When you do yoga [and correct, conscious breathing; emphasis ours]. you initiate a process that turns the fight-or-flight system off and the relaxation response on. That has a dramatic effect on the body. The heartbeat slows, respiration decreases, blood pressure decreases. The body seizes this chance to turn on the healing mechanisms.
— Richard Faulds, yoga instructor
“I watch the Chinese actor in an American movie. His face has turned red with anger because of what he has just heard on the telephone. He begins to breathe deep as he stands in a solitary corner, clenching his fingers slowly while he inhales, pulling his arms upwards to bend them at the elbows.
He exhales equally hard, but slowly, pushing his arms down as he does so, while opening his fingers wide. He does this three times, in quick succession. His movements and breathing are, however, slow and deliberate. He then places his palms on his eyes for a while, breathing evenly now.
When he removes his palms from his eyes, his face is no longer agitated. His vision seems focused and clear. He has achieved a sense of calm, though moments before he began this exercise there was anguish and anger on his face. I watch with eyes glued, in utter fascination, as he now moves forward with deliberate steps, intent on what he has to do.”
In the movie, the actor is shown practicing a deep breathing technique so that he can deal with a trying situation that confronts him. His example highlights how we can deal with extreme stress – by understanding how the mind and body connection works – through breathing.
In everyday life, we experience stress which may not be of an extreme nature all the time, but its cumulative impact may well be immense. Our bodies are geared to deal with stress situations, with the flight-or-fight response. Adrenaline rushes to our face and we turn beetroot red with resentment. Or, we quiver and shake with fear, hoping to hide ourselves in a corner till the terror and torment vanish, somehow.
There may be a constant state of anxiety as we try to deal with different issues, meet forbidding deadlines, and hope our blood pressure remains normal. This is the state of urban angst today. Since our breath is what connects the body and the mind, deep breathing is the means by which we learn to maintain a state of calm, or equilibrium.
Prana, or life force
Most ancient Asian traditions recognise the importance of breath and breathing. It is chi, or prana, or the life force, that is absorbed and distributed in the body to transmute creative energy. We breathe simply and unconsciously, unaware of what a potent force our life breath is. Yoga makes us aware of the importance of being conscious of our breath. This is for our wellbeing and peace of mind.
Pranayama or conscious breathing
In yoga, pranayama is breath control, or the conscious use of breath. Pranayama is important because it:
- Gets rid of body toxins
- Nourishes the body
- Removes blockages of energy
- Aids in releasing creative energy
- Gives clarity to thought processes
- Makes us achieve a sense of balance
- Helps in meditation and spiritual understanding
- Strengthens the immune system.
The first step towards practising breathing, or pranayama, is to learn to breathe correctly. Breathing is the simplest of things, yet most of us do it wrong – sucking in our stomachs as we inhale, and pushing it out as we exhale.
I remember being taught this way of breathing in school at a very young age, during our physical training class. Later, when I began to learn yoga, I realised how wrong the method was. When air fills in a balloon, it inflates, and when the air hisses out, the balloon deflates. Should our breathing also follow this obvious process?
Yogic breathing teaches us that we should not suck our stomachs in as we breathe in. As we inhale, we fill our lungs and breathe deeply to push our stomachs out. As we exhale, we throw our breath out, emptying our lungs and pulling our stomachs in. However, we must not over-expand or over-contract the abdomen, for this would make breathing difficult.
What we usually do is shallow breathing, not allowing our lungs to fill completely with prana. Our breathing is quick and fast, perhaps, in keeping with the times we live in, skimming the surface and moving on. We need to make it deeper and slower. The more fluid, smooth and deep our breathing is, the more energetic and healthy we will be.
A person with a large breathing capacity is usually full of abundant health and energy. Yoga recommends deep diaphragmatic breathing. Long, deep breaths relieve stress and tension. Ujjayi, Nadi shodhana, Bhastrika, Kapalabhati, Shitali are examples of breathing techniques in yoga.
The practice of pranayama
- All breathing exercises are done on an empty stomach
- All inhalations and exhalations are through the nostrils
- Some warm-up stretching exercises, or asanas [postures], are done before breathing exercises
- To begin, sit in a comfortable position with the back and neck straight
- The critical factor in pranic breathing is rhythm. This has to be maintained.
Two specific exercises which can be practiced regularly to release tension and stress are Ujjayi and Nadi shodhana.
Ujjayi, or victorious breath, is so called because it means mastery in raising energy levels.
It creates increased focus and calm. It helps quiet anxious minds and generates internal heat. It helps release tension in the lower abdomen and the solar plexus.
Sit comfortably, spine erect, or lie down on your back. Begin by taking long, slow, and deep breaths through the nostrils.
Allow the breath to be gentle and relaxed as you slightly contract the back of your throat creating a steady hissing sound, as you breathe in and out. The sound need not be forced, but it should be loud enough, so that someone close to you can hear it.
