The practice of being aware of the breathing process has been used for thousands of years by different traditions around the world to affect the mind and body. Recently, scientific studies have also begun validating its effectiveness in reducing stress and anxiety, and improving cognitive performance.
Conscious breathing, also known as breath awareness, is a foundational practice in yoga that is used within many of its branches, including in hatha yoga, raja yoga and kriya yoga.
In the branch of hatha yoga - the branch most commonly associated with yoga today, conscious breathing as an individual practice comes under the system of pranayama. Pranayama utilizes breathing to influence the flow of energy or prana in the energy body or pranamaya kosha (Satyananda 2012). Conscious breathing is used as a preparatory practice, and is the first prerequisite for the practice of pranayama (Niranjanananda 2016).
The technique of conscious breathing in its simplest form is merely awareness of the fact that “I am breathing in and I am breathing out” (Satyananda 1981).
Introductory forms of the practice direct awareness to the speed, depth and regularity of the breath and utilize counting of the breath backwards from a number, e.g. 27, down to zero. Emphasis is put on not exerting any control over the natural pattern of the breath. Others guide the practitioner through the mechanics of breathing, taking the awareness through the nostrils, nasal passages, throat, and lungs, and corresponding movements of the chest, rib cage and diaphragm (Niranjanananda 2016).
More advanced forms enhance sensitivity to the respiratory system and develop an awareness of total breathing. They prepare the practitioner to experience the subtleties of the breathing process, so that the effects of pranayama can be understood (Niranjanananda 2016).
The practice has a number of benefits:
With practice it is possible to undertake all daily activities and still maintain breath awareness (Satyananda 1981). The breath should become a part of one’s constant awareness. The first step towards achieving this is to simply become aware of the breathing process (Niranjanananda 2016).
A specific time duration for which awareness of the breath will be maintained, can also be set. Sri Swami Satyananda Saraswati, founder of the Bihar School of Yoga, speaks of his own experience:
God’s first command
In the middle of the night, a storm began. There was torrential rain and lightning, outside and inside, both! Then I heard a very clear, shrill voice say, “Twenty-one thousand six hundred times.” That’s all, nothing else. So, what was the meaning of this shrill voice that came in the night? I understood what it meant, because this was what I had been teaching.
In one minute, we normally breathe fifteen times. In one hour, with natural, spontaneous breathing, not pranayama, we all breathe nine hundred times. In twenty-four hours, we breathe twenty-one thousand, six hundred times. Therefore, the instruction was clear. For twenty-four hours, do not eat, do not go to the toilet, do not sleep, do not yawn, only be aware of your natural breath. Do not interfere with your breathing; just watch the natural breath for twenty-four hours. I started the sadhana [practice] from that day. It was no joke and I realized it after coming here to Rikhia. (Satyananda 2013)
Breathing awareness, known as Breathing Awareness Meditation (BAM) or conscious breathing in the scientific literature, has been practiced for thousands of years. However, it has not been until the last few decades that scientific research investigating its benefits and efficacy has grown exponentially.
Today, emerging scientific evidence is showing that the practice of BAM has a positive impact on a variety of cognitive skills and abilities. In particular, it has been found that its practice:
Such improvements in cognitive performance have been considered to be associated with a refinement of emotion regulation skills, resulting in an enhanced psychological wellbeing (Schöne et al., 2018). As a result, BAM techniques have been applied in a variety of scenarios in order to reduce the levels of anxiety or stress and to induce a positive mood of its practitioners. In particular, the literature has shown benefits to:
Conscious breathing is particularly well suited to the medium of virtual reality, compared to other guided relaxation techniques, for a number of reasons:
Relax VR combines guided relaxation techniques such as breath awareness, with exposure to nature VR scenarios, binaural beats music and essential oils. Several studies have shown its efficacy in reducing levels of stress and anxiety, promoting relaxation, and reducing the level of pain or discomfort during painful procedures.
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