The practice using the breath … discover the principles……
1 Why practice breathing?
So things being what they are, there is advice popping up wherever you look about how to stay healthy and safe while we live through the shadow of COVID-19. This article isn’t that advice. But learning to work with prana is the next stage of practice beyond asana, and it does much for the mind and the body. Don’t get me wrong, to my knowledge there have been exactly zero scientific studies on the connections between pranayama and general health, but the lore of both yoga and ayurveda do consider pranayama to be an essential tool for personal well-being.
This is because all life exchanges energy with its environment. In the yoga lore prana is the carrier of energy for all life. Prana is the subtle part of the breath, where we draw oxygen from the air to release energy stored in the body, powering our growth, movement, purification, and healing.
As humans, we have a relatively unique ability to consciously control our breathing. In fact, we are the only apes that can do this, and among the mammals we only share it with those that are comfortable (or live) underwater. Because our minds and our breath are so closely intertwined, we can actually use the breath to regulate the mind as well.
The physical side of pranayama is also important. Muscles from the neck to the base of the pelvis, both in the front and back of the body, are involved in every breath. The movements resulting from the breath move every vital organ and help to pump blood and lymph through the body. By fortifying every system, it is more than reasonable to assume that it can help us maintain optimal health in the face of any difficulty.
2 A Basic Practice
So where do we start? The most basic practice is simply to breathe. Since we do that all the time, anyway, you’d think that there would be more, but there really isn’t. Most people compromise their breathing for many reasons. Remember, the mind and the breath are very closely linked: passing thoughts and emotions are quickly reflected in the breath. Some emotional states can actually be induced by conscious control of the breath as well.
So the first practice really is to simply breathe a calm and complete breath cycle that nourishes the needs of the body and brain. Find a comfortable and neutral place to rest (seated is best, but lying down also works), close your eyes, and focus on the sensation of the air flowing in and out of your nose. Try not to control the breath while you simply observe how it proceeds. That can be harder than it sounds because the mind is so closely connected to the flow of breath.
The next step is to get your whole torso involved in the breath. As you inhale, first expand the tummy, then the ribs, and finally, for the last sip of air, lift the shoulders. The exhale follows the pattern in reverse: release the air from the top of the lungs by letting the shoulders drop, then contract through the ribs, finally pushing out the last bits of air by drawing the navel in and up towards the heart.
If you repeat just this breath cycle – called the “full yogi breath” – just eight times that will be a great start on your road for pranayama practices. If you notice that you get tired (it is a bit of a core workout) or light-headed (from all the new air), then feel free to begin with fewer repetitions and work your way up. Pranayama is fundamentally about regulating how we relate to our environment, taking in energy (via prana & oxygen) and releasing waste (mainly CO_2) back to the planet for recycling. Ultimately, bringing your practice up to a full mala round (108 repetitions) is an excellent meditation practice in itself.
You will also begin to develop the musculature that allows you to access more of your natural breath capacity. For some people this becomes evident very quickly. Many of us were taught postural rules which make it difficult to engage the parts of the torso in the full yogi breath. In particular, the full breath requires a soft tummy to make room for the organs to expand away from the lungs, and so many of us were taught as children to hold our tummys in. Emotional restriction is also often reflected in our ability to breathe deeply, and the full yogi breath can be an important first step in gently releasing stored emotions.
3 The baseline practice
Now, remembering that pranayama is about regulating how we interact with the environment, we can use it as part of our yoga practice to help bring balance between the mind and body, the inner and the outer world. The practice of samavrtti pranayama is what most teachers would call the baseline pranayama practice in Yoga. You may have noticed during the full yogi breath that there is a tendency to pause – just for a fraction of a heartbeat – between the inhale and the exhale, and between the exhale and the next inhale. This space between the breath movements has different names in Sanskrit depending on the context; I will call it the madhya (Sanskrit for middle) of the breath. in samavrtti pranayama we bring all of the components, the inhale, exhale, and the madhya, of the breath into balance.
To do this we will count, silently and in the mind, through the full cycle of the breath. I generally follow the rhythm of my heartbeat, but if that is difficult you can tap your finger or listen to a ticking clock. For my heartbeat (and a clock tick) pace, starting with four counts for each phase is an easily attainable first step for most people, most of the time. If your heart beats faster you should adjust the count to have it take 4-5 seconds for each phase.
SO a simple practice might look like this:
- Exhale fully
- Inhale for four counts
- Hold the breath for four counts
- Exhale for four counts
- Hold the breath out for four counts
- Repeat steps 3-6 until you feel done
- Tune in to the present moment with either the natural breath or the full yogi breath
And such a practice will help you ground and center, bringing you in touch with your own desires and giving you a better perspective on how to engage with whatever is present in your immediate situation.
You can extend this practice in ways which are helpful for both meditation and rest during flu (and other respiratory diseases) season. For this, we just extend the length of the count. You breathe the same amount but more gently, so you have a steady stream of air to absorb and release. This actually takes a fair amount of mental discipline, because the body and the mind speak to each other through the breath. As the hold becomes longer, the body will want air more quickly. By absorbing the breath slowly, I find that I get more good out of it and the held madhya (middle) breath becomes easier. The mind also eases as the body eases, and this technique often has helped me on sleepless nights. It’s also useful when congestion or a chest cold keeps me up. Mind you, I have had nights where nothing works, but a slowly lengthening samavrtti pranayama practice is a tool that has been very helpful to me over the years.
Pranayama is a very deep practice, and I have just scratched the surface here. Whole books have been written about it by many different authors over the centuries. At its heart, it is all about balance: between inhale and exhale, motion and stillness, mind and body, giving and receiving, the inward mind and the outward expression. It gives us tools for working with both the body and mind in circumstances where other embodied practices like asana or Pilates aren’t going to (or can’t) work.
As with all the practices of Yoga, pranayama contributes to our well-being, and helps us to experience freedom in our bodies and our minds. In this time of great uncertainty, we could all use a large helping of both, don’t you think? Pranayama is an easy way to keep going in that direction.