As a child I used to play
a game in the back yard with friends. We would hyperventilate
and then hold our breath until we almost passed out. We thought this was
great fun. Little did we realize that we were playing with one of the most
powerful physiological and spiritual tools at our disposal: the breath.
We usually take the ability to draw a simple breath for granted, but our
language reveals our intuitive awareness that breathing is critically important
and powerful. We often talk about breathing easy to show we've relaxed and let
go of a problem or worry. We use the term breathing room when we
need more space for sufficient air and thus life itself. And we express
our intuitive understanding of the power of breath when we advise angry
people to Take ten deep breaths before they speak or act from
anger. Actually, this bit of folk wisdom has a basis in fact. A period
of quiet deep breathing causes blood pressure to drop and to stay down
for as long as thirty minutes.
The power of breathing cannot be denied. Breathing is at the center of
natural childbirth training, and we are taught to breath deeply before
we face stressful situations like auditions or oral exams. Breathing is
also at the heart of virtually every meditation system as well as most
styles of asana (posture) practice. This is because when we pay attention
to the breath, it brings us fully into the present. It is impossible to
focus on thebreath without paying attention to the here and now.
Yoga has always stressed the importance of observing and regulating the breath.
The most ancient source book for yoga practice, the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali,
includes such practice called pranayama as one of the eight essential
limbs of yoga. In Sanskrit, "prana" means not just breath but also the
life energy that fills the universe, and "yama" means restraint or control.
Pranayama makes use of the respiratory apparatus, but the focus of pranayama
isn't simply on inhalation and exhalation. Rather, yogis use the breath
to draw in, channel, and store the universal life energy so that it can
be used to facilitate self-evolution.
While Patanjali doesn't instruct the reader in specific pranayama techniques, he
unquestionably includes pranayama as a very important tool for self- transformation.
In fact, he claims that the goal of yoga, "the resolution of
the agitations of consciousness," can be achieved by the controlled
and retention of the breath" (Chapter I, verse 34).
However, one of Patanjali's few direct comments on pranayama sometimes confuses
yoga students. In Chapter II, Verse 49, Patanjali states that pranayama
is to be practiced when asana (posture) has been perfected. What could
this mean? Most of us react negatively when we hear the word "perfected."
As yoga students, we learn early on that there is no such thing as perfection:
Each pose is new every day, and each day every pose can teach something
better understand Patanjali, we need to consider what he meant by asana
and perfection. The word "asana" means seat as well as posture,
and in Chapter
II, Verse 46, Patanjali says that asana should be both steady and comfortable. In other words, when Patanjali directs us to perfect asana
before practicing pranayama, I interpret his teaching to be that we should
be able to remain steady and comfortable in a seated meditation posture
like Padmasana (Lotus Pose). Because maintaining a stable seated pose can
be such a difficult task, I teach students to do pranayama lying down for
the first year or two. This allows them to be steady and comfortable and
not become distracted by struggling to keep the chest open and spine long
in a seated pose.
To understand why breathing practices can be so transformative, it helps
a little bit about the physiology of the breath. Even though we take it
for granted as a simple part of life, breathing is a complicated process
that involves three distinct stages. The first stage moves oxygen into
the body, across the membranes of the lungs, and into the bloodstream.
At the same time that oxygen passes from the alveolar sacs of the lungs
into the bloodstream, carbon dioxide, a waste produced by metabolic processes,
moves in the opposite direction and is expelled from the body by exhalation.
This first stage, called external respiration, is what we normally refer
to as breathing. The
red blood cells bear fresh oxygen throughout the circulatory system, preparing
the body for the second stage of breathing called internal respiration.
In this stage, the life-giving oxygen crosses the membranes from the red
blood cells into all the other cells of the body. Once this happens, intracellular
respiration occurs as the cells make use of the oxygen for growth, repair
and replication. This use of oxygen in cellular metabolic processes
is the final stage of breathing.
