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The Value of Breathing

We all know that if we stopped breathing, we would stop living. We learn this truth early on in life. Have you ever asked yourself exactly why we breathe and the value of breathing? I started pondering this question when I began my yoga practice. Then I laid the question to rest until it popped back up when I started practicing Pilates.

Without getting too scientific, we breathe because our cells need to breathe and because we need to expel carbon dioxide. If the cells in our bodies stop doing their jobs, then our bodies will eventually stop working. We need our cells to do their work and cells need oxygen to do what they are designed to do, so we breathe. Carbon dioxide is the byproduct, or waste, that is created when cells do their jobs. We breathe to get rid of the carbon dioxide.

I think of this kind of breathing as the normal, or involuntary, way of breathing. It is just what we do.

Then I think about the breathing we do in yoga, ujjayi. This is the breathing pattern that sounds like the ocean. This breathing is a more controlled breathing in which you intentionally breathe deeply and slowly. The inhale begins through the nose and inflates the low belly. As the inhale continues, the breath begins to fill the bottom of the ribs and then to the top of the lungs. At the completion of the inhale is a pause, holding the breath still. Upon exhale, the breath is released from the bottom in reverse order: top of the lungs, bottom of the ribs, and then low belly. This style of breathing is deep and concentrated.

In a vinyasa yoga class, each movement is tied with a breath. You might hear the instructor guide in this way, “On the next inhale, jump back into your plank pose and then exhale through chaturanga. Inhale into updown and exhale into downward facing dog.” Each movement is cued by the breath. Even though vinyasa may feel like a fast flow, the actual design is for the movements to be in sync with the slow rhythmic ujjayi breath.

The Pilates practice also has a breathing pattern. It is called lateral breathing. This breathing technique is designed to keep the abdominal region engaged while taking deep breaths. If the abdomen is contracted, then the core is stable. A stable core is important for successful performance of the movements and for protecting the body.

In lateral breathing the focus is on expanding the rib cage laterally while maintaining the inward pull of the deep abdominal muscles during both the inhalation and the exhalation. It is quite normal to pull the belly in during an exhale and expand it during an inhale. In lateral breathing, however, you want to keep the belly pulled in and contracted while you inhale and exhale. During the inhale the breath you take in should expand the rib cage to the sides, not the belly outward, and during the exhale the belly stays engaged. When practicing Pilates, it is recommended that you exhale during the part of the movement when you need to feel most stable. The exhale is often more stable than the inhale, so exhale during the hardest part of the movement.

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What Is Om?

Some yoga instructors lead students in chanting om at the beginning and/or end of class. Together as one unit, students and teacher alike take an inhale and then slowly exhale the sound of om as a chant. When done in this way, the sound can feel as though it is travelling through your body, and possibly through time. Chanting om is thought to be a way to connect with yogis who have come before you, creating a supportive and connected environment.

The question that is often asked is: What is om and why do yogis chant it? Here’s some information about om that may help deepen your understanding of the sound and chant.40

Some yogis might say that om is the sound of the universe or that it represents the past, the present, and the future or it is the basic sound of the world and contains all other sounds. Answers like this are mystical and convoluted; you’re often left still wanting to know the answer to the question. To help understand this, think about how the universe is always moving. Nothing is ever solid or still. Everything that exists pulsates, creating a rhythmic vibration that yogis called the sound om. Chanting om actually brings you to the universe, creating a rhythmic, woven connection to the universe’s sound. Now you may understand why om is thought to be the sound of the universe that holds all other sounds.

Chanting the sound om at the beginning of a yoga class allows the students and instructor to find a connection to each other, those who have come before, and the universe through this universal sound. The chant brings everyone together in one sound. Practicing yoga is a way to connect with the universe and with others. The ujjayi breath during class literally creates one breath for the class, a way of uniting the students. Chanting the sound om at the end of a yoga class allows all practitioners to seal their yogic connection to the universe and to each other.

In Sanskrit, the sound “o” is a diphthong spelled “au,” which is why you may see om spelled aum in some texts. The A sound represents the waking state; the U sound represents the dream state, and the M sound represents the state of deep sleep. The pause of breath at the end of the chant is known as Turiya, or infinite consciousness. The visual symbol of om is connected with these same meanings. The om symbol has three curves, one semicircle, and a dot. The large bottom curve symbolizes the waking state, the A sound. The middle curve symbolizes the dream state, the U sound. The upper curve symbolizes the state of deep sleep, the M sound. The dot is the pause taken at the end of the chant, signifying Turiya. The semicircle represents Maya, an obstacle to realization of the Highest.

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