Why do you stay in prison when the door is so wide open?
Breath is the essence of life. You inhale for the first time shortly after arriving in the world even before your umbilical cord is cut. From that moment on you take approximately seventeen thousand breaths each day, which over a lifetime totals about 500 million breaths. In your final moments on this planet, you exhale for the last time; that breath defines the end of your life. Your breathing supports every experience you have from the time of your ﬁrst inhalation to that of your last exhalation. Breath is life. In yoga, the breath is intimately associated with prana, which translates from Sanskrit into English as “primordial impulse.” Prana is the primordial life force that governs all your mental and physical functions. It is the vital energy that animates inert molecules into self healing, evolving biological beings. It is the primary creative power of the cosmos. Learning to regulate your prana to calm, balance, cleanse, and invigorate your body/mind is a powerful technique of yoga. Your breath integrates many layers of your life—your environment, your respiratory tract, your nervous system, your mind, and every cell in your body. Regulating your breath enhances your physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. It is the key to a healthy, vibrant life. For most people, breathing is the only autonomic nervous system function that they can influence. Modern physiology divides the nervous system into two main components—the voluntary nervous system and the autonomic nervous system. The voluntary nervous system is active when you clap your hands, wave your arms, or use your legs to walk. It is responsible for activating the muscles that form the hundreds of facial expressions you make in a day, as well as those that control your speech. Although many of these functions occur with only minimally conscious intention, you have the ability to initiate and stop the use of these muscle groups at will. The autonomic nervous system governs basic bodily functions, which you usually have no conscious ability to influence. These include core physiological functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, regulation of your temperature, the levels of hormones in your body, perspiration, and the movement of food through your digestive tract. Your autonomic nervous system also plays an important role in the regulation of your immune system.
Modern neurological science suggests that most people are incapable of directly affecting these core physiological processes. They function on their own whether or not you are paying attention to them or attempting to alter them. Most people do not know how to influence their blood pressure, change the flow of their blood, reduce their sweating, or affect their digestive function. Studies of yoga practitioners, however, have found that with practice, people can learn to consciously decrease their blood pressure, slow their heart rate, reduce their oxygen consumption, alter their circulation, and lower their stress hormone levels. Learning to influence these usually automatic functions is a different set of skills from those we use to ride a bicycle or kick a soccer ball, but it is one that you can master with a little practice. Learning to regulate your breath is the first step in discovering how to influence other essential involuntary bodily functions. Left on its own, breathing does not require your conscious attention to consume oxygen or eliminate carbon dioxide. This is a good thing. Day and night, respiratory centers deep in your brain stem monitor the level of gases in your body and automatically adjust your breathing rate and depth. As anyone with asthma can testify, having to pay attention to breathing in order to get enough life sustaining oxygen into your body is not desirable. Every human being is capable of temporarily overriding autonomic control over breathing by speeding up, slowing down, or holding the breath. Conscious alteration of the usually automatic breathing process has powerful effects on your mind and body and provides a window into your ability to influence other autonomic functions. While you have your attention on your breath, you can modify it, but as soon as you relinquish conscious control, your involuntary nervous system resumes its authority. Through the yogic practice of breathing exercises, known as pranayama, you can use your breath to influence your physical and mental states. A variety of techniques to relax or invigorate your body/mind are described in yoga. They are easily mastered and have prompt and powerful effects.
Pranayama Breathing Exercises
You can learn a lot about life by paying attention to your breathing. Right now, take a deep breath in and hold it. Feel the increasing discomfort that builds as you resist the natural impulse to let go. When it becomes too uncomfortable release your breath and notice the immediate relief that you feel. Holding on to anything when it is time to let go creates distress in your body and mind. Now take a breath, fully empty your lungs, and hold your breath.
Become aware of the increasing discomfort that develops when you resist something from entering your life that you are meant to accept. Notice the relief that you feel as you take your next breath. Ingesting, absorbing, releasing, and eliminating— these are the key components of a healthy life and of natural, balanced breathing. When these basic functions are working well, you are able to absorb what you need and eliminate what you don’t, resulting in life sustaining nourishment and detoxification. When you take a bite of an apple, for example, you ingest potential nourishment, but the energy and information contained within the food do not become available to you until you’ve absorbed the basic nutrients through your small intestines. In every substance you ingest there are components that do not serve you, so a healthy digestive system releases the nonnourishing remains of the food into your colon. It is necessary to eliminate the residues of digestion on a regular basis for you to remain healthy.
