IMPORTANCE OF BREATH
Life is not possible without breath. Life in the physical body begins with the first breath and ends with the last. The Greek word for lungs, «pneumonia», finds its roots in the word «pneuma» or spirit. In English we say inspire and expire. That is to bring the spirit in and to send it out. In esoteric Christianity one finds the word «Holy Breath» used interchangeably with «Holy Spirit». It is through the Holy Breath that we receive the Holy Spirit and are transformed.
Trough observing, controlling and perfecting our breath we can transform our body, mind and personality. Let us consider the Science of Breathing.
The average female has a lung capacity of 2500 cc (Male 3000 cc). But the average human being normally breathes only a 600 cc quantity. This is inefficient. If energy is proportional to breath, we are operating at 1/6th of our capacity.
Why is it important to breathe more fully? Every cell in the body needs oxygen to burn the food supplies in order to carry out its various functions. The less oxygen, the weaker and more susceptible to disease are the cells. The breath is not only a supplier of essential life materials and forces, but also a remover of used toxic materials which need to be eliminated from the body. Breathing slowly and deeply, concentrating especially on the exhalation, is a technique of detoxification for the whole body.
When there is activity without sufficient supply of oxygen, lactic acid begins to accumulate in the muscles and nerves. The muscles become fatigued and the nerves cannot react anymore. Re-supplying sufficient oxygen converts the lactic acid, rejuvenating the muscles and nerves.
Ten minutes of slow deep breathing can remove much accumulated stress and fatigue. It can also give one extra boost of energy for any physical or mental activities. The most far-reaching benefit, however, is the mental calm and sense of harmony one feels in mastering the acts of breathing.
Controlling the process of breathing is the first step in bridging the conscious mind with the autonomic nervous system. Ordinarily we have no consciousness of our autonomic activities such as breathing, heart beat, digestion and the movement of certain muscles in the body (i.e. the opening and closing of veins and arteries or the temperature regulation in the hands). These activities are controlled by and at the same time affect our emotional and subconscious states. Regulating the breath is, therefore, very useful in learning to control the emotions.
The breath is the connecting link between the body and the mind. In yoga we learn to control the body, then the breath and then the mind. For example, when one is upset or angry the breath will be rapid and short. When there is worry, anxiety or fear, one will tend to hold the breath (especially by constricting the abdominal area). However, when calm or sleeping, the breath is slow, deep and rhythmic. One can gain a certain freedom from these dominating emotional states through practicing breath control both at the time of the crises and, even more important, as a daily discipline. Slowness of breath creates quietness of mind. Deepness of breath generates more energy and clarity of mind. Rhythm in the breath creates harmony of body, mind and personality.
When attached by fear or anger, remember the breath. Begin to breathe more deeply and slowly using the three sets of muscles (abdomen, ribs and chest muscles – which can be learned from any yoga teacher). You will find the emotion quieting down. Then act the way you think best.
Many subconscious traumas and stresses are effectively blocking the breathing process. A technique called «Rebirthing» has been recently developed where the individual breathes deeply (especially with the chest) for 1 to 2 hours in order to release various birth traumas. Other tensions can be released in the same way. But this should be done under competent guidance only.
As you begin to be conscious of your breath, you will notice that posture is very important. It is impossible to breathe properly with the shoulders hunched forward and the abdomen compressed and constricted. The spine must be straight. The breath movement begins down in the abdomen, moves upward into the ribs and then carries into the chest. And reciprocally, it is much easier to keep the body straight when breathing in this way.
It is more than the physical oxygen that we take in with the breath. The process of inhalation and exhalation are related to the drawing in of prana or life energy into the organism. The existence of a more subtle energy body, which is guiding and forming the physical body, is becoming more and more scientifically evident.
For example, in studies with fertilized chicken eggs, Kirlian photography showed that an energy field in the shape of the embryo exists long before the actual physical embryo is formed. One can infer that the consciousness of the chick is directing the energy into a certain magnetic pattern which is in turn guiding the physical atoms, molecules and cells into their proper places and functions.
