Updated: Oct 16, 2019
"Hā ki Roto - Hā ki Waho" -" Breathe in - Breathe out"
Sometimes this simple instruction is all we can do in life and yoga!
"Don't forget to breathe", as a great teacher once told me many years ago.
Sounds simple, but it is the simplest things that can sometimes be the most profound, both in practice, and in practice off the mat- also known as - life!
A simple way to tell how you are doing in yoga is- to be aware of your breath.
āroa hā = breath awareness ( see how close this is to aro-ha )
In our classes the awareness of the breath, the Hā in Māori ( also sometimes known as hau, ngā , manawa and tā to name a few of the words to describe the breath ) is all important, as important as what you do with your body, if not more.
Hā also means your essence.
The breath is the bridge between our bodies and our mind in yoga. It contains the life force, and links us to our divine nature.
The breath of life was the first breath given to Hine- Ahu- One ,the first human, through the exchange of breath with the god Tane, hence it is the life force given to us by the Atua/ Gods in Māori belief also.
Hence the term - "Tihei Mauri Ora" - let there be life! Said to Hine- Ahu- One, after the breath of the gods was shared with her through the first hongi, and the importance of the hongi, to exchange life forces.
Ancient cultures knew how intrinsically linked the breath is to our divine nature, to our spirit, to our mauri.
The breath is also able to affect our nervous system- and change our response to stress!
For example- diaphragmatic breathing (often called abdominal or sometimes deep breathing in yoga ) activates our 'stay and play' or 'rest and digest' part of our nervous system, which can have far reaching benefits for our bodies and minds.
It mitigates the stress response we have to situations we feel or think of as stressful-
these days those situations are not necessarily life threatening, - work deadlines, traffic, relationship issues, and so on, and on.... as opposed to being eaten by a predator! But, like our ancestors, our bodies react as if they are life threatening, and our body is flooded with stress hormones. If this on- going, it can have a detrimental effect on our health, and weaken our immune system.
Deep abdominal breathing- with the abdomen expanding on the inhalation, and falling back on the exhalation, activates our 'Rest and Digest' - parasympathetic side of our nervous system, rather than our 'Fight or Flight' - sympathetic side.
When 'Fight or Flight' is activated blood is pumped away from the organs to the arms and legs in order to run or fight, one reason why stress may cause issues with your digestion amongst other things.
How simple it can be to breathe fully and reap the benefits for our body, mind and therefore quality of life. And yet it can also be hard to remember, especially as our breathing tends to become shallow, and sometimes held, when we are stressed.
In yoga we go one step further and extend the exhalation (through the nostrils), the exhalation is the breath of relaxation. Try this in your next yoga pose, or when you are feeling stressed, and feel your body respond and let go, relaxing into your pose, without pushing or forcing your way through it.
Also outside of yoga - take 3 minutes a day to connect with your breath and breathe abdominally, it can be done anywhere, at work, waiting in traffic, before bed, when you are out walking for example.
'Ha ki Roto, Ha ki Waho' - 'breathe in and breathe out'- is a wonderful mantra to incorporate with the breath.
Using our awareness of our breath- is one of the simplest and yet most profound things you can do to change your response to stress.
If going through difficulties or feeling stressed, I have found breath awareness or abdominal breathing to have a profound impact on my ability to deal with the situation.
It does not mean putting up with a dangerous situation or not acting, but rather acting with more clarity in those times of anxiety and stress, that may feel life threatening ( and may or may not be ).
I know of one student who credits his yoga breathing with saving his life after going into anaphylactic shock , and another student of a fellow teacher who was able to stop himself from panicking in a near drowning incident, and credited remembering to breathe with saving his life also.
He whakaaro ātaahua!