Without food, we may survive up to eight weeks; without any liquids, we can only last three to five days; without oxygen, we may not make it past fifteen minutes. Oxygen is one of the raw materials without which life is impossible.
The basics of breath
Cells, the building blocks of all our body systems (nervous, circulatory, respiratory, digestive, lymphatic, endocrine, urinary, reproductive, skeleton-muscular, and integumentary), depend on a constant supply of oxygen in order to create the energy they need to keep alive and the body systems functioning. As result of this oxidation, carbon dioxide and water are formed. This conversion of oxygen into carbon dioxide and water in the cells is called cellular respiration or internal respiration.
The blood, assisted by the pumping of the heart, transports oxygen from the lungs to every single cell of the body, and carbon dioxide from every cell back to the lungs. At the smallest structural respiratory unit in the lungs, the alveolus, the exchange of inhaled oxygen and the metabolised carbon dioxide takes place. A fresh supply of oxygen is ensured by both the automatic nervous system, and the endocrine system, which notifies the breathing centre in the brain when oxygen levels are low in the blood. In normal breathing, inhalation is an active process followed by a restful exhalation. The exchange of gasses between the lungs and the outer environment is called pulmonary respiration or external respiration, and is involuntary in nature – it happens without our conscious control unless we decide otherwise.
Breath and its relation to body and mind
Breathing, as an involuntary act, is under the brain’s command. Breathing, having the ability of also being voluntary, can affect the mind in turn. For example, the mind will react to external danger by bringing about physiological changes that prepare us for the fight or flight response; amongst these changes, the breathing will become faster and shallower, allowing for hyperventilation or saturation of oxygen allowing the cells a bigger supply of raw material to convert into ready-to-use energy. By voluntarily slowing down the rate and increasing the depth of the breath, we are able to affect the mind into reverting to the previous state of homeostasis (balance in the body functions).
Homeostasis is the body’s wisdom to maintain a dynamic state of internal equilibrium despite the continuously changing outside environment. Although the internal conditions vary, they only do it within relatively narrow limits. Every organ system is vital in maintaining this balance, which is accomplished by the constant feedback amongst the trillions of cells they are made of. Nothing in the human body is superfluous.
In physiology, homeostatic imbalance – that is, a disturbance in homeostasis – is seen as the cause of most diseases. In Yoga philosophy, disease is the result of Prana imbalance, Prāna being the controller of the body’s physical functions or physiology. As we age or when we are under chronic stress, our body’s control systems become less efficient, and our internal environment becomes less and less stable. These events increase our risk of disease.
The respiration rate in adults varies between 10 to 20 breaths per minute, increasing with exercise and emotions, and decreasing during rest. Breathing can also become disturbed due to lifestyle or wrong habits: pollutants clog the breathing channels making them more susceptible to overreact — or not react at all; lousy sitting, crouching the shoulders and constricting the chest, may restrict the breathing capacity of the lungs, compressing the alveoli and narrowing the contact surface of the blood to exchange gases; hectic schedules may see us running around as if we were chased by a lion, creating shallow rapid breaths. This results in reducing the free flow of air through the respiratory tract, and the level of oxygen in the blood, and even resets the respiratory centres in the brain to reinforce these new breathing habits. The imbalance may show up as excessive speed, out of rhythm, shallowness, bursts of breath, and imbalanced breathing between the two nostrils [NAGENDRA]. The respiratory track not working at its full potential puts other systems under pressure to keep homeostasis, making the whole system not work to its most efficient capacity, making our internal environment less and less stable. Thus, disturbed breathing, when a chronic condition, can increase our risk for disease.
By purposely regulating the breath, by mindfully learning new breathing habits, we can override old habits and create more invigorating breathing habits. The yogic stages of regaining control over the breath are: cleansing the respiratory track; restoring the lung capacity; improving the efficiency of the breath; expanding awareness beyond the breath.
