Along with the introduction of modern physical practices, a lot has been lost in the world of breath control practices as they were documented through yogic texts for many hundreds of years. Pranayama is most easily translated as breath control, but “prana” means one’s life force. Pranayama is therefore, the control of one’s life force as accessed through the breath.
There are many benefits to controlling the breath. These benefits continue to be brought to the forefront through scientific study. Benefits range from relaxation to potentially suppressing tumor growth in the body. While the studies are magnificent in their potential, the most powerful reason to cultivate the breath in yoga is because of its intermediary relationship to the body and the mind.
When we access and manipulate the breath, we use two different parts of our brain. We also can access the two parts of our autonomic nervous system by changing how we breathe. If that wasn’t enough, we can also choose which nostrils we breathe through and stimulate our olfactory nerve which has a direct relationship with our brain. Many of us might question the necessity of these types of practices since our breath is an automatic function. However, it is easy to make the judgement that breath manipulation is unnecessary when we have not experienced the results. Once you realize breathing can reduce stress, focus the mind, and possibly suppress cancerous tumors, it seems an obvious practice to undertake.
When we strengthen our awareness of the body through asanas, we are mostly concerned with our muscles, bones and structural tissues. We get stronger muscles, and ease muscular tension. The benefits often translate into other systems of the body which result in things like better circulation or digestion. However it is not until we get into pranayama that we experience the body on a deeper plane.
The awareness we get from breathing is the awareness of our nervous system. It is a deep and profound level of awareness that leads us to a level untouched by most: experiencing the mind.
Most of the time we experience our thoughts. We never think about thinking, we only react to our thoughts. We get lost in the result of our thoughts, but not in what caused them to begin with.
A very common example of this phenomenon involves the idea of a movie and the screen on which the movie is projected onto. When we watch a movie, we know it is not real. The screen is blank before the movie begins and is blank after the movie finishes. We just accept this.
However our minds are no different!
They are blank before a thought arises and blank after the thought finishes. The problem is that we mistake the thoughts for reality. Through stillness, we can learn to identify the “movie screen” of our minds as reality, not the fleeting thoughts that project onto our mind.
Pranayama, and working to still the breath, is the gateway into stillness of the mind.
Most yoga practitioners know pranayama is the skill and art of breath control. But the breath can be a difficult animal to tame.
When we start to do breathing exercises, it can make us feel claustrophobic or anxious. Our breath is largely governed by the autonomic nervous system, and when we control it consciously we can run head-on into the body's habits and patterns. The Hathapradipika says, "like elephants and tigers, the breath must be controlled slowly." (II.15)
When practicing pranayama, sit on the ground so that your legs are crossed and your torso is upright. Sit up nice and tall. If it's impossible to sit on the ground, you can sit in a chair. Make the body still so that the breath becomes the center of your focus. Always stay relaxed. If the breathing makes you anxious or panicky, stop immediately.
Here are two simple and safe practices to start: 1) Even Counting, and 2) Alternate Nostril.
This technique is so simple that you may do it already in some yoga classes. It involves making the inhale and the exhale even in length. A great length to start with is 3 or 4 seconds each. So inhale for 3 or 4 seconds, then exhale for 3 or 4 seconds. Stay very relaxed and continue this for a few minutes. This technique has the effect of synchronizing the breath with the nervous system and the heart rate. After a minute or so you will feel quite calm, peaceful and centered.
When starting with this technique there is no need to control or count your inhales and exhales. You can let the breath come in and out naturally and relaxed. Use your right thumb to close your right nostril. Inhale calmly through the left nostril. Then use the ring and pinky fingers to close the left nostril, open the right, and calmly exhale out of the right nostril. Then inhale through the right nostril. Then close the right nostril, open the left, and calmly exhale out of the left nostril. Continue in this fashion for about 5 minutes, staying as relaxed as you can.
As mentioned above, controlling the breath can bring up anxiety or a sense of panic. If you feel this, stop immediately. The goal of these beginning breath practices is to stay absolutely calm throughout. They should give you a growing sense of well-being and peace, not anxiety. Once you can do these exercises with control, ease and calmness, you are ready to move on to more difficult practices.
Western medicine has known for decades (and yogis have known for thousands of years) that controlling the breath is a powerful tool to access the mind.