These same steps are applicable on an emotional level. When people engage in emotionally powerful relationships, they often ingest more emotional energy and information than they are capable of digesting. To maintain a healthy emotional life, we must all selectively absorb those aspects of the emotional experience that are nourishing, while releasing and eliminating those components that, if retained, could be toxic.
The Law of Giving and Receiving is in continuous play during the practice of pranayama breathing exercises. Conscious breathing means focusing your attention on the perpetual exchange that is taking place between your personal body and the extended body of your environment. You exchange ten billion trillion atoms with your surroundings with every breath you take. The atoms you inhale every day have traversed the bodies of living beings across the universe and across time. Within you right now, you have carbon atoms that once inhabited the body of a cheetah in Africa, a dolphin in the South Pacific, a palm tree in Tahiti, or an Australian Aborigine. Ultimately, every particle in your body was stardust, created at the dawn of the universe. Your breathing is a continuous testimony to the Law of Giving and Receiving.
Conscious breath work is also an expression of the Law of Least Effort and the Law of Dharma. In a healthy body, breathing is an effortless process, automatically speeding up or slowing down, becoming deeper or shallower with the subtlest shift in your body’s requirements for energy. The oxygen you inhale supports the purpose (dharma) of every cell in your body, enabling each to exercise its unique talent while serving the wholeness of the physiology. On both physical and emotional levels, pranayama breathing exercises clear the channels that enable you to effortlessly exchange your personal energy with the energy of the universe. Consciously directed, your vital energy can be used for creativity and healing. Pranayama breathing exercises are tools to help you channel your vital force in evolutionary ways that bring you higher levels of physical and emotional well being.
When you have a lot of energy moving through your body, you naturally breathe more vigorously. You spontaneously move more air when you are exercising or dancing because your body requires a greater quantity of oxygen to supply your energy needs. In the same way that invigorating action increases the depth of your breathing, you can consciously deepen your breathing, resulting in greater energy available to your body.
One of the most empowering breathing exercises in yoga is known as Bhastrika, which translated into English means “bellows breath.” This is an energizing and cleans- ing breath. Although it is generally a very safe technique, it is important that you stay tuned in to your body during this process. If at any time you experience uncomfortable sensations or feel light-headed during the process, discontinue the Bhastrika for a few moments, the resume the exercise in a less intense manner. Begin by relaxing your shoulders and practicing slow, deep abdomina breathing. After a few deep breaths, fully exhale, and then begin forceful complete exhalations followed by forceful deep inhalations through your nose at the rate of one second per cycle. The entire breathing movement should be from your diaphragm. Keep your head, neck, shoulders, and chest relatively stable while your belly moves in and out.
Start with a round of ten Bhastrika breaths, the resume normal breathing and simply observe the sensations in your body. After about fifteen to thirty seconds, begin the next round with twenty breaths. If you feel light-headed or experience tingling in your fingers or around your mouth, discontinue your deep breathing and simply observe your normal quiet breathing until the sensations completely subside, then resume the process. After a pause of thirty seconds, perform a third round of thirty breaths. Again, suspend your Bhastrika breathing if you feel woozy. After the third round, simply witness the sensations in your body. For most people, this breathing exercise creates the experience of feeling energized and invigorated. If you feel sluggish in the morning, perform a set of Bhastrika breaths and you will feel the clouds clear from your body and mind. You can also perform a couple minutes of Bhastrika during the day if you are feeling drowsy or lethargic. If you are trying to lose weight, performing Bhastrika several times per day will increase your digestive power and help your metabolism burn more intensely. It is generally not recommended that you perform Bhastrika pranayama close to bedtime as you may have difficulty falling asleep. Although Bhastrika clears the mind, it enlivens energy.
A variation of the bellows breath is Kapalabhati, which involves forceful exhalations followed by passive inhalations. Sitting comfortably with your spine in an upright posture, forcefully expel all the air from your lungs, then allow them to fill passively. The primary movement is from your diaphragm. Perform this movement ten times, then allow your breathing to return to normal and observe the sensations in your body. Repeat these cycles of ten movements three to four times. Like Bhastrika, Kapalabhati is a cleansing and invigorating pranayama.