Sea sponges, which are living organisms with three different types of cells (digestive, circulatory, and skeletal), have been cut up into small pieces and forced through a silk screen into a water solution. Within a day they have completely reorganized themselves into the original structure and functioned as the previous organism. There was obviously some energy force field which was guiding the formation of this orderly organism.
We call that force Prana. Where prana is abundant and in harmony, there is health in the body and mind. When there is a lack of prana or blockage of the pranic flow, there results physical and mental disharmony. Pranic energy is the subtle force behind all energy movements within and without the body. It becomes physical energy, thought energy, nervous energy, sexual energy, digestive power, voice power. Every life function of every living being, plant, animal, or microbe is sustained by prana. Compare it to the electricity of a house which can be converted into coolness, sound, light, heat for warmth, baths or cooking, making a food, and thousands of other uses.
The primary method of insuring sufficient supply and harmonious flow of prana is through mastery of the process of breathing. In this case, rhythmically breathing alternately through the left and right nostrils is the most efficient and safe way (must be learned through a yoga teacher). The anatomy of the nosw is such that the spongy lining of the nostrils can be filled or emptied of blood much like the sexual organs. When one side is filled with blood there is very little passage of air through that side forcing the air to enter through the opposite nostril. This, «gorging» of the mucus lining tends to alternate from side to side approximately every two hours.
Hence the body can produce a great variety of possible in-flowing currents, through various «gorging» ratios. The yogis have understood for thousands of years that this alternate blocking of the nostrils has a profound effect on the physical and mental state of the individual. Breathing only through the left side leaves an individual lacking in energy, tired, lazy, and perhaps cool. Breathing only through the right generates an overactive, agitated, hot state. When both nostrils are equally opened, a state of harmony exists between these two opposites. One is neither tired nor overactive, but there is an abundance of energy with the peace of mind to creatively use it.
An interesting side point is that nose surgeons have become aware of some drastic physical and mental changes in their patients after undergoing nose surgery. This could easily be explained in the above terms.
Alternate breathing then is a valuable tool for harmonizing the emotions, body energy, mental states and also digestion and elimination.
People who are subject to anxiety, asthma, fear, bronchitis, allergies, negative mental states, uncontrolled emotions, poor digestion, back pains, nervous disorders or a great variety of othe problems, will find great benefit in regular practice of breathing exercises.
There are as many ways to breathe as there are personalities. If one were to study the various nuances of each aspect of breath, one would know a great deal about people by observing the way they breathe. Do they use their abdomen, ribs, or chest? Where are they constricting themselves? Do they emphasize inhalation (receiving) or exhalation (giving)? Do they hold the inhalation (holding on) or the exhalation? Do they breathe quickly or slowly? Do they breathe rhythmically or irregularly?
All of the above factors can be observed and controlled in order to develop the WHOLE BREATH which will generate the WHOLE PERSONALITY. It is not necessary, however, to make a detailed analysis of each act of breathing. By simply sitting or lying for 10 to 2 minutes a day observing the breath, just watching it flow in and out, the breath will correct itself.
With regular practice, our normal breathing pattern will change and so will our breath and personality. Eventually this practice of observing the breath will become a form of meditation and higher states of consciousness will be experienced. One will begin to experience the harmony and peace of the SPIRIT. Then the meaning of inspire (to take the spirit it) and HOLY BREATH and HOLY SPIRIT will be experienced rather than understood.
In the deepest state of meditation, the flow of breath stops. There is no more duality between the inside and outside. The mind is overcome, there is union with the universal. There is only one.
Mastery of the process of breathing can, therefore, be a means of establishing physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well-being.
We are always happy to be of service to you in guiding you to this very simple birthright.
