An introduction to the importance of Breath in Yoga.

In Yoga, the breath is the source of PRANA. Where there is breath there is also life.
By learning to focus on the breath there is the opportunity to increase the life force and enhance the general well-being. The breath is what keeps us alive. Prana can also be translated as Life, or prana-shakti, life energy. This is the power that that sustains every material thing. In it’s more universal form it is known as mukhya-prana, in its more individual aspect, it is simply prana.

This is composed of the prefix pra and the verbal root an (to breathe). It is fascinating to see that some 4500 years ago, in the time of the Atharva-Veda (chapter 15) we encounter the breath as a further division of the life/breath into five parts, as follows:

1. prana (in breath) – the life energy residing in the chest and which is connected with inhalation.

2. apana (out breath) – the life energy present in the lower abdomen and which is connected with exhalation.

3. udana ( up breath) – the life energy present in the area of the throat and head and which is associated with speech and the yogic processes of meditation.

4. samana (mid breath) – the life energy residing in the upper abdomen and naval area and is responsible, amongst other things for digestion.

5. vyana (through breath) – the life energy circulating throughout the body.

I feel this is important in helping us to see, that a simple process such as breathing, which for many people is a un- conscious activity barely given a single thought, is actually a complex process sustaining the body with life. We must surely ask ourselves how something so important is ignored.

Through yoga and the practice of breath awareness we start to focus our mind on the importance of this process. If we think about the breath in an everyday context, it is not hard to see the connection between the mind and the breath (life energy). When we are upset, we breathe faster and when we are calm, our breathing slows down.

Prana provides the balance between the body and mind. It is the only bodily function we can voluntarily, or involuntarily control. It is important that we rediscover our relationship with the breath and one way that we can do this is through basic breathing techniques.

Breath Awareness.

Breath awareness consists of observing the breath, being consciously aware of the process and the journey it makes. It is important to note that we are simply observing the breath and not trying to manipulate it. It is a form of meditation, and can be used as a means to calm the mind.

Most forms of meditation are built on a foundation of good breathing techniques and are centred around breath awareness. Since we always breathe, we have the potential to practice breath awareness at any and every moment.

There are many benefits from practising breath awareness. We have previously looked at the relationship between breath and the mind, By drawing our attention to the breath, it automatically slows down, becomes deeper and exercises the lungs. The observance of the breath filters down to the subconscious levels of the brain, which will begin subtly to shift and refine the breathing, which leads us towards better breathing.

Conscious attempts to alter the breath will only interfere and could create anxiety and tension.

There are many physical benefits to breath awareness. It can be very cleansing as it encourages, through regular practice, for us to use our lungs to a fuller capacity. Inhaling fuller breaths and exhaling fuller breaths.

In society today, we exercise less, spend most of our time indoors and live in much polluted environments. All of these factors mean that we do not use our lungs to their maximum potential and breathing techniques can be used to physically exercise the lungs. By doing this we also help to remove the stale toxins from the body through the exhalation, replacing them with fresh clean nourishing oxygen.

The main meditative purpose of breath awareness is to help clear the mind of clutter, by focusing on the breath we can focus the mind away from the everyday distractions or things which may be on our mind. The actual process also encourages the mind to slow down, by engaging it with the present, the now, instead letting it dwell in the tasks of future or experiences of the past, as it so loves to do!

By focusing the mind on the breath, whilst the body remains still, it encourages us to focus on one thing, instead of the multi tasks we so often confuse our body and mind with. It is also a method of directing energy into parts of the body which may need extra focus or awareness. Tension or stress can be thought as blocked energy. By breathing into these areas, we can breathe away these tensions and relax.

The practice of Breath Awareness

When practising or teaching Breath awareness we must ensure the environment is calm, relaxed and free from any distractions. This will enable the person to feel safe. Physical factors and awareness of the senses can come into play. The lights could be dimmed to avoid distraction. Incense or oils may be used to help create this safe and warm environment.

The teacher should be aware of the tone of voice being used. Slowing the voice down and quieting the voice all helps with the relaxation process. Breath awareness can be taught in a lying, or supine position, or seated, either on the floor or a chair. It is important that the person is comfortable that the spine is long to allow the flow of energy, but not too comfortable that they may drift into sleep. It is also important to bring the student from being externalised in the world around them into the internalised place of the self.

Ways in which Breath Awareness can be encouraged.

One method would be to focus on the breathing cycle: The inhalation, the slight pause at the end, the exhalation and again the pause. These four parts create one cycle of breath. Just simply observing these is a method in itself.

Noticing the quality of the breath (does it feel jagged or smooth? rushed or slow? Shallow or deep?) Noticing the sound of the breath (can you hear it?)