Dirgha pranayama is a cleansing and balancing breathing exercise that shows prompt benefits. It involves consciously filling three different areas of your lungs. You start in the lower chambers, move up through the middle thoracic regions, and finish with the upper spaces. This breathing technique is a simple expression of the Law of Intention and Desire. Simply by shifting your intention as to where to direct your breath you will notice a deeply relaxing and releasing effect. Perform Dirgha pranayama either sitting upright or lying flat on your back. Both the inhalations and exhalations are through your nostrils. For the ﬁrst breath, inhale slowly and deeply, directing the air into your lower lungs by consciously using your diaphragm. When this is performed properly, your belly should inﬂate so you look like you are a little pregnant. As you exhale, deflate your belly, as if air were escaping from a balloon. Repeat this pattern several times, drawing the air into your lungs’ lower chambers, maintaining smooth and rhythmic breathing. After you are comfortable with this first step, begin bringing air into the middle section of your lungs. Start by filling your lower regions as before, then direct your inflow to your mid-lung region by opening your rib cage.
You will feel your ribs expanding between your diaphragm and your chest. Inhale and exhale several times, filling both the bottom and middle areas of your lungs. Finally, draw air into the bottom and middle regions of your lungs, then continue filling your upper lungs by breathing into your collarbones (clavicle). Practice the complete breath so your inhalation and exhalations flow in a smooth, continuous motion, sequentially directing your attention from your diaphragm to your ribs to your clavicle. Envision this deep, conscious breathing nourishing the organs, tissues, and cells in your body, enabling them to perform their vital functions effortlessly and in accordance with their dharma.
The pranayama technique known as Ujjayi can help settle your mind and body when you are feeling irritated, frustrated, or overheated. Although the origins of the word are unclear, one interpretation is “leading to success.” This breath allows you to stay focused without generating unnecessary mental friction. Ujjayi creates a cooling influence at the back of the throat and has a balancing effect on the cardiorespiratory system. To perform Ujjayi breath, take a slightly deeper than normal inhalation. On the exhalation, slightly constrict your throat muscles so as you breathe out it sounds as if you are snoring. The outflow of your breath is through your nose with your mouth closed. The result should be that you sound like Darth Vader from Star Wars. Another way to get the hang of this practice is to first exhale the sound “haaah” with your mouth open. Now make a similar sound with your mouth closed, directing the outflow of air through your nasal passages. This should result in the desired breathy snoring sound. Once you have mastered it on the outflow, perform the same procedure on inflow, gently constricting your throat as you inhale. Try shifting into Ujjayi breath whenever you find yourself becoming aggravated or upset, and you will notice a prompt soothing influence. Ujjayi is said to have a calming effect on the body while it helps the mind to focus. We recommend using Ujjayi while performing your yoga poses to help you stay focused as you move from one posture to the next. Ujjayi can also be a useful tool during aerobic exercise. Olympic-level athletes have introduced Ujjayi into their training routines to enhance respiratory efficiency. Try using Ujjayi while performing your cardiovascular workout and see if practicing this breath technique reduces wear and tear on your body.
NADI SHODHANA—CHANNEL CLEARING BREATH
Nadi Shodhana means “clearing the channels of circulation” and is sometimes known descriptively as alternate nostril breathing. This pranayama exercise has a quieting effect and is very helpful in reducing mental turbulence associated with anxiety and insomnia. In Nadi Shodhana, you use your right hand to control the flow of breath through your nostrils. Your thumb is positioned over the right nostril, while your third and fourth fingers are over the left. There are several different styles of Nadi Shodhana, all of which regulate the ﬂow of air through your nasal passages. They differ according to how and when you alter the breathing pattern. The simplest procedure involves closing off alternate nostrils at the end of each inhalation. Inhale deeply, then close off the right nostril with your thumb, exhaling through the left. Smoothly inhale through the left nostril, and at the peak of the inflow, close off your left nostril with the third and fourth fingers of your right hand, exhaling through the right nostril. After full exhalation, inhale through the right nostril, again closing it off with your thumb at the peak of inhalation. Your breathing should be effortless with your mind simply witnessing the process. Continue performing Nadi Shodhana for the next few breaths, following this pattern: Inhaling through the left nostril. Exhaling through the right. Inhaling through the right nostril. Exhaling through the left. Nadi Shodhana has a relaxing effect on your mind and body. It can be useful to quiet your mind prior to beginning mantra meditation or when your mind is racing when you are trying to fall asleep. By softening the breath through Nadi Shodhana, you invoke a state of calm inner awareness.
