By Saraswati Vasudevan
Saraswati Vasudevan takes over as our yoga columnist from this month with a salute to the breath
This phrase is a staple yogic instruction. When we are not sure if an asana movement requires us to inhale or exhale, we say, “When in doubt, exhale!” But beyond the mat, it tells us a lot about the importance of exhalation in our daily life. Exhalation is nature’s way of cleansing and detoxifying the body and mind. Breathing in, we activate the prana and the systemic fire (agni) to move into every nook and corner of the body; with exhalation we burn and eliminate the built-up debris, almost like a vacuum cleaner at work but without all the sound and fuss! But the power of efficient breathing, particularly good exhalation, is not fully understood or explored in yoga practice. For the same reason, we derive far less out of our practice than we could.
A well-regulated exhalation starts with the active engagement of the muscles of the lower abdomen, that we draw in and up, allowing the chest to relax so that there is a smooth and gentle outflow of the breath. Lower abdominal muscles drawn in and up help efficient relaxation of the diaphragm that exerts a gentle pressure on the lower lobes of the lungs to empty the air facilitating good expansion and exchange of gases during the subsequent inhalation. Exhalation activates and tones the lower abdominal muscles, and helps counter the effect of gravity on the abdominal organs, nourishing and massaging them with each breath. The apanavayu (located in the lower abdominal area) is activated which in turn improves digestion, elimination and reproductive functions.
Biochemically, a longer exhalation creates a short-term hypoxia (less oxygen and more carbon-dioxide in blood), which results in more efficient use of oxygen for performance and repairs of the body. Carbon dioxide is the body’s natural relaxer of smooth and cardiac muscles. In normal short/shallow breathing, anaerobic respiration results in high lactate levels increasing acidity of the muscle cells, along with disruptions of other metabolic activities.
Try an asana practice, with a few (4-8) seconds of breath retention after each exhalation while maintaining a long and deep inhalation and exhalation. You will start feeling lighter and refreshed. It is called Langhanam (meaning fasting – here the lungs), akin to a fasting regimen in ayurveda, which has a detoxifying effect on the body and the mind.
Pascimatanasana a seated forward bend is considered a very important posture in many classical texts, offering many benefits to a regular practitioner.
Sit with your back straight and legs extended forward (Dandasana). As you inhale, raise your arms up from the front stretching the spine up. On exhalation bend forward, by gently contracting the lower abdomen and hold your feet or wherever you are able to reach the legs and bring your forehead to the knees/shin. Repeat this posture a few times dynamically and stay for 3-5 minutes with slow rhythmic breathing. Once you get comfortable, you can introduce a gentle retention after exhalation. This posture is considered beneficial in treating diseases of the stomach, stokes the digestive fire, flattens the belly and improves health. It helps achieve lightness of body and has a calming effect on the mind.
About the author: Saraswathi Vasudevan is a yoga therapist trainer in the tradition of Sri T Krishnamacharya. She specializes in adapting yoga to the individual. (www.yogavahini.com).
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