DEVELOPING THE MUSCLES FOR BREATHING
The muscles of breathing can be divided into three categories: a) those which move the diaphragm downward; b) those which expand the ribs to the side; and c) those which expand the chest and shoulders upward.
Each of these movements increases the volume of the lung capacity by creating a vacuum which causes air to be sucked into the lungs. Relaxation of these same groups of muscles pushes the air back out.
We will develop each muscle individually, and then work with all of them together in what is called «full, rhythmic breathing».
There are three important factors to remember: 1) fullness of breath; 2) slowness of breath; and 3) rhythm of breath. ALWAYS breathing should be relaxed and comfortable. DO NOT STRAIN.
In the beginning spend no more than five minutes twice a day. After one month you should be able to increase this to ten minutes twice a day. After another month you will be able to increase to twenty minutes once a day or 10 minutes twice a day. Increase slowly but with regularity. These exercises are best done in the early morning (at sunrise is best, but at least by 9 a.m.) and early evening – around sunset.
While counting the rhythm in all the following exercises, you can place the sound syllable «OM» in between each number. For example, inhale OM 1, OM 2, OM 3; and exhale OM 1, OM 2, OM 3. In this way each count will be equal to one second. At the same time you will receive the beneficial and harmonizing effect of this mantra.
1) Rhythmic Breathing. Lie on your back or stand up straight in a relaxed manner. Close your eyes and begin to relax and focus on your breath. Create a rhythm so that you are breathing in for the same amount of time that you are breathing out. You can do this with a count. As you breathe in, count to five, and count to five again as you breathe out. Do this about five times at first. Then slowly over the weeks increase the count to six, seven, and eventually up to fifteen if you can. Also increase the number of repetitions from five to perhaps ten.
DO THIS VERY SLOWLY – DO NOT HYPERVENTILATE – this is not a race, but a harmonious adjustment of your body to a healthier state.
2) Abdominal Breathing (Diaphragm). Many of us are not aware that we can use our diaphragm muscles above the abdomen for stretching the lung capacity downward and outward in order to take in more air. When most of us breathe, we use our upper chest. There is also a lower part of the lung which may be expanded. The lungs have the potential to expand 5 centimeters in the vertical direction also.
Lie restfully on your back and place your hand on your stomach with the little finger over your navel. Exhale all the air from your lungs and your hand should come down as your abdominal muscles contract pulling your stomach in and forcing the air out of your lungs. Now begin to expand the abdomen, and as it rises, your hand comes up with it. Continue in this fashion, inhaling with your hand rising, exhaling with your hand falling. Use the same progression schedule for rhythm and repetitions as indicated for the previous exercise.
The abdominal breathing is especially relaxing to the mind. It can be of great benefit to those with nervous tension or insomnia.
FOR ALL THE EXERCISES AND TECHNIQUES DESCRIBED HEREIN ONE SHOULD NEVER FORCE ANY MOVEMENT OR CONTINUE ANY MOVEMENT WHICH CAUSES PAIN. ONE SHOULD ALWAYS BE COMPLETELY RELAXED.
3) Ribcage Breathing. Place the palms or your hands on the sides of your rib cage so that the fingers of both hands are touching each other in the center of the chest when the lungs are empty. Now begin to breathe in by using just the muscles of your rib cage, and as the ribs expand to the side your fingertips are separating with the outward expanding lateral movement. Now exhale and let your ribs relax and come naturally together toward the center again, and your fingertips will again touch. Your rib cage has the potential to expand five centimeters so that on the inhalation your fingertips can be about five centimeters apart. Practice this rhythmically, gaining more awareness and control over these muscles of breathing. Start by doing five times a day, and slowly increase it to about ten or fifteen.
This type of breathing is especially beneficial to those who have respiratory disorders such as asthma, bronchitis, or coughs.
4) Chest Breathing. This type of breathing increases the functioning of your chest or upper chest muscles to expand the lung cavity upwards so that more air can be sucked into the lungs. Either lying or standing in a relaxed position, exhale, let your shoulders naturally rest downward.
