Breath - The Science of Breath
by Shameem Akthar
The practice of pranayama ensures perfect health of the mind and body, and also helps us fine-tune our spiritual goals.
Among the eight steps of yoga, pranayama practices are ranked right in the middle. This is not just a coincidence. Just as a thread links the kite-flier to his kite, breath is said to link the mind with the universal force. The most visible link between the mind and the body, a yogi controls his mind by learning to control his breath.
Even Sri Ramana Maharishi, who felt yogic practices tended to make the practitioner over-involved with the body, or egotistic, encouraged pranayama as a great tool in mind-control. He said, "Man should subjugate that wavering mind by restraint of life-breath. The mind does not move, like an animal entangled in a net." The entire sixth chapter of the Sri Ramana Gita, a compilation of his teachings, is dedicated to the use of breath in mind-restraint. Even Adi Shankaracharya in his treatise, Aparokshananubhuti, suggests pranayama as a powerful meditative tool. A practitioner should inhale with the sense of 'soham', oneness with the universe, and exhale with the sense of 'na deham', I am not this body. All the rest of the practice, without such awareness is, according to the acharya, only "torture of the nose".
Himalayan Institute of Yoga founder, Swami Rama's book, Science of Breath, is a fascinating account of the movement of prana. Writes Swami Rama, "To the yogi, body, breath, nerves, mind, prana and the universe are all part of a continuum, and he does not set up artificial distinctions between them."
Harish Johari's book, Breath, Mind and Consciousness, is another toast to this science of breath control (swar yoga). He quotes from the Yoga Kundalyupanishad to explain how controlling breath helps us control the subconscious inner chatter that governs us, by manipulating our animalistic nature.
Ujjayi Breath (also victory breath):
Sit up with spine erect, in any meditative pose. Close eyes. Place hands in the mudra of your choice, ideally chin or jnana mudra, with tips of thumb and index finger touching. Remember, even the pressure on the index finger may have opposite/varying impact. The index finger is related to the element of air or vayu. Touching the index finger tip gently increases the air element. Pressing it down controls or decreases it. Therefore, the pressure or lack of it may be decided as per your personality or even the current flow of
vata element in the body. When yoga is practiced without understanding such intricacies, people tend to aggravate existing problems.
Inhale gently and with control through the nostrils, but exert a soft pressure at the throat so a sibilant sound arises, like a gentle snore. Exhale with the same sound. This is one round. There must be no pressure on the face. The sound must be soft and smooth. Any jerky exertion must be avoided. You may do up to nine rounds comfortably. Once you get the hang of this breath, it may be practiced anywhere. Just remember that though it is an extremely tranquillizing breath, it is also a heating practice.
It is also an ideal breath to be practiced as you do your yoga asanas, or during surya namaskar. The Mysore school of Asthanga Yoga is said to use this breath in all their poses, along with bandhas (energy locks).
Hatha Yoga Pradipika praises this breath as a conqueror of death. Other yogic texts promise eternal youth with its practice. The reason for its multifarious benefits: the soft pressure at the glottis actually exerts a pressure on the vagus nerve. This large, wandering nerve (vagus means vagabond) is one of the largest and most important nerves of the parasympathetic nervous system. It is at once in touch with body systems dealing with breath rate, breath volume, heart beat, digestive triggers, peristalsis, sound transfer, voice transfer, sweating, even facial expressions and many other crucial functions. So this gentle pressure through ujjayi breath immediately puts all these systems in an extremely relaxed, efficient mode. It is as if the entire body has been given a peace signal. This relaxes the body for repair and rejuvenation.