By Saraswathi Vasudevan
Slow, deep, long exhalation and retention after exhalation is the secret to a calm mind, says Saraswathi Vasudevan
Have you ever noticed that when your mind is preoccupied or disturbed, your breath will invariably be short, shallow and disturbed? Even otherwise, we generally breathe from the upper chest or, worse still, by using our neck and shoulder muscles primarily, causing fatigue, pain and stiffness in this area. This kind of breathing does not allow us to take in oxygen or remove waste products from the metabolism optimally.
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali introduces a powerful method to calm the disturbed mind by focussing on exhalation, and holding the breath after exhalation (Yoga Sutra 1.34). You can try this when you experience a mild disturbance, not intense. Try to breathe out slowly and deliberately, focusing on the exhalation and suspend the breath for a few seconds after a complete exhalation to experience the stillness within.
Through regular pranayama practise we can detoxify the system, calm and clear the mind and prepare for meditation, while also training our system to develop complete mastery over every component of the breath: exhalation, inhalation, retention after exhalation and inhalation. Through this mastery, we are able to deploy the breath more efficiently and effortlessly. The mind, of course, calms down quickly as we shift the system from sympathetic to parasympathetic domination.
This Sutra also suggests that discriminating between what to retain of our experiences and what to throw out of our system will calm the mind too. Often, we hold on to what is disturbing, and create greater turmoil. While letting go is easier said than done, a systematic practice of working with long exhalation through pranayama practice is the key. The breath has to be trained to be long (dirgha) and subtle (sukshma). Controlling the breath at the throat/nostrils or tip of the tongue are techniques employed to lengthen the breath and make it more and more subtle.
Mrgi mudra is useful for nostril control in pranayama. If you are right-handed, use the right hand for mrgi mudra (left hand can count the number of breath cycles). Fold the index finger and middle finger (of the right hand) and hold them at the base of the thumb. Bend the ring finger slightly to bring the tip to match the length of the little finger. Place the fingers on the nose (thumb on right side and ring and little finger on left side exactly where the bone ends and cartilage begins so that it is possible to block the nostrils partially to narrow the passage for air flow.)
Do Nadi Shodhana (Anuloma Viloma) pranayama, using mrgi mudra to close the right nostril fully and partially close the left nostril. Inhale through the partially closed left nostril. Exhale through the partially closed right nostril with the left nostril fully blocked. Then inhale through partially closed right nostril and exhale through partially closed left nostril. This will constitute one breath cycle. A minimum of 20 breath cycles (40 breaths) at least is required to complete a good pranayama practice.
When the breath is drawn in and exhaled through partially closed nostrils, the breath is very long and subtle, the velocity of air flowing in through the partially closed nostril is higher and therefore through its penetrative power facilitates greater reach into the bronchi and air sacs for better exchange of gases. Similarly exhalation through partially closed nostril helps better emptying of the lungs and removal of waste creating a powerful detoxifying effect.
About the author: Saraswathi Vasudevan is a yoga therapist trainer in the tradition of Sri T Krishnamacharya. She specialises in adapting yoga to the individual. (www.yogavahini.com).
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