Supporting thousands of years of yoga experience, modern science has shown
that pranayama can have profound physiological effects. One interesting
on the benefits of breathing while lying on your back. When you practice
lying down, blood spreads more easily throughout the lung tissue, just
as water spreads out, creating more surface area, when you pour it on the
floor... because of gravity the water spreads out; with supine breathing
the blood (and therefore oxygen) spread out more easily in all directions.
With more surface area available, you are able to use more of the oxygen
which enters the lungs, however large or small the amount.
Another interesting study found that yoga-type respiratory training may
in common with adaptation to high altitudes This study shows that we can
train ourselves to be less affected by situations in which reduced oxygen is
possible explanation for this training effect is that the practice of breath
retentions increases the ability to tolerate build-up of carbon dioxide
in body. (Carbon dioxide is the chief waste product of breathing and is
expelled during exhalation.) Interestingly, it is the level of carbon dioxide
in the blood, not the level of oxygen, which drives the body's respiratory
apparatus. If you can tolerate increased carbon dioxide in your blood,
your body will not feel a need to breathe as often, and you can get by
on less oxygen.
Of course, the ancient yogis didn't use the language of modern physiology
the benefits of pranayama. To yogis, pranayama is much more than breathing
practice. According to yoga theories, once prana is drawn into the body
and properly restrained, is can be directed into subtle energy channels
called nadis. These nadis course through the body in a way similar to the
nerves or to acupuncture meridians. It is these subtle channels which are
believed to carry our spiritual energy. When you can control the prana
in the nadis, it can be directed to arouse the kundalini which lies sleeping
at the base of the spine. As the kundalini moves up the spine, it activates
the spiritual energy centers known as chakras. This whole process is believed
to awaken your dormant higher consciousness, a state of deep understanding
and wisdom.( I advise students who are interested in practicing pranayama
in this subtle and intense way to seek out the advice of an experienced
While such a powerful awakening sounds wonderful, I find that my personal
practice helps me more with the mundane matters of slowing down and remembering
that I am more than just the tasks I accomplish, the classes I
and the articles I write. Of course, I wish my kundalini well on its upward
journey, but day by day I simply hope that I can open my heart and allow
for the possibility of joy in my contact with each person I meet.
One of my students once asked me why one would want to manipulate breathing,
since it is a completely natural part of the life process. I thought about this
for a while and realized that although breathing is natural, for most of
us it remains unconscious and uncontrolled. As long as the breath remains unconscious,
it is not part of spiritual practice. During
pranayama one learns to vary the length of inhalation and exhalation as
well as to suspend both, either to retain the inhaled breath or to keep
the lungs completely empty. These practices make breathing a conscious
and controlled action. By bringing this previously unconscious activity
into consciousness, and by focusing our awareness totally on the present
moment, prananyama begins to transform breathing into a spiritual practice.
Even though full control of the breath can take years to perfect, to me
of this control is not the highest form of pranayama. The highest form
is to remain completely aware of the breath, allowing it to come and go without
injecting control into the process. To
see just how difficult it is to be aware of the breath without controlling
it, try this experiment. Find a quiet time and place, and sit or lie comfortably
with the spine long and the chest open. Close your eyes and begin to pay
attention to your breath. If you are like most people, as soon as you begin
to pay attention to your breath you will begin to change it. This is the
ego in action. The urge to control the breath once we are aware of it is
the ego trying to control everything it perceives. The highest form of
pranayama is to remain completely aware of and at one with the breath without interjecting
ego and thus control into the process. Try this practice whenever you think
you do not want to control everything and everyone around you. It is an
eye-opening and humbling experience.
This ability to remain aware of the breath and yet not control it is at
the heart of meditation. Virtually all systems of meditation begin with
simple breathing exercises or with a technique to make one aware of the
breath. The breath makes a perfect focus for meditation: It is immediate
and always there, whether we're waking or sleeping, running or sitting.
An exquisitely sensitive barometer which registers our reaction to internal
and external events, the breath is a constant background mantra reminding
us of our connection to spirit.