Cleansing the respiratory track
The first step in yoga to re-gain mastery over breathing is through purifying processes called kriyas. We use kriyas to cleanse and refresh the respiratory track; to desensitise possible hypersensitive reactions in the pathways; to build the stamina and forbearance capacity; to develop inner awareness [NAGENDRA]. Two kriyas are used in purifying the respiratory track: Neti for the upper track, and Kapalabhati for, mainly, the lower track.
In Sanskrit, kapala means ‘cranium’ or ‘forehead’; bhati means ‘light’, ‘splendour’ or ‘knowledge’. It is a practice that brings clarity to the frontal region of the brain. When beginning this practice, emphasis needs to be in inhaling and exhaling to the full capacity rather than speed; with practice and confidence, the aspirant can then increase the pace to 60-120 breaths/minute.
Kapalabhati activates all the body systems: massages the organs, and strengthens the muscles in the abdominal region; increases the heart rate and the circulation of oxygen-saturated blood; revitalises the brain cells, invigorates digestion, and normalises the function of both endocrine and exocrine glands; washes away the residual carbon dioxide in the lungs, and replaces it with a higher concentration of oxygen. The removal of carbon dioxide from the surroundings of a cell reduces lethargy and makes it function vigorously, bringing the body from a Tamasic to a Rajasic state.
Kapalabhati not only stimulates the body systems, but also increases inner awareness by reversing the direction of normal breath — making the exhalations active, and the inhalations restful, processes.
It is very important, in order to avoid injuries, to perform it with a fully-emptied stomach; to maintain a straight sitting position; to keep a relaxed face – a smile will do it! Patients with high blood pressure, heart disease, brain disorders, serious back problems, hernia and gastric ulcers, as well as menstruating and pregnant women, need to avoid this practice. An alternative safe Kriya is Bhastrika keeping breath retention to a minimum. Either of these practices should be performed in preparation for Pranayama.
Restoring the lung capacity
The second step in yoga to re-gain mastery over breathing is by normalising ventilation, correcting unhelpful breathing habits. Two main practices, sectional and full yogic breathing can be used to recalibrate the breath, both increasing the vital capacity of the lungs: abdominal, thoracic and clavicular breathing increase the air-flow into the lower, mid and most upper sections of the lungs respectively; full Yogic breathing ventilates all three regions. The expansion of the lungs allows a 100% increase of inhaled air, which fully recycles the air inside making more oxygen available.
Abdominal breathing brings vertical expansion of the lungs, which permits the alveolar membrane to increase in surface allowing a more efficient gaseous exchange. This surface increase may also allow the alveoli to heal: when alveoli are kept collapsed alveoli because of constricted breathing patterns, they may get clogged with mucous secretions, which makes them prone to disease. Besides this, the diaphragmatic movements get the abdominal organs massaged.
Deep yogic breathing should be practiced daily in the morning’s fresh air for a few minutes to recalibrate the breath. It is very important to maintain one’s normal breathing rate during this practice in a smooth, continuous and relaxed way; because the breath rate is not altered in any way, this practice is accessible to everyone.
Improving the efficiency of the breath
The third step in yoga to re-gain mastery over breathing is through slowing down the breath below the average adult normal rate; observing the space between each breath, and naturally elongating the pauses between each breath — Kevala Kumbhaka. These processes form part of pranayama, and can be practised through the different Anuloma-Viloma techniques.
Anuloma means ‘breathing in’, and Viloma means ‘breathing out’. There are six variations of this pranayama: Sukha (breathing in and out through both nostrils); Chandranuloma-Viloma and Sūryānuloma-Viloma (breathing in and out through the left and the right nostrils respectively); Chandra Bhedana (inhaling through left and exhaling through right nostrils); Surya Bhedana (inhaling through right and exhaling through left nostrils); Nadi Shuddhi (alternate nostril breathing). Left nostril breathing activates the right lobe of the brain, whilst right nostril breathing activates the left lobe of the brain; all these techniques either invigorate (single nostril) or balance (both or alternate nostrils) the main Nadis, Ida and Pingala.
