Pranayama and Bandhas
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 selfhealing, 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 lifesustaining 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 ttention 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 breathwork 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 cleansing 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 xperience uncomfortable sensations or feel light-headed during the process, discontinue the Bhastrika for a few moments, then resume the exercise in a less intense manner.
Begin by relaxing your shoulders and practicing slow, deep abdominal 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, then 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.