Begin to expand the upper apart of your chest cavity, letting your shoulders naturally rise upward and backward. Proceed with the rhythm of inhaling and exhaling according to the same progression schedule as in the rib cage breathing.
5) Full Rhythmic Breathing. This full breath amounts to no more than simply putting to use all three possibilities of breathing.
In this case we exhale all the air from the lungs. Begin inhaling by expanding the diaphragm and abdominal muscles, filling up the bottom of the lungs. Now expand your rib cage muscles in the way you learned for the rib cage breathing exercise. Finally, naturally expand your chest muscles, thus filling the upper region or your lungs.
On the exhalation, expel the air from your lower lungs with the abdominal muscles, then the middle lungs with the rib cage muscles, and finally the upper lungs by relaxing the chest muscles.
This full breath should be done rhythmically, slowly, and naturally – without effort. Once mastered, it can take the place of the rhythmic breathing described earlier as exercise 1.
CONTROLLING THE ACTS OF BREATHING
In the system of yoga it is understood that the inflow and outflow of breath has a great effect on the vitality and the mental state. The truth of this becomes obvious when one has the opportunity to practice breath control. The control of the breath is one step toward controlling the body’s bio-energy of life-force.
As mentioned previously, this bioenergy is called «prana», and the control of prana is called «pranayama». The practice of pranayama is in itself another step on the way toward control over the mind and therefore toward liberation from suffering. But leaving the philosophical discussion for later, let us look briefly at some of the benefits of these practices.
– There is greater oxygenation of all the cells of the body. This rejuvenates all the cells and removes the acids which build up during muscular activity. In general there results a greater sense of well-being.
– The lungs are cleansed of toxins, and so, therefore, is the blood and the whole body.
– There is an increasing mastery over the emotional nature, and the individual becomes more relaxed.
– Because these exercises are practiced rhythmically (when practiced properly) they start the energy of the body flowing in harmonious cycles which gives an even energy supply for the whole day.
– The process of digestion becomes much more efficient.
Now, as with any powerfully beneficial act, it can also become powerfully negative if misused. For this reason you are warned not to practice these techniques without personal guidance from a teacher, and never to force any breath. Let your growth be slow and sure. In this way you will have all the benefits without the problems
Now let us look at the four acts of breathing. It should be noted, however, that the previous exercises for the three muscles of breathing and the full, rhythmic breath should be well mastered before going on to practice the following exercises.
1) Shunyaka: Here we concentrate on holding the air out of the lungs. Exhale completely and hold the air out of the lungs. Count to 5, then inhale. Then exhale again, hold for a count of 5, and inhale. Repeat five times.
You could count to 2,3,7,10, or any number which is comfortable to you. Remember the OM between each number as you count. Do this act of breathing exercise and each one for five repetitions to begin with and gradually increase over the months.
2) Puraka: Inhaling slowly. Exhale completely and inhale as slowly as you can, counting. Then exhale again, and inhale as slowly as you can, counting. Repeat 5 times.
3) Kumbhaka: Retention of the breath. Inhale deeply, holding the air in the lungs, counting to 10 or any other comfortable number; exhale. Repeat 5 times.
4) Rechaka: Exhaling slowly. Inhale deeply and then exhale as slowly as you can. Inhale again and then exhale as slowly as you can, counting. Repeat times.
These four exercises and the full, rhythmic breathing exercise should be thoroughly mastered before going on to the practice of any pranayama techniques. Let us understand mastery of these exercises to mean that one is capable of performing shunyaka, purka, and rechaka for ten seconds ( a count of OM 1, OM 2, etc.) and kumbhaka for 20 seconds without any strain or dizziness. Once this level of proficiency has been attained, you are assured that the muscles, lungs, and, most important, the nervous system are prepared for further pranayama techniques.
