|[ Excerpt from The Science of Yoga, page 58 ]
When we are not actively paying attention to our breath, it just happens naturally, and follows the habitual pattern of improper breathing that we have slowly, unconsciously created throughout our entire lives.
You might wonder then, how it is that we can change that unconscious breathing habit merely through some structured practice sessions. Well, the answer is indeed quite easy to understand, and is very scientific as well.
To understand how the practice of pranayama can change our habitual breathing patterns, we need to take a short look at the physiology of the body.
Respiration is controlled by an area at the base of the brain called the medulla oblongata (the aaprakasha bindu in yoga), also referred to as the 'respiratory centre'.
This respiratory centre is, in turn, controlled by the branch of the nervous system called the 'autonomic nervous system', which, as the name suggests, controls the automatic body processes.
This is the same aspect of the nervous system that controls functions such as digestion, temperature regulation and perspiration, kidney, liver and other organ functions.
This is our biological 'on-board computer' so to speak. Obviously this is a functional necessity, because if we had to actually think about breathing each and every moment, then we would not have much opportunity to pay attention to much else! So breathing happens automatically, by itself.
But there is an inherent biological uniqueness in the breathing function as well, in that we can, when we so choose, consciously control it - its rhythm, rate, depth, quality, etc. Conversely, no matter how hard one tries, it is impossible to consciously control digestion in this same way!
These two distinct neurological characteristics of breathing are termed bahya (outer or conscious) breathing and antara (inner or unconscious) breathing. So in this unique feature of the breathing mechanism lies one of the powerful, fundamental potentials of pranayama practice.
As I already mentioned, all of us were born breathing well, but over time, external influences eventually created poor habitual breathing patterns. Therein lies the opportunity for a change for the better.
By consciously practising proper breathing patterns (via pranayama), the unconscious breathing patterns will begin to be reprogrammed as well. As poor habits can be quite entrenched, it can take some time and effort to do this. But over time, change will invariable come and proper breathing patterns can be re-established.
In order for this to happen, however, steady, regular practice is essential, especially in the beginning.
NOTE: This yoga article is an excerpt from The Science of Yoga, an online yoga training program with streaming yoga videos and 600 pages of step-by-step yoga instruction.
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