Another process would be to observe the journey of the breath, noticing the breath entering and exiting the body at the tip of the nose. Being aware of the breath moving from the nose, through the mouth to the throat, into the lungs, and reversing back out. Noticing the length of the inhalation and exhalation. (are they even? Is the breath slowing down or speeding up?)

Focusing on specific body parts. Noticing how the belly moves with the breath, noticing how the chest moves, how the neck moves, do the shoulders move? Can you feel the breath in any other areas of the body? Feeling the tension release with the exhalations. Feeling the nourishment of the inhalation, bringing in new oxygen. Noticing the full dimensions of the breath, exhaling out in all directions, with each breath. Where does it stop?

Basic Breathing Techniques.

When introducing basic breathing techniques, we begin to consciously control the breath, but it is important to understand that we do not retain the breath as in pranyama. This usually involves counting off the breath, the length of the inhalations and exhalations and working in rounds and or ratios. The students should be made aware of hand counting techniques, before the breathing exercise begins.

There are several basic breathing practices, which include:

Ujjayi - the
psychic breath.

This involves a slight contracting of the throat to promote a slight soft snoring sound. Although breathing through the nose, it feels as though you are breathing through the throat. Its benefits being the extreme calming effect on the mind, the enhanced sound makes it easier to concentrate on the breath. A slight pressure is exerted on the carotid sinuses in the throat which eventually lowers the blood pressure.

Brahmari – Bees breath.

The name brahmari, literally means the bee. This involves a humming sound on the slow exhalation, keeping the mouth together but the teeth apart. Mostly used for Nada yoga, the yoga of psychic sounds. Its benefits being that it relieves cerebral tension, removes anger, anxiety and frustration and lowers blood pressure.

Nadi sodhana – the sweet breath. (Alternate Nostril Breathing)

Used to balance the right and left hemispheres of the brain. This involves using Vishnu Mudra, (the index and middle fingers of your right hand bent forward across the palm towards the base of the thumb.) The thumb is then used to gently press the right nostril closed, exhaling through the left nostril, inhaling through the left nostril, closing the left nostril with the right ring finger, release the thumb, and exhaling through the right nostril. Inhale through the right nostril. Close the right nostril with the thumb, exhale left nostril. this is one round of Nadi Shodhana.

Surya bhendana – Solar breath (Right nostril breathing)

As above but the inhalation is through the right nostril and out through the left.

Chandra bhedana - Lunar breath (Left nostril breathing)

Inhalation through left nostril and out through right.

Sitali - Tongue hissing

The breathing technique Sitali refers to the sound caused when air is drawn in through the protruding tongue folded into a tube. During inhalation the air passes over the moist tongue, cooling down the throat. In order to be sure that the tongue remains moist, it is rolled back as against the palate.

Sitakari - Like Sitali, draw breath using the tongue, but this time instead of drawing air over the tongue, make a tube with the tongue and the air is drawn through it like a straw ?

Personal Insights and experiences

On awaking, in the mornings I often find time to reflect upon my own breath. I find this a gentle and
meditative way to start the day. When spending a few minutes to observe, I find that the mind reconnects with the body in our conscious realm. This has helped me greatly with problems in the past of readjusting, from the in between state, of dreaming and sleep, and wakefulness.

When observing the breath first thing on awakening, the awareness of the breath and its journey connects and awakens the body which I find a great way to ground and face the day. ? Breath awareness has become a way to help me relax after a long day at work. It used to take me several hours to unwind the mind from work mode to a more relaxed state to prepare for sleep. I have found breath awareness a great tool in relaxing the body and mind.

One particular position which was shown to me in a workshop in London, involves folding a yoga mat in half and rolling it lengthways. This is then positioned underneath the back from the lumbar spine up to and including the head and neck. The body is in Savasana, and the yoga mat helps to open the chest and stomach region by providing a subtle back bend. When directing the awareness particularly into the stomach region, the breath becomes deeper and fuller, and the mind quickly unwinds.

I personally use Ujjiya breathing as a way to focus the mind in more challenging situations. Usually I use it during a vinyasa practice. I find that by engaging the breath in this basic technique, it quickly focuses the mind on what it is doing, avoiding external distractions. It also has an energizing effect on the body whilst also relaxing it at the same time. It is easier to feel and observe the breath flowing in and out whilst engaging Ujjayi. ? Whilst I have had fewer experiences of Singular nostril breathing, my observations have been somewhat similar. I have been to classes where it has been used as a preparation for Savasana. I found that the concentration involved with coordinating the hand and nostrils and breath to help with the focusing of ones mind, drawing the observance inward. ?I have also used it as practice when the body has been physically pushed to its limits. After exercise or a very dynamic yoga practice to once again bring the mind back home and ground the body. ?Although I have found that the concentration sometimes involved with remembering which nostril is next, can sometimes draw the attention away from the observance of breath! (February 2006)


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