PRANAYAMA – BIOENERGY CONTROL
Prana, the life force, moves through our bodies, sustaining every life function from talking, walking, and working to thinking and digesting.
Most of the time this prana is not balanced within our bodies. It is not able to flow properly through the main energy canal which is along the spinal cord and through the nadis. (Nadis are the channels for pranic flow just as nerves are the channels for nervous energy flow. Nadis, however, are not visible).
The reason for this blocked or unbalanced flow is due partially to our level of consciousness, but to a great degree it is because of our unnatural living habits, that is eating poorly, no exercise, poor breathing, polluted environment, negative emotions, and wrong thinking.
To a certain degree some of the accumulated toxicity which is interfering with the pranic flow can be removed with the following exercise. We may say that it cleanses the nadis through which the prana flows to every cell of the body.
You will notice that most of the time one or the other of your nasal passages is partially or totally blocked. This, according to yogic sources, alternates about every two hours. This means that most of the time we are breathing primarily through only one nostril. When we breathe through only one nostril, this is indicative of, and at the same time perpetuates an imbalance in the bioenergy.
Breathing through only the left nostril creates a state of «Tamas» or tiredness, inertia, lack of energy. Breathing through only the right nostril generates a state of «Rajas» or activity, movement, mental unrest. Neither is preferable.
Breathing equally through both nostrils promotes a state of «Sattwa» or harmony and balance.
So we do the following exercise to balance the flow between the nostrils and harmonize the body energy. When one becomes proficient at this, he will rejoice at the sustained feeling of well-being it will generate.
Again, proceed slowly, intelligently, and under the guidance of a teacher.
Techniques of Alternate Breathing
a) Sit in any of the earlier prescribed meditative postures with your spine straight. You will use your right hand to manipulate the nostrils, so leave the left hand relaxed on your leg.
Close the right nostril with the thumb and exhale out the left. Now inhale into the left.
Close the left nostril with the middle and ring fingers (leave the pointer finger pointing to the sky) exhale out the right nostril. Inhale into the right.
Close the right with the thumb and begin again, repeating the same way.
The body should be relaxed. Try to find a comfortable position for your arm. Usually it is comfortable close to the body with the elbow down.
Do not hold the breath, but simply breathe in and out as slowly as comfortably as you can.
Count as you breathe, letting the inhalation equal the exhalation. Gradually increase your count.
b) When you can do the preceding version for 40 repetitions (left and right make one repetition) to an equal count of 10 for inhalation and exhalation, then it would be possible to proceed to the following exercises:
All movements are the same as described above, but now the ration of breathing becomes 1 : 4 : 2 (inhalation : retention : exhalation). This means that if you inhale for a count of 3, then you hold your breath for a count of 12 and then exhale for a count of 6. (It could be 2 : 8 : 4, 4 : 16 : 8, etc.)
Remember to place the sound OM between each count.
Although traditionally considered a cleansing technique, we shall include this exercise here with the breathing exercises.
This is a wonderful way to clean the lungs, the sinuses, while at the same time enlivening the whole body.
It should be done only after the earlier exercises are sufficiently mastered.
Sit in any meditative position. Inhale. Now contract the muscles of the abdomen, forcefully expelling the breath from the lungs, out through the nostrils (not through the mouth), – and then relax the muscles of breathing so that the air can flow into the lungs of its own accord. Repeat this expulsion and inhalation, starting slowly and gradually learning to do it quickly.
There should be the sound of small explosive bursts from your nose which eventually sounds like a train. The emphasis is on the exhalation, while the inhalation happens naturally.
You can begin with 3 repetitions of 10 expulsions and gradually increase the number of exhalations in each round.
There are many other more advanced techniques of prnayama such as Bhastrika and various banhas or body locks. These are designed to awaken the store house of potential creative force in the lower spine, and make it rise and unify with the seat of consciousness at the top of the head. This is a method of merging with God. It must, however, be learned under the guidance of a trusted and competent teacher.