Beyond the Mat: Don't Just Do Yoga-Live It

Beyond the Mat: Don't Just Do Yoga-Live It

September 9, 2018

Chapter 35: Change Your Breathing, Change Your Life

“When the breath wanders the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still, and the yogi achieves long life. Therefore, one should learn to control the breath.”
--The Hatha Yoga Pradipika

When I waitressed at a vegetarian restaurant back in the early ’90s, we got to know our regulars well. One day Gary, who always sat alone at booth six, seemed a lot more outgoing and energetic than usual; he also appeared to be glowing with peace and happiness. The staff noticed the change right away, and we figured he’d finally found a romantic partner. His answer surprised us.

“I learned to breathe,” he said, beaming at us. “It’s changed my life.”

We just stared at him, uncomprehending. It didn’t make sense to me then—this was a few years before I walked into my first yoga class—but now it does.

Yogis have long known that deep, full diaphragmatic (belly) breathing is the key to calming the mind and maximizing the function of every system of the body. It can also improve brain function, aid digestion and sleep, increase energy, reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure, improve posture, reduce food cravings, and help slow the aging process.
Yet, many of us breathe shallowly, either using the upper front lobes of the chest rather than the diaphragm, doing thoracic (chest) breathing using the intercostal muscles, or doing clavicular breathing using the shoulders and collarbones. This inferior, shallower breathing can lead to increased stress; high blood pressure; and poor posture, digestion, and brain function, sapping our energy and taking a toll on every system of the body.

In Gopala Krishna’s book The Yogi: Portraits of Swami Vishnu-devananda, Swami Vishnu drives this point home. One day the swami went to see Mohammed Ali sparring at a gym in Florida.

“His sparring partner took many punches, very strong punches,” said Swami Vishnu. “Ali kept giving them one after another. Occasionally he would lean against the rope. Why? He was resting. Because his breathing was very shallow, he wasn’t able to get sufficient oxygen and a few of his powerful punches took tremendous energy.

“After the fighting, I gave him an autographed copy of my book and said to him, ‘You know, your breathing is very shallow. You won’t be able to fight long if you don’t change your breathing pattern.’ I advised him in a friendly way, teaching him how to breathe and telling him, ‘Increase your breathing capacity if you want to survive.’”

Deep and conscious belly breathing is the most basic form of pranayama, the fourth limb of the Ashtanga yoga or eight-limb system of Raja yoga (the royal path of yoga outlined in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali). Yogis believe that the breath contains prana, or the vital life-force. Yama means control; the practice of pranayama or control of this life force is one of the foundations of yoga in that it improves health and makes the mind calm and clear and prepares it for meditation.

Deep belly breathing makes full use of the diaphragm (the large, thin muscle that lies between the chest and belly and is considered the major muscle of breathing). When the diaphragm contracts, the lungs move downward, expand, and fill with air—pulling in prana. When the diaphragm relaxes and moves upward into the chest cavity and the intercostal muscles relax, space is reduced in the chest cavity, which forces carbon dioxide–rich air out of the lungs. We all breathed this way when we were babies and small children, before our chest muscles matured.

Ideally, this breathing is done through the nose, which filters, cleans, and humidifies the air before it enters the lungs. (Breathing through the nose can also improve digestion and reduce insomnia.)

Are you breathing consciously or unconsciously as you read this? The average person takes 15 breaths per minute, while some yogis breathe only a few times every 60 seconds.
Yogis believe that each person is assigned a certain number of breaths when they are born, according to their deeds from the past. When these breaths are used up, one’s time is over. Therefore, breathing slowly means a longer life.
Indeed, the first thing we do when we’re born is inhale; the last thing we do upon expiring is exhale. One of the few things we can control in between is the breath. In fact, breathing is the only physiological process that is both voluntary (you can control it) and involuntary (it will take care of itself if you don’t).

“The body can’t operate without the breath, so if conscious control of the breath is abandoned, then some unconscious part of the mind reflexively begins to function and starts breathing for us,” wrote Swami Rama and physicians Rudolph Ballentine and Alan Hymes in the 1979 classic Science of Breath: A Practical Guide. “In this case, breathing falls back under control of the primitive parts of the brain, an unconscious realm of the mind where emotions, thoughts, and feelings, of which we may have little or no awareness, become involved and can wreak havoc with the rhythm of the breath. The breath may become haphazard and irregular when we lose conscious control of it.”

By the same token, we can calm the emotions by breathing deeply for several minutes—and feel a little bit “high,” like my friend Gary. “Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor,” wrote Thich Nhat Hanh in Stepping into Freedom: An Introduction to Buddhist Monastic Training.

Diaphragmatic breathing also has a powerful effect on the body, improving oxygenation of and blood flow to every system. It reduces tension and tightness in the neck and shoulders, and because those muscles are able to relax, it improves posture. It massages the internal organs, which improves digestion and drainage of lymph. Deep breathing also increases the secretion of growth hormone, which may slow the aging process. It helps lower blood pressure and blood sugar and improves mental function by increasing blood flow to the prefrontal cortex of the brain. It’s also believed to reduce the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline and improve the quality of sleep.

If that’s not enough to convince you, when my guru, Sri Dharma Mittra, was asked at the 2009 Yoga Journal conference about how to stop overeating, he responded, “Do calm breathing (a simple deep breathing practice) and sing to the Lord.”
Fortunately, it’s easy to relearn how to breathe consciously.

Practice
There are many types of pranayama; most, like these, are done through the nose (with the mouth closed). The two listed below are safe, simple, and suitable for just about everyone.

Diaphragmatic breathing
To relearn how to breathe deeply, lie on your back as in savasana (corpse pose), with your hands on the belly and the tips of the middle fingers meeting just above the navel. Close the eyes and exhale through the nose. Now, begin breathing deeply (through the nose) into the belly. When you inhale, the fingers will separate and the rib cage will expand out to the sides. When you exhale, the navel will sink downward and the fingers will move back together. Continue to breathe into the belly for five to ten minutes or longer.

Make it a habit. Set your phone or computer’s alarm clock to sound several times a day, at regular intervals. Each time you hear the alarm, breathe consciously into the belly for a minute or two (do not hit the snooze button!). After a few weeks, you will begin to do this automatically—and will have retrained your body how to breathe properly.

Three-part or complete breathing
Three-part breathing brings awareness to the three lobes of the lungs: upper, middle, and lower (we focus on the lower lobe in diaphragmatic breathing). To practice, lie down in savasana with the arms resting alongside the body (or, place the left hand on the belly and the right hand on the chest). Exhale completely. Inhale deeply into the belly. First, fill the abdomen (lower lobe), then the ribcage (middle lobe), and, finally, fill the chest and lift it toward the chin (upper lobe). As you exhale, reverse the order: empty the chest, allow the rib cage to contract, and let the navel sink toward the earth. Repeat 12 times.



Chapter 1: Santosh: Cultivating Contentment in an Increasingly Complicated World

“Everything is moving perfectly.”
—Sri Dharma Mittra

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