The joy of the breath
It wasn’t until I discovered yoga that I also discovered my breath. I mean I knew I breathed, that’s one certainty to life right, but that aside unless I was out of breath from sport or struggling to breathe with a chest cold, I didn’t really give it too much thought.
And then yoga came into my life and with that came an awareness of the breath. It was a revelation to me really because I realised how much we can affect the way we feel by the quality and depth of our breathing. Not that I always remember that when I find myself in a stressful situation however but there is an awareness nonetheless.
The thing is the breath is essential to our wellbeing, well to our very existence in fact! There is this lovely story that was told to me recently. It is in the Upanishads, where various body parts and functions were disputing among themselves about their own superiority. To settle the argument they asked Brahma to adjudicate. He answered that the most excellent among them was the one after whose departure the body is worse off.
Speech departed the body for a year. “How did you get on without me?” he asked on his return. The others replied, “as the dumb, not speaking with speech, but still breathing, seeing, hearing, knowing, and procreating: that's how we have managed”. Similarly, the body managed reasonably well when each of the eyes, ears, knowledge, and sexual potency all took a year's vacation from the body.
Then the breath started to get ready to leave the body as the others had done before. Even as she began to leave so the others felt their powers diminish, and they wailed: “do not go out; we shall not be able to live without you”. The moral of the story is that the breath is vital!
Yes, it’s amazing isn’t it, that something as simple as the breath, that happens regardless of whether we are aware of it or not, is one of the most important and intricate activities we will ever engage in our whole life. In many ways you could say that our conscious life begins with our first breath and ends with our last.
And yet so many people pay such little attention to their breath. Even in yoga some people can practice for years and never truly know now how to breathe properly. In fact these days yoga is marketed as such a body based “get a toned butt” practice that people don’t always realise the importance of the breath and the fact that it is the breath which differentiates yoga from other forms of exercise.
Furthermore the breath is one of the most surprising and wonderful aspects of a yoga practice.
It is perhaps not surprising therefore that in the Yoga Sutras asana (postures) are only mentioned twice, while pranayama (control of the breath) is mentioned at least 5 times because it is that good for us to breathe properly.
Pranayama is the formal practice of controlling the breath, which is the source of our prana or life force. “Pranayama” comes from two Sanskrit words: “prana”, meaning the fundamental life force, and “yama” meaning to control. Pranayama is, therefore channeling or controlling the life force. “Pranayama” can also be seen as a combination of “pran”, the life force, and “ayama”, meaning expansion. In this sense pranayama expands the life force through all levels of our being.
Prana is the life force, “that which is infinitely everywhere”. With reference to us as humans, prana can be described as something that flows continuously from somewhere inside us, filling us and keeping us alive: it is vitality. Prana is said to stream out, from the centre throughout the whole body. Ancient texts tell us that someone who is troubled, confused or restless has more prana outside of the body than within.
Needless to say the amount of prana outside of the body is greater when we are unwell. Too little prana in the body can be expressed as a feeling of being stuck or restricted, of lacking in drive or motivation; we are listless and perhaps depressed. We may suffer from physical ailments too. On the other hand, the more peaceful and well balanced we are, the less our prana is dispersed outside the body. If all the prana is within the body, we are free of these symptoms.
If prana does not find sufficient room in the body there can only be one reason: it is being forced out by something that really doesn’t belong there – the “rubbish”. What we are trying to do by using the breath in yoga is to reduce this rubbish so that we can concentrate more and more prana in the body.
Our state of mind is closely linked to the quality of prana within. Because we can influence the flow of prana through the flow of our breath, the quality of our breath influences our state of mind and vice versa. In yoga we are trying to make use of these connections so that prana concentrates and can flow freely within us.
Thus we can use the breath during a practise to encourage the flow of prana through the body. The more prana flowing through the body, the more ‘energy’ there is to help dislodge the blocks. By exercising the body, through yoga asana (postures) and pranayama (breathing exercises) we can open up the body and enable the more effective flow of prana through the body.
Pranayama by itself is a wonderful practice, not only in helping you become aware of your breath but also in offering you many physical, physiological, psycho-emotional, mental as well as spiritual benefits. Some of these benefits include:
Physiological – pranayama stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system which, over time, reprograms our bodies’ habitual pull towards overstimulation of the sympathetic nervous system and significantly reduces the health risks associated with stress and anxiety (which may result from this overstimulation). General feeling of wellbeing may increase due to the extra oxygen which is nourishing the nervous system – relaxation is encouraged for example.
