The fourth part to the eightfold path is the Pranayamas. There are a few things that I should cover before I start. What is Prana? According to the Science of Breath and Ancient yogic texts, it is known as the subtlest unit of energy. In reading the Pure Heart of Yoga, I read that the root of Prana is the word an, which means to breath. So combining these gives you the fact that your breath is the most subtle energy source in your body. Even though it is the subtlest, it is a powerful source for you, because it is something that you can control and manipulate easily in order to achieve certain things. If you are familiar with martial arts, you may have heard of chi, which is the Chinese version of Prana. The second part of pranayama is yama, which I’ve reviewed before as your restraints. This type of restraint is a control Breath holding exercises is the fourth step of the 8 fold path. It is ridiculous that so many people do not know how to breathe, but it is something that most people do not put too much thought into. Air comes in; air goes out; as long as we get our oxygen, we do not care where or how we procure it. In doing this robotic action we forget that the breath is not a subconscious action. It is controlled through our brain and we can voluntarily stop and start it. Another thing that most of are never taught is that your mouth was never designed for breathing. It was created for consumption of food. The nose was created for breathing. The hair follicles in your nose were put there to help protect your body and filter the air that you breath. You do not have the same hairs in your mouth. Those hairs are slightly different and made for moving food down the esophagus. Most people though have changed with the times and try to rid themselves of their nose hair and breath through their mouth. So breathing the way that your body was intended to would be to breath through your nose and keep it controlled throughout the day to help you deal with stress, and energy exertion rates, and even meditation. Many times people associate yoga breathing with the ashtanga breath know as Ujjayi breathing which is made louder by closing off the throat some. This however is not the only form of breath and in all honesty is not nearly as controlled as you may think when used most of the time. It is typically just used to help remind the yogi to breath because when they can hear themselves breath they know they are not and if they hear it they are. Even if you are an Ujjayi breather, there are other ways for you to control your breath and help your body out even when you are not doing yoga. Another thing that a lot of people think is that when yogis tell them that we were meant to breath through our noses that the yogi means just in yoga. This is not true. We were meant to breath through our noses all of the time. The breathing exercises I am about to review, although they can be use for yoga, are not solely linked to yoga practice. Like I said controlling your breath should be used through out the day to help you out when you are stressed, to energize you when drowsy, and calm you down when your energy is too high. Breath control helps you when you are working out, running around, meditating, and practicing yoga. Knowing about breath control can help you out with anything your doing throughout the day.
Before I go into different breath holding techniques I want to talk about how to breath properly in order to get the most use out of your breath. The first thing we need to remember is posture. It is important to sit or stand with our backs straight, shoulders back and head sitting comfortably on top. In saying this though I want you to keep in mind that you should be comfortable, so you can sit in a variety of different ways in order to achieve the same effect without some of the pain. You can sit in easy pose, lotus or half lotus pose, adamant pose, butterfly pose, sitting in a chair, or standing prayer pose. Sometimes taking a few breaths can help you get to this place. For me I like to take 4 or 5 full breaths while extending my spine and rolling my shoulders around until I feel them falling into a comfortable position, then roll my head form one shoulder to the other until I know my neck is in line with my spine and has found a centered spot. Once you have found this proper posture, and spine alignment, it is important to become aware of your breath. Instead of letting this be a rhythmic or robotic thing that you do naturally, without thinking, try to become aware. What does this mean? The Science of Breath tells us to think about walking. At this point in life you no longer have to think about lifting one leg bringing it forward, planting it on the floor heals first, now the right leg… We do this naturally, right? But at one time it was hard and we had to think about what we were doing and how we were doing it. Try to think about your breath in this way. Slow your breath down so that you can hear it slightly inside your head. Breathe in deeply and feel the cold air coming in and the warmer moist air coming out. This is easier to feel when breathing through