When moving into pranayama, breath should be slowly inhaled and exhaled to one’s own full capacity (like in yogic breathing), without forcing the breath retentions (kumbhaka). Forceful retention of the breath may cause disorders if it is not performed appropriately. A safer way to practise kumbhaka instead is by training the respiratory system to the gradual and effortless slowing down and deepening of the breath until the breath retentions emerge and get prolonged spontaneously. Through an effortless and conscious practice, the cells get more efficient at utilising the oxygen for energy production, and kumbhaka becomes part of the automatic nervous system.
During Pranayama, we enable the parasympathetic system to activate, promoting the body to relax. When this happens, the body needs less energy to operate, and thus requires less oxygen to burn. Although the concentration of carbon dioxide in the blood increases during Pranayama, because the cells work more efficiently with lesser oxygen demands, there are no risks to health, and the cells are allowed to move from a Rajasic to a Sattvic state. With the mind and the breath so closed interconnected, as one exerts more control over the breathing process, it becomes possible to control the finer details of the mental process [NIRANJANANANDA].
“To slow down the speedy wavering mind to practise the slow, deep rhythmical breathing is very necessary. By practice one can cross all the obstacles of ailments and miseries.”
Yoga Vāsishtha 5.78.40-41
Expanding awareness beyond the breath
The highest manifestations of Prana (often translated as ‘life force’ or ‘vital energy’) are consciousness and beyond. Thus, the aim of pranayama (‘vital energy expansion’) is to expand one’s awareness from one-pointed attention to an all pervasive consciousness, delving deeper into the more subtle aspects of Prana.
The first step, one-pointed attention, stops us from letting the practices discussed above from becoming automated behaviours controlled by the involuntary or autonomous nervous system. For attention to happen, first we need to develop sensitivity. I like to compare sensitivity to learning the sounds of a foreign language: no sound can be produced by the vocal chords before one is able to discern that sound aurally first. Sensitivity can be developed, for example, by focusing on the friction of the air in the nostrils, or the movement of the abdomen. Ujjayi Pranayama is an easy breathing technique to work on developing sensitivity and attention.
Once have we mastered one-pointedness, we can gradually increase awareness from linear to surface using the cooling techniques of Sheetali, Sheettkari and Sadanta Pranayama, and from there to three-dimensional and all pervasiveness awareness through Bhramari Pranayama.
Bhramari Pranayama works on expanding awareness throughout the body through resonance: by producing a resounding and harmonious sound, both in the inhale and the exhale, all the cells in our body are encouraged to vibrate in unison. This effect is likened to that of plucking the strings on a tuned guitar: the whole instrument vibrates. Aspirants can focus on creating resonance on the exhale first, and then on the inhale. Eventually, with dedication and perseverance, the body awareness transcends, bringing about an all-pervading awareness.
We are aware that not all breathing techniques have been mentioned in this article. Our intention was not to be exhaustive, but to provide the reader with a cohesive overview of the different stages involved in yoga to develop mastery over, and awareness beyond, the breath.
As we let stress, strain and other environmental factors rule our lives, our breathing patterns become disturbed, and our health at a greater risk for disease for our bodies have to work harder to maintain internal balance. By consciously harnessing the power of the breath through cleansing, recalibrating and slowing down the breath, as well as expanding awareness beyond the breath, we can override old habits and create more invigorating breathing habits, which lead to the true meaning of pranayama. Pranayama is our way to not only protect and heal the body and mind, but also as a path to greater harmony and peace.
* It is strongly recommended to start practicing the pranayama techniques mentioned in the article under the guidance of a competent yoga instructor.
- Pranayama, the Art and Science (1998), Dr HR Nagendra.
Swami VivekanandaYoga Prakashana, Bangalore, India, 2007.
- Prana and Pranayama (2009), Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati.
Yoga Publications Trust, Munger, Bihar, India, 2012.