Breathwork in Action
Become aware of your breathing throughout the day. If you find yourself in a tense or stressful situation, consciously take some slow, deep abdominal breaths through your nose and notice how your entire body relaxes. Practice Ujjayi breathing when you are walking or exercising and notice how it brings you back to your center. Use the Dirgha breath when you are feeling pressure and strain to circulate the life force throughout your body. Be conscious of your breath, and your awareness will stay centered in the midst of turbulence. According to yoga, this is the true value of pranayama.
THE BANDHAS—EMBRACING YOUR VITAL ENERGY
The word bandha means “to hold, lock, or embrace.” These potent practices train you to direct your prana, or vital energy, to different centers of your body. Bandhas provide direct demonstration of the Law of Dharma as you witness the immediate reactions in your body to specific actions you take.
The basic principle with each bandha is first to accumulate energy in an area of your physiology, then release it. This process of building a force and then unleashing it discharges obstacles from the pathways of energy circulation. Like Traditional Chinese Medicine, yoga envisions the body/mind as a network of energetic channels through which life force flows. These pathways are known as srotas and nadis. Srotas are circulatory channels in the physical body, whereas nadis exist in the subtle body. Health and vitality are dependent upon life energy flowing freely through the physical and subtle biological passageways.
JALANDHARA BANDHA—CHIN LOCK
Sitting comfortably with your legs crossed in front of you, take a deep breath. While exhaling, bring your chin to your chest. Pressing your chin into your chest, inhale against your closed throat so that no air moves but your chest rises up. Hold this position for ten seconds, then raise your chin and inhale normally. The word jalandhara comes from two roots—jala, meaning “network,” and dhara, meaning “upward flow.” Jalandhara is designed to stimulate the network of nerves and energy channels in the throat. Energy stagnation in this region is associated with chronic neck pain, hoarseness, and thyroid imbalances. Jalandhara traditionally has been used to strengthen the thyroid, relieve neck stiffness, and enhance mental clarity.
UDDIYANA BANDHA—STOMACH LIFT
Sit comfortably with your legs crossed and your spine upright. Bend slightly forward. Placing your hands by your sides or on your thighs, bend slightly forward. Take in a deep breath and completely exhale, emptying your lungs as fully as possible. Make a motion as if you were about to take another inhalation, but instead lift your abdomen so that you are forming a hollow below your diaphragm. Hold this position for about ten seconds, then release and take a normal in breath. Repeat this motion seven times.
This bandha activates the solar plexus energy center, which governs digestion and the ability to translate your desires into manifestations. Blockages in this region are associated with digestive disturbances and metabolic imbalances. Developing the ability to regulate energy in this area of your body ensures that you have access to your core digestive fire. When your fire is burning brightly, you are able to extract the nourishment you need from your environment and discharge toxins that inhibit the flow or energy in your body/mind.
MOOLA BANDHA—ROOT LOCK
Sitting with your legs crossed, bring your right heel as close to your groin as you can. With your eyes closed, begin contracting your anal sphincter muscles. Imagine as you are contracting that you are drawing your rectum upward into your abdomen. Hold this position for ten seconds, then slowly release while you exhale. Repeat this process ten times. Moola means “root.” The root chakra is the source of all energy in the body. Learning to regulate prana in this region will enable you to consciously direct your creative forces to the achievement of all your desires. Performing this bandha can help with a wide range of health conditions including hemorrhoids, urinary incontinence, and sexual function problems.
Pranayama exercises and bandhas bring your attention into your body and use your intention to move energy consciously. All success in life derives from this ability to consciously acquire, store, and release energy. Learning to harness the power of your intention is the essence of the Law of Intention and Desire. The ability to direct your prana—your life energy—to eliminate toxicity from your body enables you to do less and accomplish more. Not wasting your energy resisting the flow of your life force is the essence of the Law of Least Effort. Conscious breath work through pranayama and conscious energy management though bandhas teach you fundamental skills in governing the vital energy in your body. Pranayama breathing exercises and energy-regulating
bandhas are fundamental practices that teach you how to manage your life energy efficiently and effectively. The practice of yoga is practice for life. Learning these fundamental skills will serve you in all aspects of your life.
By :: Deepak Copra