Yoga - The Breath of Life
by T. A. Basubramanian
Here is an experiment you can try. Focus attention upon the ticks of a clock placed at a distance of about 12 feet. If you get distracted, try concentrating harder until you experience the ticking with undivided attention. If you fail at first, you should try again and again until you succeed in keeping the ticking clearly in mind for at least a few seconds. What happens?
The majority of people who took part in this experiment reported that they had completely suspended their breath. Others, who had less concentration, reported that they experienced very slow breathing. This shows clearly that where there is mental concentration, breathing becomes very slow or even gets suspended temporarily.
are scientific studies that show a strong connection between respiration and mental states. While improper habitual breathing produces diminished mental ability, the reverse is also true – it is known that mental tensions produce restricted breathing. A normally sedentary person, confronted with a problem, tends to lean forward, draw his arms together, and bend his head down. All these body postures results in reduced lung capacity. The more intense the concentration, the more tense the muscles become. The muscles in the arms, neck and chest contract. The muscles that move the thorax and control inhalation and muscular tenseness clamp down and restrict the exhalation. We become fatigued from the decreased circulation of the blood and from the decreased availability of oxygen for the blood because we have almost stopped breathing.
In the normal course of life, we breathe in spontaneous response to an inner impulse but our thought is rarely focused on the act of breathing. We are born knowing how to breathe, and it occurs to us automatically, naturally. We are breathing even when we are not aware of it. So it seems silly to think that one can be told how to breathe. Even so, one’s breathing is transformed by life experiences in many different ways, not just momentarily, but habitually. We develop unhealthy habits of breathing without being aware of it. For instance, we may have put on excessive weight that compels us to take shortened breaths. We may be living in environments that are not beneficial for the health of our respiratory system, and our bodies may have adapted to the conditions even without our being aware of what is happening.
With the pace of modern life, hurrying has become a habit, and with a sense of hurry, we get too emotional too easily – we get excited easily, angry easily, and most of the rest of the time we suffer from anxiety due to worry. These negative emotional states affect the rate of breathing, causing it to be fast and shallow.
Modern technology and automation reduces our need for physical activity. There is less need to breathe deeply, so we develop the shallow breathing habit. Working indoors more and more increases our exposure to pollution, and as a result, the body instinctively inhales less air to protect itself from pollution. Without knowing it, our body just takes in enough air to tick over.
And these bad breathing habits become part of our life. Unless we do something to reverse these habits, we can suffer permanent problems. The good news is that these are reversible, and to help change these habits, we have the ancient wisdom that comes through yogic practices that instill good breathing techniques. The ancient yogis knew the importance of correct breathing and developed techniques not only to increase health and life span, but also to attain super conscious states.
Attention to Prana
My earliest encounter with pranayama as an exercise in yoga was also my first guided experience of going into the inner state of my body in a conscious way. It was a closed eyes session, and the group’s instructor was telling me to pay attention to my breath. To the movement of my chest. To notice whether my belly was moving in or out as I inhaled or exhaled. All this attention to breathing was strange, yet profoundly exciting.
I find that conscious breathing is the first step towards noticing how my mental states are at that moment, and how the simple act of breathing slowly can have a profound effect on the way my body feels.
After almost two years of practicing variations of pranayama, I find that it has given me a wonderful lightness of body, an even reservoir of energy that sees me through the day with little experience of fatigue, and a sensitivity to the ways in which my breathing is linked to my states of mind every moment. It has also been a stepping stone to deeper and more serene states of meditation.
Where Pranayama Fits In
Breathing is the force of life, or prana, creating its mysterious restless alchemy from thin air, selecting oxygen for the deeper processes where the body is transforming food and water and turning it into living cells.
The human body is by itself heavy and slothful in nature, and it is designed to move only by the force of prana. Prana incites the senses to activity. Because of its rajasic nature, prana, without discipline, does not allow either the body or the mind to remain in peace. Such ceaseless distraction is what distinguishes life forms, but in bodies and minds under stress, it can become a hindrance to internal tranquility.
In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, which outline the basis of raja yoga, pranayama is the fourth in the succession of the eight progressive angas (literally limbs, or stages) that are collectively described as astanga yoga, the eight-fold path. The eight stages are yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi. The first five are considered to be external, and the last three, internal.
Techniques of Pranayama
There are many techniques of pranayama, and different schools of teaching yoga offer different combinations, or cycles.
Ujjayi: The victory (or ocean sound) breath Called the ocean-sound breath, ujjayi pranayama is practised by making the deep sound of oceanic waves inside one’s throat by contracting the glottis while inhaling and exhaling, literally like the rolling waters on a beach. Although this pranayama is done through the nose, it is helpful to begin practicing breathing through the mouth. To make the ocean sound, whisper the syllable “hmm”, feeling the contraction in your throat. Keep this contraction engaged on the inhalation and exhalation. After a few breaths, try to close the mouth, breathing through the nose while still making the ocean sound in your throat.
Ujjayi breathing means breathing slowly through your nostrils – about four to five heartbeats in and about four to five heartbeats out. Doing this you create a soft and gentle sound in your throat, just like the waves of an inner ocean floating to the coast. You hear the same sound inhaling and exhaling, the rhythmic ebb and flow of life.
Ujjayi pranayama can be a guide to the quality of your physical and mental health. A too forceful breath may point to a too stressed body – a too sleepy and unfocused breath, to a sluggish and under exercised body. Keeping the right balance between hard and soft, fast and slow, would produce a shift in your consciousness. It has the benefit of focusing and grounding one’s mind, and is a powerful aid in mental concentration.
Dirgha pranayama: Complete breath
Most of us use three or four kinds of breathing. These may be called high, low and middle breathing. The complete breath is a combination of high breathing, mid-breathing and low breathing.