your nose. In order to focus everything on your breathing it is important to relax everything else including your jaw. Which when relaxed puts your mouth in a loosely closed position. As you breath in and out through your nose you may notice that one nostril is more open than the other, this is known as the infradian rhythm, which cycles about every 90 minutes. When your left nostril seems to be more open it means your ida channel is open. This is a channel that runs from the base of your spine out your left nostril. The channel running from the base of your spine out your right nostril is called pingala. If both of your nostrils are working in harmony then you are using the sushumna channel, which is the central channel. Which can signify complete balance in the body, but does not happen very often, and is noticed even less often. These channels make up something called the nadis, which is the prana I mentioned earlier as the subtlest unit of energy. Understanding these channels may help you to visualize your breath going into your belly as you deepen your breath. Belly breathing is important for a few reasons. In reading the book Meditation for your life I learned that the highest concentrations of red blood cells are located in the lower part of your lungs so getting your breath to fill your lungs all the way to the bottom allows for a better RBC circulation. Also as the bottom of your lungs fill and your diaphragm slides down into the belly, the belly moves. This movement is what we call belly breathing, and this movement allows for more blood flow to occur. This makes slowing the breath even easier. The low part of the lungs is not the only important part of the breath. The midsection of the lungs is important to fill all the way as well. As you fill the mid section, the lungs help to expand your lungs not only outwards towards the front, but to the sides as well. Which helps to expand the intercostal muscles that come into play during side bends. These are muscle that are not used very often and can be pain full to awake sometimes if done too quickly. The last part of the lungs to fill is the upper part of the lungs in the clavicle area. Many times I have beginners imagine the breath in their shoulders in order to paint a better picture, but when I say this everyone wants to shrug their shoulders. Its not about moving the shoulders its about expanding the chest and upper part of the lungs.
So now we know a little bit about our breath, and we know how to breath in the most effective way for our body, lets talk about a few different techniques for changing or using our breath. First off, there is meditating. There are many different ways to meditate and many ways to use our breath to guide our meditations. There are visualizations of breath to where we can see the breath with color, light, energy, or life. There is using the breath to clear the mind or relax the body. Breathing Self-Evaluation is a great way to evaluate your breathing. So try breathing with proper posture and nice slow deep breaths and ask your self a series of questions:
What part of your lungs moves while you are in this position?
Which parts (if any) are restricted from this posture?
How many seconds do you inhale? How many seconds do you exhale? Is there a pause after either of these?
If you did notice a pause, how long was it and when did it occur? What was the quality of the breathing?
How do you feel emotionally in this breath?
Now try moving your posture into a slouched position and ask your self thes
e same questions.
There is something called a three-part breath which is exactly what it sounds like. It is where we study all three parts of the breath (diaphragm, intercostal, and clavicle) separately and together. So the first breathing exercise would be the first part to the breath, which is the diaphragm. This is low in the lungs when you learn this breath it is best to start off lying on your back and keeping your feet on the ground bend your knees and pull your feet up by your buttocks. Placing one hand on the abdomen, allow your breath to travel into the lower part of the lungs only. As you do this, the diaphragm will move downward out of the way of your lungs and will make your belly move up and down with your breath. Place your other hand on your chest and feel your chest. See if t rises or falls, and see if you can allow it to move as little as possible. Keeping the air from going into the upper part of the lungs and only filling the lower part is also know as belly breathing, and once you have mastered it is something that will come naturally all of the time. Diaphragm breathing or belly breathing is great for emotional control, especially will anger. It also allows you to find time and space in your internal awareness. As you first start this breath you want to slow your breath so that you can feel how the breath comes in and out. Try for a three second count. Three seconds in three seconds out. As you become better with this, you may want to extend the breath and try holding the in-breath for three seconds and then holding the out-breath for three seconds.