Lengthen the inhalation and exhalation as much as possible without creating tension anywhere in your body, and allow the sound of breath to be continuous and smooth.
To create the proper “aahh” sound, hold your hand up to your mouth and exhale as though trying to “fog” a mirror. Inhale in the same manner. Notice how the back of the throat constricts as you try to create the “fog” effect. Now, close your mouth and do the same thing while breathing through the nose. Do this six times, breathing in and out. Relax with normal breathing for a while. Now, repeat this cycle three more times.
Nadi shodhana is alternate nostril breathing. It can be done by beginners. Nadi means channel, or stream. It refers to the energy pathways through which our life force flows. Shodhana means cleansing. Hence, this practice helps in cleansing our channels of energy.
Nadi shodhana calms and clears the mind and restores balance, especially in our fast-paced, stressful lives.
Hold your right hand up and place your index and middle fingers in the middle of your forehead, between the eyebrows. This juxtaposition of the index and the middle fingers symbolises the Union of the Self with the Super-Consciousness.
Place your thumb next to your right nostril and your ring finger and little finger by your left. Close the left nostril by pressing gently against it with both your ring and little fingers, and inhale through the right nostril. The breath should be slow and deep.
Now, close the right nostril by pressing gently against it with your thumb, and open your left nostril by relaxing your ring and little fingers to exhale fully with a slow and steady breath.
Inhale now through the left nostril, close it, and then exhale through the right nostril.
One complete round of Nadi shodhana, therefore, consists of: inhalation through the right nostril to exhalation through the left; then, inhalation through the left to exhalation through the right.
Begin with 5-10 rounds, and add more as you feel ready. The rhythm of your breathing should be maintained.
Caution. For those who do this exercise for stress relief, ensure that you do not retain the breath at any time, for this would increase the tension. Also, Nadi shodhana is not advised for those with high blood pressure, or epilepsy [fits].
When we practice pranayama, we are conscious of our breath, the movement of it within and without us, its energy flow, and how it makes us centred and still.
We do not feel tired and spent as we move from one breathing exercise to another. Instead, we feel a sense of calmness and wellbeing, quite unlike the exhaustion that is brought about by vigorous exercise.
Through pranayama, we mobilise the life force to awaken our chakras. Chakras are spinning centres of energy. Seven in number, they are aligned in an ascending column from the base of the spine [the Muladhara chakra] to the top of the head [the Sahasrara charka]. Life energy flows among them along channels called nadis.
In simple terms, when we practice pranayama, we clear the nadis, which, in turn, allow our chakras to spin better with the increased energy that they receive. When we bring the chakras into alignment and balance, we are in harmony with ourselves and the Universe.
Pranayama helps us to get into the state of meditation. We get more focused, our concentration increases and we feel more alert. At the same time, we experience a sense of relaxation and an unfolding.
The outward and inward flow of breath helps us develop inner peace, outward calm.
Tapping into our inner resources
Pranayama creates a kind of alert consciousness that enables us to tap into deeper sources of energy and creativity within us. Our mind patterns change and our capacity to visualise increases.
It is almost as though the deeper and slower we breathe, the more we reach into the recesses of our being to release our creative genius.
We remove the shackles of shallowness from our breathing and, therefore, from our thinking. Even if we close our eyes and sit quietly, breathing slowly, carefully and rhythmically, we will experience a difference. So, if we make the practice of pranayama a part of our daily lives, we will bring about a slow, but meaningful, change in our behaviour patterns and in our lives.
As we go deeper into the practice of pranayama, we find that it helps us to heal. This is because during pranayama, we draw enormous amounts of life energy from our surroundings. As we continue to inhale and exhale deeply, we get more and more energised, our channels of breathing and thinking get cleansed, and this helps us to feel physically and mentally in good shape.
It is believed that long-time practitioners of yogic breathing can project their prana, or energy, onto others to heal them.
Patanjali, the great sage who formulated yoga, says that pranayama is a step to be one with God. It helps us to switch off our five senses and tune in to our inner self. In doing so, we connect with our core being and the divinity within ourselves.
Yoga is different from aerobics, gymnastics, calisthenics, jogging, or any other form of exercise, because it involves conscious and rhythmic breathing as we move into the yogic poses and meditation. It places absolute importance on correct inhalation and exhalation and concentration on our breath. It emphasises the link of our body and mind with our breath. It recognises the link between us and the Universal Order of Things.
As we inhale, we draw in energy. As we exhale, we send back into the Universe a part of us.
Breathing during Exercise
Gym instructors are often faced with the question on how to breathe correctly during work-out. While the query may seem trivial, it is very important to remember three essential things during exercising, no matter whether you are doing weights for the first time, or you are a veteran at weight training. The three things are: form, posture, and breathing. The three elements are linked to each other.
The first is form. Always have correct posture during your work-out, and make an effort to learn the right form the first time itself as it is difficult to unlearn incorrect form. Stand with your back straight, and your tummy tucked in.
