribs) and clavicular areas. Inhale the abdomen expands, then ribs, then finally the upper chest. Exhale abdomen first, then ribs, then chest. Full yogic breath utilizes the full capacity of the lungs. Practice 3-5 minutes.

After some time, you are ready to add the pranayama practices of kapalabhati and anuloma villoma to your daily routine.

Inhale – Abdomen out, raise the chest | exhale – ab in, chest down

Benefits of Abdominal Breathing

  • Activates parasympathetic “rest and repair” response
  • Lowers the harmful effects of the stress hormone cortisol
  • Lowers heart rate
  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Improves oxygen intake (efficiency)
  • Slows the rate of breathing
  • Reduces stress – 80-90% of all doctor visits are due to stress-related health conditions. Stress weakens the immune system. Chronic stress can lead to depression, fear and anxiety, and can have further debilitating effects on immune system response.
  • Increases awareness of one’s breath and thought patterns.
  • Conscious breathing is an important aspect of meditation practice and helps to calm the mind, regulate the flow of prana, and to balance the emotions.

Breathe and Relax!
Proper Breathing is one of the 5 Points of Yoga. Combined with asana, savasana, vegetarian diet, meditation and positive thinking, the 5 Points of Yoga give us the energy to live a healthy and harmonious life and to connect to our innate wisdom to consciously overcome the negative karmic tendencies that cause stress. Take time every day to breathe and relax. Make it your daily routine. You can practice abdominal breathing and full yogic breath several times each day to calm your mind, come back to your center, increase awareness of your breath and your thoughts, thereby bringing you peace, health and happiness.

The Yoga Health Educator is dedicated to empowering each person in their own self-healing journey through the teachings of classical Yoga. For more information about the Sivananda Institute of Health and Yoga and the Sivananda Yoga Health Educator Training, please visit https://sivanandayogafarm.org/800-hour-yoga-therapy-program/

We Are Moving From Darkness to Light

We Are Moving From Darkness to Light

“Your inherent nature is joy, ānanda, which is eternal.  That is the message of yoga and vedānta.” – Swami Vishnudevananda

The 3 Gunas

Yoga offers us valuable guidance on our journey towards peace of mind. The formula is simple and can be described as a way of working with the three gunas or qualities of nature: 1) break through the tamas; 2) calm down the rajas; and 3) nourish the sattva.

All the objects of this universe contain the three gunas. The gunas operate on the physical, mental, and emotional levels and obscure our true nature, veiling the Light within. We become attached to physical conditions, stuck in stressful thought patterns, and feel unable to free ourselves from repeated negative emotions.

The light of consciousness, the Atman, reflects through the physical body, the mind and its emotions, just as a brilliant and pure crystal has no color of its own. When a colored object is brought near, it reflects the same color and appears to be that color—blue, red or whatever it may be. In the same way, the Atman is colorless and without qualities yet is veiled by the physical body and mind.

Yoga teaches us that we are neither the body nor mind. We are not our thoughts. The gunas are only veils to our true Divine nature, the Light of Atman.

We must break through tamas

Tamas is resistance to change. The mind seeks stability in the face of constantly changing circumstances (karmas), finding security in addiction to food, alcohol, relationships, and other kinds of behaviors. Without the capacity to discriminate good from bad, we become dependent on external objects and ways of thinking. We may not even like the thing but will choose it anyway out of apathy and ignorance. Tamas veils the Self, providing only a dim view of our true nature. We must make a conscious choice to extract ourselves from Tamas. It takes a good strong kick to move the mind from its tendencies.

We must calm down rajas

Rajas is forceful change. Rajas is ego-driven toward the external, actively engaging the world. Its extreme is to control situations and to meet expectations. One directs their energy outward to effect change that reflects a certain prescribed vision.

Rajas is the energy of action and passion, and of external projection. It singles out an aspect of life that the ego likes and goes towards it to the exclusion of everything else. We become attached to our actions. It is said that fulfilling one desire only reinforces that desire and leads to ten new desires. When these conditions are not met, one falls into disappointment and disillusionment (tamas).

We must nourish sattva

Sattva is wisdom to accept change. We accept that change is in God’s hands and that we do not control change. Sattva is to know that we do not know. Sattva reveals, allowing us to penetrate into the true picture of reality. It is the energy of moving inward and upward, letting go of our attachment to external objects and ever-changing outcomes.

Sattva allows us to see the mind’s tendencies with clarity. With more balance and harmony in our mind, we remain peaceful in the face of difficulty, allowing ourselves to make wise choices rather than reacting to situations beyond our control.

To overcome the egoistic veils of ambition, pride, projections and opinions, desires and expectations, we must nourish sattva through selfless service, devotion, control of the senses and mind, and meditation on the Self. We must learn to detach from external conditions, to question our mind’s thought patterns, and to stop functioning out of habitual conclusions.


Our journey is to transform ourselves from negative to positive, from restlessness to peace, from darkness to light. Peace of mind is difficult to attain because our minds are always changing. Like the woman who has lost her needle inside of her house, but looks for it outside, we restlessly seek for happiness outside when all the time, the Truth lies within.

Swami Sivananda says, “Fear not. Grieve not. Worry not. Your essential nature is peace. Thou art an embodiment of peace. Know this. Feel this. Realize this.”

Questions for your Self-study

  • How do you react to change?
  • Do you try to control your environment? The situation? Others?
  • Do you find that change causes stress? If so, what aspect of change causes you stress?
  • What are your Yoga practices to nourish sattva?

You can leave answers to the questions in the comments section below.

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Swami Dharmananda is assistant director of the Yoga Farm for many years and is in charge of the karma yoga program.  He is a faculty of the Sivananda Institute of Health (SIHY) and is one of the main teachers of Yoga Philosophy and Meditation at the Ashram. He took sannyas vows in 2013 and is keenly interested in yoga psychology and philosophy, presenting the classical teaching in a practical and accessible way to people of all faiths and backgrounds.