There are these lyrics that I often hear on the radio lately: "You don't know what you've got till you're missing it a lot".These simple lyrics meant to be sung to the beloved one are very suitable to describe also the relationship we have with our own breath.
Breath is with us from the very first till the very last moment of our life. We don't have to do anything to achieve it. It's just there for us to nourish life in our bodies. Like a fish who takes water as a given, we take breathing for granted. We realize how much we miss our breath only when we are facing moments that take our breath away, when we lose our breath in intense physical exercises, when we are taking the stairs till the fifth floor after a five-course Christmas dinner or when we sit next to the dearest one giving out his/her last breath.
One essential thing yoga does for the relationship with our breath is to bring inawareness. To put it again in the words of the lyrics, by practicing yoga, one becomes aware what she/he got before missing it a lot. A yogi will not wait to lose his/her breath to notice it. In the practice of Yoga, sometimes we simply notice our breath withoutchanging anything about it; other times, we consciously stretch the inhalation, the exhalation and the time in between them; or maybe we take "victorious breaths" (UjjayiPranayama) by stretching the breath and practicing a slight constriction of the glottis which produces a gentle hissing sound.
Listening to the sound of our own breath has several implications. First and foremost it is pratyahara, the fifths limb of yoga (do you remember mymantra: Yoga is more than physical activity?). Pratyahara means "to withdraw the senses from the outer world." Instead of looking outside, for instance at the neighbor's mat and start comparing your posture with his/hers, pratyahara takes your attention inwardly, away from external stimuli. This is a valuable meditation aid.
Second, listening to our breath informs us about our attitude in the posture or in that particular situation. Have you ever paid attention to your breath when you were furious? Did you like the sound of your breath then? I guess not. At times when the breath sounds short, aggressive, heavy, we know there is something in the posture or in the situation that we need to correct to avoid unhelpful attitudes. Furthermore, adjusting our breathing by increasing our inhalation, we increase the amount of oxygen supplied to our bodies. Then, by increasing exhalation, we exhale more toxins of all kind, from the physical and environmental toxins (lead, nicotine,sulfur dioxide) to mental and emotional ("Does he still love me?"). I started by quoting from one song.
Now I will end by making slight modifications toanother famous refrain: "Don't take my breath away." From all the life processes taking place in our wonderful complex body, breath is actually the only one we can purposefully adjust or change. You may often feel breathtaking experiences, but don't let anybody or anything to take your breath away. You need it to practice yoga, to practice life.