Krishnamacharya used to say that hatha yoga is pranayama. This is how the classical hatha yoga texts, such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, present the pathway of hatha yoga. The experiences in hatha yoga that go beyond asana—pranayama, bandhas, nadis, cakras—all require working with deeply and subtly with breathing.
Modern postural yoga focuses on the body. But to do pranayama effectively, we must work with the breath in asana itself. Transitioning from asana to pranayama is a skill to be developed starting from asana.
The breath has many dimensions.
Breath is a bridge between the body and the mind—changing the breath immediately changes both body and the mind.
Breath is also a bridge between the voluntary and involuntary functions of the body. It is the one involuntary function that we can also directly control. You cannot directly control your digestion or heart rate, but you can control your breath.
Breathing well is not just about technique or performance. You must also be able to feel the sensations and experiences of your breath. If you strain your breath without sensitivity and awareness, the classical yoga texts say you will hurt yourself. And this harm may not be obvious.
When you strain the body by overstretching or by straining, you can feel the result directly in your body. For instance, if you strain your hamstring, you can feel the pain in the muscle or tendon.
The impact of poor breathing, however, is usually not felt in the breath itself. Instead, poor breathing imbalances other areas of body and mind e.g. patterns of stress, digestive problems, menstrual problems, weaker immunity or auto-immune conditions flaring up, negative thoughts and feelings, and more.
To avoid these problems, a systematic, intelligent, and wise approach to breathing is required. There is no one breathing pattern that is the “best” breathing pattern. You must gradually build capacity and confidence to breathe smoothly, easily, pleasantly, deep or shallow, in a variety of patterns, in asanas, exercises, and throughout your day in different mental states. It is important not to skip steps in your learning and practice pathway. Breathing is powerful. It takes practice, patience, and guidance to master the breath. But it pays great rewards in wellbeing, longevity, and peace.