What makes yoga such a powerfully positive practice for both body and mind? The focus on the breath, which has the power to affect both mind and body, and to bring them into greater harmony.

The breath is the most direct link between the body, the subconscious, and the conscious mind: Breathing is a bodily act that is the result of the contraction of skeletal muscles, which are generally under conscious control, but breathing is normally an unconscious act: When you forget to breathe, you are still breathing. The breath, however, can also be controlled consciously, which is easy to demonstrate: You can consciously change your breath, for example by slowing it down, or by stopping it. However, when you start to run out of oxygen while holding your breath, your subconscious mind once again takes over breath management and keeps you from killing yourself.

Interestingly and importantly, the interactions between the conscious and subconscious mind and the muscles of the breath are two-way interactions. In other words, not only can either your conscious or subconscious mind control the breath, but through the conscious regulation of the breath you also have the power to influence your subconscious, because the breath allows you to influence the autonomic nervous system, which is typically not under conscious control. Your autonomic nervous system is responsible for both releasing stress hormones like adrenaline into your system to prepare you for a “fight or flight” response (a strong up-regulation of the autonomic nervous system), and also for lowering stress hormone levels and calming you down (also called down-regulation). When you become aware of your breath and learn how to alter it deliberately you can consciously increase your power output when desired, and, perhaps more importantly in this age of chronic stress, you can consciously reduce stress levels.

But there is more: Bringing more awareness to the breath not only enables a more complete integration of mind and body and a reduction in stress, but synchronizing your breath with your movement also allows you to move into (and out of) challenging poses more effortlessly, with better control, more mindfulness, and increased safety.

This week we will learn to up-regulate and down-regulate our autonomic nervous system using the breath, and we will also focus on using our breath to take us into poses with less effort, and with more awareness and grace.