There are two basic reasons for practicing breathing:
(1) To strengthen the lung walls and improve the cardiovascular system.
(2) To increase awareness of the breath and gain greater control of oneself, physically, emotionally and mentally.
In regards to the breathing in the YOU & ME system, we basically focus on increasing students’ awareness of their natural breath to achieve inner relaxation and peace. Rather than concentrating on deep controlled breathing which can actually create tension in the body that could cause some students to panic and lose their sense of control altogether.
Emotions play a great part in the way we breathe. For example, when there is an emergency or cause for alarm, the rate of breathing increases to the point of causing breathless; whereas, when there is peace and tranquillity the rate of breathing decreases until the breath is all part of a pleasant relaxing experience. Therefore if a student is emotionally disturbed, they should not be asked to control their breathing (which would probably be out of control in any case). This would apply to persons suffering from neurosis, anxiety, panic attacks, hyperactivity etc., and also to asthmatics. However, if a person does have any of these conditions, training over a period in being aware of the breath can help to control such attacks.
I used to work with a student who suffered from asthma which usually preceded a panic attack. In the early days, during a year of one-hour weekly yoga sessions, he would become panic-stricken as soon as we started thinking about our breathing, and we would have to abandon the practice. At the time I thought this was due to his being a heavy smoker, which would hinder anyone’s practice. However, in time he joined in with the rest of the group (six in number) and started to watch his tummy move while performing diaphragmatic breathing. He went on to observe the in-and-out breath and perform breath-awareness practices himself.
Then one day some time later, he came to class seeming stressed out and distant which I later learnt was due to the disappointment of hearing his mother had rang to say she was not able to visit him in his residential home the following weekend. The three trainers present (two others and myself) kept a close watch on him throughout the practical session. When it came to the breathing, he laid down on the floor joining in with the rest of the group but then started to shake as though he was going to have a fit, and his breathing became rapid and irregular. I knelt beside him and told him I was going to help him to calm down. I placed my hand on his tummy and asked him to allow the natural breath to resume its normal rhythm. Together we held in mind the functioning of his breathing, without attempting to control its pace, just allowing it to flow freely. After about five minutes he had calmed down and was back to his normal rate of breathing. This development was only possible because he had over a period of time become aware of his breathing, was able to put his trust in it and believe it would relax into normality - as in fact it did. Later on in the session we spoke about his mother’s next visit the following weekend and he surprised me by saying how he would like to tell her how he managed to feel better through his yoga breathing!