Now we know that this connection is largely via the autonomic nervous system. Every time we inhale, the heart rate goes up a little. And every time we exhale, the heart rate goes down a little. This is controlled by the two parts of the autonomic nervous system (sympathetic and parasympathetic, respectively).
In everyday life we tend to get overwhelmed with tasks and stress, which causes an overstimulation of our "active" nervous system. Our heart rate stays a little higher, we have trouble relaxing and we feel this as stress.
In recent years breathing techniques have been making their way into the popular culture, with everything from heart rate variability monitoring devices to smartphone apps that help you control the breath. This includes a great new app called the "Breathing App" developed by yogi Eddie Stern and Deepak Chopra.
The basis of their app is so-called "resonance" breathing, a specific, regular tempo that has benefits like lowering the blood pressure, improving heart rate variability and positive applications for anxiety and depression.
The tempo is not difficult to achieve and is accessible for nearly every person. It ranges from breathing 5-7 times per minute as opposed to our normal rate that is closer to 15 times per minute. (5 times per minute is 12 seconds for a complete inhale & exhale. 7 times per minute is about 9 seconds for a complete inhale & exhale.)
We recommend the "Breathing App." It is free and quite simple to use. It requires nothing more than a couple minutes of your time to breathe, regulating your inhale and exhale to achieve the coherence and resonance between the breath, heart and nervous system. Hopefully it will bring a little bit of peace, relaxation and well-being.
Why do we, as yogis, practice physical postures?
Depending on your goals, there may be a handful of answers to this important question. The exercises may increase your flexibility, increasing your ability to move the body without pain or limitation. They may help you relax, spending a little time each day focused only on your breathing and forgetting about your stress. They may help your balance, strength, blood pressure or sleep.
At the center of all these motives is the spine, perhaps the single most important communication pathway of our body and mind. We can live without our arms and legs, but we cannot live without our spine. It provides structure, protection and support for our heart, lungs, organs and head.
Almost every signal sent from around the body, from the fingers to the toes, makes its way to the central nervous system by way of the spinal cord. And almost every command about balance, movement or breath also travels via the spine.
So every exercise, whether of the feet, arms, hips or abs is also an exercise of the spine. Even breathing exercises and meditation require communication through the spinal cord as we control our ribs, abdomen and posture. Paramhansa Yogananda called the spinal cord a "lightning rod for the divine."
Our practices should contain plenty of attention to the health and function of the spinal column (the structural part) and cord (the nervous system part). We should keep the muscles of the spine strong and mobile, as well as doing what we can to protect the bones and discs strong; plenty of forward bending, backward bending and twisting. And we should also keep our awareness on the communicative aspects of the spine: its nerves.
As one of our teachers said: "The arms and legs assist the posture. Every posture is in the spine."
If you are thinking about trying yoga or have just begun, there are a few simple things to keep in mind during your first few classes.
1. KEEP YOUR BREATHING CALM
As you do different exercises, you may notice that you are holding your breath or grunting. This isn't inherently bad or dangerous, but it illuminates tension and weakness in the body. Try to do each exercise and movement with the breath as smooth and calm as possible. Some practices will be easier than others!
2. IT'S A MARATHON, NOT A SPRINT
It is easy to try to do everything perfectly in the first couple classes. But the practice of yoga unfolds over the course of years. Too often, new students work really hard for one or two weeks before burning out and disappearing, never to return. It is better to be calm and gentle in your practice. Let it develop slowly and you will make far more progress.
3. KEEP AN OPEN MIND
You may be asked to do things that you've never done before: unusual breathing patterns or body positions. (Luckily, as yoga has become popular more and more people are familiar with the basic practices.) Trying something new always feels awkward, but give it a chance.
4. DON'T DO ANYTHING THAT HURTS
At the beginning your body will be stiff, and some of the exercises may be painful. Err on the side of gentleness, especially if you're unsure. The teacher may instruct that the exercise is uncomfortable and that may help you relax. But if you have pain it is best to back off. You will make more progress if you can keep your body and mind relaxed. Over time your strength and flexibility will improve along with your understanding. There is no need to force it at the beginning.
5. ASK THE TEACHER
As you go through the class and the teacher asks you to do things you've never done before, there will probably be a lot of questions that pop into your mind. Am I doing this right? My such-and-such hurts, should that be happening? I don't feel anything...? When you are unsure of what you're doing or why, don't be afraid to ask the teacher after class. The teacher is there to help you learn and progress, so they will be happy to help.