Dirgha pranayama involves the entire respiratory system and not only includes the portions of the lungs used in high, low and middle breathing, but expands the lungs so as to take in more air than the amounts inhaled by all of these three together when they are employed in shallow breathing. The complete breath is not just deep breathing; it is the deepest possible breathing. Not only do you raise the shoulders, collarbone and ribs, as in high breathing, but also extend your belly and lower your diaphragm, as in low breathing, expanding your lungs to their fullest capacity.
Dirgha pranayama is called the three-part breath because you are actively breathing into three parts of your abdomen. The first position is the low belly (on top of or just below the belly button). The second position is the low chest (lower half of the rib cage) and the third position is the low throat (just above the top of the sternum). The breath is continuous, inhaled and exhaled through the nose. The inhalation starts in the first position, the low belly; then moves to the second position, the low chest; then to the third position, the low throat. The exhalation starts in the low throat, moves to the low chest, and finishes in the low belly.
Place your palms on the individual positions to feel the breath rising and falling through each position. When you start practicing, you can individually isolate the movement in each position, using the hands. When you have a sense of ease with the breath moving in and out of each position, practice without the hands. Eventually relax, and breathe into the three positions gently, feeling a wave of breath move up and down the torso. The effect on the body and mind is totally calming and relaxing.
Nadi Sodhana: Alternate nostril breathing
Also called sukha pranayama, or anilom vilom, this is the intermediary stage of a pranayama cycle without retention of breath and with only alternate inhalation and exhalation.
Place the right hand in Vishnu mudra (forefinger and middle finger bent towards the palm; thumb, ring, and little finger in the air). Exhale with a slow and deep breath. Close the right nostril with the right thumb. Inhale slowly through the left nostril. Close the left nostril with the right ring finger and removing the right thumb from the right nostril, exhale very slowly through the right nostril. Then, reverse the process commencing with inhalation through the right nostril. Continue, doing 5-20 rounds evenly and deliberately until your breath comes with equal ease from both sides.
The effect on the body and mind is to create balance, diminish anxiety, and set the tone for a very relaxing movement into meditation.
Kapalabhati: Cleansing breath
Kapalabhati is a breathing technique used specifically for cleansing. Kapala means “skull,” and bhati means “that which brings lightness.” Kapalabhati is a good thing to do when you feel heavy or foggy in the head. If you have problems with the sinuses or feel numb around the eyes, kapalabhati can help to clear this area as well.
It is a very active, explosive forced exhalation with a passive inhalation. To exhale, the belly quickly pumps into the spine forcing the air out of the nose (like trying to blow out a candle through your nose). For a simple variation, place a hand on your belly to feel the belly actively pumping. Play with the tempo (45-60 exhalations/30 seconds), but keep a steady rhythm. Start with two-three rounds of 30 exhalations, and gradually increase the exhalations if comfortable.
In this practice you deliberately breathe faster, and at the same time use only abdominal (that is, diaphragmatic) breathing, not chest breathing. In kapalabhati the breath is short, rapid, and strong. You use the lungs as a pump, creating so much pressure as they expel the air that all the debris is cleared from the air passages, from the lungs up through the nostrils.
You must be very careful with these techniques because there is a danger of creating tension in the body. You may also become dizzy when you breathe rapidly; for this reason, always conclude the practice with some slow breaths. It is important not to breathe rapidly too many times, but after a few rapid breaths take several slow ones in which you emphasize the long exhalation.
technique is not recommended in cases of pregnancy, menstruation, unmediated high blood pressure or recent abdominal surgery.
Bhramar: The bee breath
Inhale through both nostrils, taking a slow deep breath in. Exhale through both nostrils using the throat to make a soft “eeee” sound, like the buzzing of a bee. Do 5-10 rounds, making the buzzing bee noise louder as you progress, but do not strain.
Variation: Block off the right nostril with the thumb using Vishnu mudra (as in nadi sodhana pranayama) and inhale through the left nostril using ujjayi. Exhale through the left nostril using the throat to make a soft “eeee” sound, like the buzzing of a bee. Block off the left nostril and repeat on other side, practising for 5-10 rounds.
Sheetali Pranayama: The cooling breath
Roll the tongue into a tube (as best as you can) and stick the tip of the tongue out of the mouth. Inhale through the tongue and hold the breath in for 4-5 seconds with the chin pressed against the chest. Exhale using Ujjayi pranayama through the nose. Repeat 5-10 times.
Pranayama is not merely concerned with techniques that improve breathing. All the internal organs, in fact the whole body, get exercised in an ‘internal bath’ of evenly flowing energy. The digestive system, nervous system and organs of elimination get activated. Over time, there is a new experience of vigour and vitality, improvement in the quality of one’s voice modulation, even self-confidence and concentration.
In performing pranayama, time, place, posture, and the proper technique are important. Practice of pranayama in a tranquil, open and clean environment is ideal. Pranayama should be performed only on empty stomach, and after limbering exercises.
Pranayama should not be performed immediately before sleeping. There should be at least a gap of four hours after a meal. Pranayama in padmasana (lotus posture) or vajrasana (kneeling posture) is considered ideal. In this posture, your backbone is straight and there is a flow of energy to each and every vertebrae of the body. Since the ribs are upright, there is full oxygen flow in the lungs.
Yoga practitioners believe that age should not be calculated in years, but from the quality of breathing – the longer and deeper one breathes, the longer is the span of life itself. Which means that the longer and deeper your natural rhythm of breathing becomes, so too, will your life be longer and healthier.
“When prana (the life force) moves, chitta (the unconscious mind) moves. When prana is without movement, chitta is without movement.”
- Hathayoga Pradipika
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