Physical – pranayama practices help to tone the organs, supporting and strengthening the immune system, nourishes, cleans and strengthens the lungs keeping them more flexible and free from toxins (which may help to eliminate respiratory problems). Furthermore a regular pranayama practice will increase oxygen levels in the blood so that cellular respiration becomes more efficient (the quality of blood improves and the digestive system becomes more efficient) and energy levels increase. Deep slow breathing will also help to strengthen the heart and make it more efficient while reducing blood pressure and susceptibility to heart disease.
Psycho-emotional – Our breath pattern changes when our emotional state changes. Thus as we consciously regulate our breath, we start to break our unconscious patterns of breathing, and the unconscious emotional patterns that underpin them. We can also use pranayama to calm our emotions and bring awareness to the changing state of our emotions – simply taking 10 deep breaths when feeling angry for example may well be enough to allow us to let go of that anger and appreciate that it is just an emotion and not react therefore to the situation at hand or become caught up with it.
Spiritual – when we practice pranayama regularly, our subtle energy wiring becomes stronger and we fill up with light and energy. Thus as our light body is gradually polished and enlivened, we also develop a much richer inner life and a deeper sense of spiritual balance and connection.
Mental – over time, our focus and ability to concentrate improves so that the mind can function more clearly. We also start to experience more calmness of mind and are more aware of those behaviour patterns and mental states of being that no longer serve us so that we can adopt a healthier and more “enlightened” mental state of being instead. Pranayama will help to alleviate the symptoms of depression, indeed it may help one to realise the underlying problem which has created the depression, perhaps a loss of spirit.
There are many different breathing techniques available to us, some are more advanced than others and will have differing effects on us. I would suggest starting with these two breathing techniques and witnessing the positive effects for yourself:
Synchronising your inhalation and exhalation (Sama Vritti)
1. Sit in a comfortable, cross-legged position such as easy pose, sitting up on a blanket or a block if necessary or kneeling if preferred. If sitting or kneeling on the floor isn't comfortable for you then lie on your back with your knees bent or sit in a chair.
2. Close your eyes and begin to notice your natural breath, which may change as you become aware of it but nonetheless just sit with it for 5 or so breaths.
3. Begin to slowly count to four as you inhale. Take a moment at the top of your inhale with the lungs full of air. Then also count to four as you exhale. Again take a moment to feel empty.
4. Then inhale again to another count of four. Continue this pattern. The exercise is to match the lengths of your inhales and exhales.
5. You may experiment with changing the number you count to, just make sure your inhale and exhale stay the same length.
6. Continue breathing this way for several minutes. Then let the breath return to normal and experience the change in how you feel.
Benefits – Breathing in this way helps to calm your automatic nervous system and will help to reduce the effects of stress and anxiety. It should calm and focus the mind so is useful to practice prior to a meditation practice. The great thing is, even children can do this!
Lengthening your exhalation
1. Begin by lying on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, hip-width apart. Place a small pillow under your head if necessary so that there is no straining in the neck. The body should be comfortable. Place a hand on the abdomen and take a few relaxed breaths through the nose, feeling the chest and the abdomen expand on the inhalation and gently contract on the exhalation.
2. When you have entered a comfortable rhythm with the breath, mentally count the length of each inhalation and exhalation and if the inhalation is longer than the exhalation, you can begin to make them the same length over the next few breaths.
3. Once your inhalation and exhalation are equal, gradually increase the length of your exhalation by a couple of counts so that perhaps you breathe in for a count of 4 and breathe out for a count of 6.
4. This may be fine for you or you may like to keep going until your exhalation is up to twice the length of the inhalation, but not beyond. For example, if your inhalation is a comfortable 4 counts, make sure the exhalation does not exceed 8 counts.
5. Please make sure you do not strain as this is counterproductive. Even if the exhalation is just a count longer than the inhalation then this can create a calming effect, so don’t push beyond this.
Benefits - This breathing technique can help to reduce insomnia, sleep disturbances, the effects of stress and anxiety. It is ideal to practice before bedtime or when you are feeling stressed or anxious.