Sometimes yogis talk about "stuck energy" or "moving the energy" of the body. According to some yogic texts, especially in hathayoga, there are subtle channels in the body along which energy moves. It is difficult to determine whether these channels are intended to be purely mental visualizations, descriptions of what we call the nervous system today, or a separate entity altogether. The details of this vast topic are best saved for another time, but here are 5 postures and exercises that are great and moving and affecting the energy:
1. TWISTING TRIANGLE
Pictured above, this posture goes right to the areas where most of us feel "stuck," the chest, the hips and the breath. By bending forward and then twisting the body, the posture feels like it makes everything tight. The trick is to release tension with short, calm breaths and a relaxed face. This posture also challenges the balance, which focuses the mind and enables a deeper experience.
Let's start with something obvious: we can breathe through either the nose or the mouth. The air that goes into our lungs is the same both ways, but there are vastly different effects on our nervous system and---according to new science---our brain. A new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience showed that "memory significantly increased during nasal respiration compared to mouth respiration."
But they also stated that "core cognitive functions are modulated by the respiratory cycle." Which means that our brain is hugely impacted by how we breathe.
Anyone who has practiced pranayama, which involves a lot of nasal breathing, has probably experienced its effects on the memory. It is almost ubiquitous that breathing practices bring up old memories and stimulate dreams of the past.
Keep your eyes, ears and nose open for more news about this exciting branch of neuroscience! There are sure to be more developments as we understand the brain better.
Breathing is central to yogic practice. Controlling the breath is far more powerful than controlling the body. It has physical, nervous and mental impacts. Here are three reasons to do breathing practices.
1. IMPROVE POSTURE AND DIGESTION
By strengthening the two systems of breathing--the chest and abdomen--many muscles are strengthened. The muscles of the ribs and spine help hold the torso upright, improving posture. The muscles of the abdomen support the lower spine and massage the intestines with each breath.
2. CALM DOWN OR FOCUS
The two parts of breath impact the nervous system, which controls how calm or focused we are. Breathing into the abdomen stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, lowering our heart rate and settling the body and mind. Breathing into the chest stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, heightening our awareness and attention.
3. MIND CONTROL
Controlling the breath requires communication between two distinct parts of the brain, one which is very old and one which is newer. When we breathe consciously, the coordination between these two parts creates intense focus in the mind. It is a relatively simple way to control our own minds!
One of the main ways that we breathe is with our chest. The muscles between the ribs cause the ribcage to expand and lift up, drawing air into the lungs. This causes the abdominal muscles to become long as they are pulled by the upward motion of the ribs. The abdominal muscles must be relaxed for the ribs to lift fully.
We often get questions about how to hold the hand and fingers when doing Alternate Nostril breathing. As far as your nostrils are concerned, it doesn't matter how you hold the hand or what fingers you use. The only important part is breathing through one nostril at a time.
We start to need technique when we do the practice often and for long periods of time. For example, at Ghosh Yoga we practice Alternate Nostril breathing every morning for 30-60 minutes. When you hold your arm and hand in position for that long, it can get tired and sore if you're not careful.
The most common way to hold the hand is with the pointer and middle fingers curled into the palm, as pictured above. The thumb then closes one of the nostrils and the pinky and ring fingers close the other. This formation of the hand allows the wrist to be straight as you manipulate the nostrils, meaning greater comfort and wrist health over time.
If you use your pointer finger to close the nostril, you will find that it forces the wrist to cock at a strange angle. This may be fine for short practices, or if you don't do it often. But over time you will find that the wrist becomes sore and achy.
RIGHT OR LEFT
People also ask about using the right or left hand. Either is fine. Traditionally the practices are taught with the right hand because the left hand was used to clean the body after using the bathroom. So eating, touching the face or another person with the left hand was culturally unacceptable. This is why the right hand is generally used. Since bathroom practices have changed, as have hand washing practices, it is acceptable to use the left hand for this practice.
It is also acceptable to change arms and hands if one gets tired. This is almost inevitable if you do the practice for more than 5 or 10 minutes.
Scott & Ida are Yoga Acharyas (Masters of Yoga). They are the head teachers of Ghosh Yoga. This blog is about their experience with yoga practice, study and teaching.
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