The second is to learn the right technique. Most of us start on the wrong note and end up having an injury and/or blaming the gym. Observe the trainer and learn the right technique from him/her, and not your gym friends.
The third and the most important thing is breathing during your work-out.
- Always breathe well during your work-out
- It is never a good idea to hold your breath
- Breathe in when you take the weight towards your body
- Breathe out when you take the weight away from your body.
- If you are a beginner, concentrating hard on the technique makes you forget when to breathe. Count aloud as it will help regulate your breathing
- Never chew gum while exercising as it interrupts your breathing and may get stuck in your windpipe and even choke you
- Holding your breath can elevate your blood pressure. It also puts a lot of strain on your heart. It can even cause you to get dizzy and faint.
- Going too fast with your reps may also force you to stop breathing. So, do your work-out slowly and breathe evenly
- Breathing ensures that your blood is rich with oxygen and it gets supplied to the working muscles. This, in turn, helps you burn fat/calories. It also keeps your skin glowing.
When Breathing is not Breathing
Many of us tend to breathe too quickly. This leads to shallow breathing. As a result, our bodies are oxygen-starved. This leads to toxic build-up. Every cell in our body requires oxygen. This means that our level of vitality is a result of the health of all the cells.
Shallow breathing does not use, or expand, the lungs adequately. Persistent shallow breathing may hamper some of their function, causing a further reduction in energy.
It is said those who breathe slowly, live the longest.
What causes shallow breathing is not difficult to identify. Most often, we are in a mad rush. Therefore, our movements and breathing follow this model.
Blame it also on stressful living. We breathe more quickly and less deeply. We also have a propensity to get too excited, anxious, angry, and emotional — this affects our rate of breathing, and makes it rapid and shallow. What’s more, thanks to advanced gadgets and high-tech living, we have reduced our need for physical activity. There is now no need to breathe deeply!
There is another reason why we develop the shallow breathing pattern. More and more people now work indoors – you may call this the “sick building syndrome” [SBS]. This has increased our exposure to indoor pollution. The result is: our body automatically inhales less air to protect itself from pollution, and takes in just enough air to live. When we become stressed or anxious, our breathing becomes shallow and rapid. This is called hyperventilation. If this breathing continues for too long, it affects the functioning of the nerves and muscles and leads to symptoms such as palpitations, faintness, panic attacks, lethargy, headaches and muscular tension.
When we go through such a process, day-in and day-out, our habit to breathe “lightly” gets attached to us and becomes a part of our life.The big question is: have we forgotten to breathe correctly? Think, and think again. Try to break the bad habit.
Correct breathing is relatively easy to learn. It means breathing calmly and deeply. So, start now to breathe well and begin to live well.
Make it a habit.
Breathing is vital to life for two reasons. 1. It is the only means to supply our bodies and organs with oxygen for our survival. 2. Breathing helps us get rid of waste products and toxins from our body.
- The air we breathe is made up of roughly 20 per cent oxygen and 80 per cent nitrogen
- The surface area of the lungs [organs in charge of breathing] is roughly the same size as a tennis court
- We have two lungs. The right lung is somewhat larger than the left
- The capillaries [blood vessels] in the lungs extend 1,500 km, if positioned end-to-end
- We lose half-litre of water everyday day through breathing. This is the misty, water vapour you see when you breathe, for instance, on to glass/mirror
- A person, at rest, usually breathes 12-15 times a minute
- The breathing rate is quicker in children and women than in men.
Element of Life
Brahmavidya is a science of life that teaches us the spiritual laws of life. These spiritual laws operate in human life through breath and thought. We cannot think of life without breath, or thought.
Brahmavidya emphasises on breath and thought, which are the elements of life. Though we use our breath and thought from birth, many of us do not know the correct way of breathing, or thinking. You will be surprised to know that the average person uses only 10 per cent of his lung capacity. Brahmavidya teaches: a] Spiritual Breathing Exercises, which improve breathing, and b] Meditation techniques, which improve thinking. The breathing exercises purify the body and meditation purifies the mind.
Every human being is potentially divine. Hence s/he has all the power that is required to overcome difficulties and problems. Brahmavidya gives definite methods by which a person can overcome physical and mental problems and lead a healthier, more successful, and happier life.
Brahmavidya is not like a medicine, which is meant for a particular ailment. It is a system, which helps to remove the “root cause” of illness and promotes health. Breathing exercises and meditation have been found to be useful in controlling asthma and other breathing disorders, high blood pressure, heart trouble, backache, spondylitis, chronic cold and cough, and many other ailments.
The practice also improves the mental outlook of the person and makes him/her more positive, cheerful, optimistic and confident. Thus, due to better physical and mental health, a person can do his daily work more energetically and efficiently.
With inputs from Jayant Divekar, Chief Trustee, Brahmavidya Sadhak Sangh