The next part of the breath is a little higher up in the lungs, known as the intercostal breathing or mid breathing. Is called mid breathing because you are targeting your breath to the middle of the lungs. The intercostal spaces are the divots between the ribs. These divots are actually muscles that help to hold your ribs together and protect the lungs, heart, and diaphragm. These muscles don’t get used very often because in normal daily activities, we don’t try to move our ribs and so many times these muscles get stiff and as time goes go on become harder and more painful to move and stretch. In yoga we focus some of our practice on side bending, but for those who have little to no movement in these intercostal spaces this can be hard and sometimes even painful. This breath is actually a great way to help loosen up those muscles in a gentle way. This is a hard breath to learn , but in order to, Sit in a comfortable position, and lean forward a little bit. Place your hands on your rib cage right under your chest. As you inhale see if you can feel movement in your ribs going outward. If you don’t see how you need to change your breath to go only into this part of the lungs. This may take a while to learn since typically people like to breath into the clavicle area and people who are just starting to learn breathing techniques breath in the diaphragm area. As you do this you want to try to not move your diaphragm at all because once you engage the diaphragm, it turns into a belly breath. If you are really struggling with this breath, do not give up; many of us do especially when we first start. Try this alternative: sitting in your comfortable position, try leaning forward enough to restrict the belly movement, thin draw the chin into you chest in order to help restrict the clavicle breath. This may help to isolate the intercostal breath. As this becomes easier you can then try sitting up right with your chin relaxed. Same as with the diaphragm breathe, in order to help feel this breath in full take three-second breaths, three seconds in, and three seconds out.
The last breath is know as the clavicle breath. This is the breath that most people who are not studying any kind of breath will do. It is most natural for people to resort to this high breath and use only the upper chest area. This breathing technique should be practiced and learned last since it such a natural breath. We don’t learn this in order to promote this upper chest breathing, but to learn how to make it deeper, slower and more beneficial when used in the three-part breathing technique I will review next. To begin this breathing technique, sit in your comfortable position, and place one hand on your chest up close to the collarbone. While trying to keep the air only in this part of the lungs you will feel movement in your hand as you breath in and out. This upper part of the lungs reaches down to armpit level so if your ribs are experiencing any lateral movement, it will be felt in your armpits. You want to keep your mid lungs though from filling so try your best not to allow this movement to travel any further down the mid section as possible. In this breath, same as the other two, slow your breath down to three seconds in and three seconds out. As you improve this breath will lengthen as well.
Finally there is a three-part breath, which incorporates all three of the breaths above (diaphragm, intercostal, and clavicle) into one. Keeping in mind all of the individual sections of the lungs breathing that you have practiced, come to your comfortable sit, and allow your lower lungs to fill fully and the diaphragm lower into the abdomen. As you continue to inhale move into the midsection of the lungs and expand them laterally stretching the intercostal spaces laterally. Continuing to inhale allow the upper part of the lungs to fill now, and finish the breath. Once you have completed the inhale, slowly begin the exhale in the reverse order. Empty the upper area of the lungs first, then the mid and finally the lower. When doing the three-part breath, it is important to breath slowly. People typically breath too quickly, especially at first. As you slow and steady your breathing, your mind tends to slow as well which is why this is such a good tool for meditation.
There are other breathing exercises you can practice other than the three part breath. There is a breathing exercise that is a little less organized. Unstructured Awareness of Breath is what it’s called. This type of breathing is practiced the same way it sounds. There is no structure, so breathe in and out as you would like, and begin to become aware of what your breath is doing for you. Breathe in and out as is comfortable and normal for you. After a few minutes you can try switching your breath such as making it faster, slower, deeper, or shallower, and play around with it until you are completely aware of what your body does and how it reacts both in your mind and body. Ask yourself these questions:
Do you feel energy moving with the breath into and out of the body, circulating with the natural rhythm?
De you visualize light or colors in your body with the influx of each fresh breath? Or maybe the inhalation inspires feelings of emptiness, as if you are becoming the incorporeal breath.
Does a familiar prayer come to mind, or do you find yourself in deep conversation with a divine being or cosmic manifestation?
Make sure as you control your breath in different rhythms, and do some internal searching, make sure you keep the breath smooth, steady and slightly on the rhythmic side in order to keep the mind calm steady and clear.