The Eight Limbs of Yoga: An 18-week mini-course
WEEK THIRTEEN: PRANAYAMA
Universal life force (prana) is enhanced and guided through the harmonious rhythm of the breath (pranayama).
- SUTRA II.49
There is something we all share in common, you, me and all the animals and plants on Earth. This common thread of all living things lies in the field of energy that inhabits and surrounds every cell in our being. This universal energy is prana, also known as qi in Japan and chi in China, and it rides in and out through respiration. We call this the breath.
Breath is to the body what words are to thoughts. Words express what we think, while the breath expresses how we feel.
- Nancy Ruby
Life begins with the first breath and we leave with the last. What makes us different is everything in between. How we breathe, when we breathe, and what we breathe creates a difference in the amount of prana moving through us. This is directly related to the quality of our life as prana enriches our vitality and brings a sense of calm to our mind and emotions. I call this balance of energy and ease “being centered.” When we are centered we can act from a place of clarity and comfort. All this is available right there at the tip of our nose.
Please pause for just a moment, close your eyes and simply notice your breath for at least five full rounds (inhale and exhale).
How does it feel? Short, long, deep, shallow, even, erratic? Simply notice.
What we know for certain is that in order to live, we must breathe. Humans can live several weeks without food, several days without water, but our brain can survive only a few minutes without oxygen. And although we can survive with a minimum amount of breathing, we can thrive when we deepen, expand and slow down our breath.
Moving our breath consciously allows us to control stress, increase energy, perform better physically and mentally, alleviate pain, and improve overall health. The practice of breathing exercises is rapidly gaining recognition in our medical communities as one of the primary resources for managing stress and enhancing the quality of one’s life.
It’s easy to envision our lungs like an inverted tree. The windpipe is the trunk with the two primary bronchi branching out to the lungs that then branch further into smaller and smaller branches called bronchioles, much like the small twigs of a tree. At the end of the twigs are the leaves known as alveoli, tiny air sacs where the breath is exchanged with the bloodstream.
With 300 - 500 million alveoli lining each lung, the surface area is 40 - 50 times greater than that of the human skin. The surface area of the lungs themselves vary from 30 - 50 square meters which is roughly the same area as one half of a tennis court. Furthermore, if all of the capillaries that surround the alveoli were unwound and laid end to end, they would extend for about 616 miles. That’s a lot of lung!
Our primary muscle for breathing is the diaphragm, which is responsible for 45% of our respiratory effort with the intercostals and the abdominals assisting. And just like any muscle in the body, if you don’t use it you lose it.
All of these structures are contained within our thorax – 12 ribs that run from the thoracic spine to the sternum (aka breastbone). Our thorax is meant to expand in all directions upon inhalation and contract upon exhalation. However, due to poor posture, emotional stress or mental tension we may feel resistance in our lungs, muscles or ribs. If so, how do we develop and maintain a respiratory system that is strong and resilient? Through breathing exercises, of course! Because the longer, slower and deeper you breathe, the more relaxed, alert and effective your brain and body will be.
Along with the physiological structure of our respiratory system, Yoga also recognizes our subtle energy system that is comprised of 150,000 - 300,000 pathways, or nadis, within and surrounding our physical body. The purpose of these nadis is to circulate and distribute the much-needed energy to the physical, mental and emotional layers of our being, much like the blood vessels circulate oxygen.
Of the many thousands of nadis, three are most significant: Ida, Pingala and Sushumna.
Prana circulates through the Pingala Nadi generating heat and the masculine attributes of rational thinking and intellectual reasoning, governing the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response) and the left side of the brain.
When prana circulates through the Ida Nadi it produces coolness and accesses the feminine attributes of emotion, feelings and intuition. It guides the parasympathetic nervous system (relaxation response) and the right side of the brain.
When these two nadis are in perfect harmony, the Sushumni Nadi comes into play, opening up the centers of higher consciousness known as the chakras, or wheels of life. (We will attend to the full understanding of the chakra system in another blog series.)
Pranayama is the limb of Yoga that is dedicated to the practice of consciously moving our breath to awaken, calm and bring balance to these many systems. To begin a personal practice, I suggest starting with the simplest known as relaxation breath. From there you can lengthen and even the breath in a pranayama practice known as Sama Vrtti. Once this becomes comfortable, then you can bring balance to the Ida and Pingala Nadis through the practice of Nadi Shodhana, aka Alternate Nostril Breathing.
For guidance on these practices check out YogaMotion's video page, which offers all three through my personal audio recordings. http://www.yogamotion.com/videos/breathe-deeply/
Because we come into this life with our first breath and leave with our last, I hope you will be inspired (pun intended) to enrich the quality of your life by enhancing the quality of your breath. It is our most immediate source of energy and our most effective tool for relaxation.
What breathing practices do you, or will you, integrate into your life?
Please send along any questions or ahas that occur by attending to your breath.