In the Sanskrit language “prana” means life-force or universal energy and “ayama” means to lengthen or extend. It is significant that in Sanskrit the word for breath is the same as the word for life. One of the benefits of yogic breathing or pranayama is that we learn to regulate our breath and this gives us increased control over the fluctuation of our mind and emotions.
Yoga Scriptures ascertain that we take an average of 21,600 breaths per day. 21,600 is 1/5 of 108,000. 108 is charged with special meaning and significance in India. It is related to the fact that the distance between the Sun and the Earth is 108 times the Sun’s diameter. Since the sun is symbolic of higher levels of reality, this is like a Hindu variation of Jacob’s ladder. The symbolism is represented in the 108 beads of the mandala used by many yogis while practicing mantras. Practicing a mantra 108 times is symbolic of a journey from the earth to heaven or more literally from ordinary consciousness to higher consciousness.
Of further interest, the number of breaths per day are 1/5 of 108, 000 and 5 is the number of associated with the air element. These correlations confirm for many yogis that the mind-body connection is connected to the universe at large.
In any given day you take between 20,000 and 30,000 breaths, but unless we practice yoga most of us take our breath for granted. Just like a friendship that we neglect, our breathing patterns can also become stale and increase our levels of anxiety. By simply engaging in slower and more controlled breathing we can increase our metabolism, keep our lung tissue more elastic, increase the oxygen intake for the 50 trillion cells in our bodies, tone our abdominal area, use muscles that automatically improve our posture, strengthen our immune system and reduce our levels of tension and anxiety.
Controlled breathing has four steps: inhalation (puraka), retention (Kumbhaka), exhalation (rechaka) and retention.
Several researchers have reported that pranayama techniques are beneficial in treating a range of stress related disorders, improve autonomic functions, relieve symptoms of asthma and reduce oxidative stress. Scientists have discovered that the chemical basis of energy production in the body is a chemical called “adenosine triphosphate” (ATP). When something goes wrong with the production of ATP, the result is lowered vitality, disease and premature aging. Oxygen is critical to the production of ATP in our bodies. Pranayama helps us to tap into this vital nutrient.
The shallow breathing that most people have become accustomed to does not exercise the lungs sufficiently. Our lungs tend to lose vitality and function. Yoga teaches us to breathe more deeply and slowly.
Why do we tend to breathe too quick and shallow? Our lifestyles tend to be hurried and our movements and breathing patterns tend to mirror this frenzied lifestyle. We also tend to be fairly reactive to the stress in our lives. When we are under pressure from a heavy workload or difficulty in our relationships, our rate of breathing increases and our heart beats faster. Add a sedentary lifestyle into this picture and we have even greater loss of lung capacity and increased stress.
Many of the benefits of yoga are related to yogic breathing techniques. Through yoga we learn to control our breathing, coordinate our body movements with our breath and maximize our lung capacity. At the start of a beginner yoga class, it is important to give your students instructions as to how they should breathe during class and why this is important.
During the practice of asanas, the Yogini learns to engage in whole body breathing that involves the lungs, the diaphragm, the stomach, the chest and the back. Gradually, we learn how to direct the breath into whatever part of the body we feel is stretching.
Breathing through the nose is important because it allows the air to be filtered, warmed and moisturized as it enters the body and carbon dioxide isn’t released too quickly. If students neglect to engage in whole body breathing through the nose during the practice of yoga postures, levels of carbon dioxide in the body will rise, the blood will flow less efficiently and with lower oxygen content. Feelings of irritation and anxiety increase with excess carbon dioxide and there is even a small risk of hyperventilation. Overall oxygen and carbon dioxide balance in the blood is compromised and blood flow to the brain and extremities is diminished. The hairs in the nose filters out dust and dirt particles that the mouth and throat cannot.
Most people are either shallow belly breathers or shallow chest breathers. Yogic breathing is much deeper, expanding the abdomen and chest on inhalation, either from the abdomen up or the chest down. In both chest and abdominal breathing, the abdomen draws in on exhalation. From a mechanical viewpoint yogic breathing moves down the spine and works the muscles and organs of respiration which include the diaphragm, the abdominal muscles as well as the lungs and heart. When the diaphragm contracts, it is pulled down, which creates more space for the lungs during inhalation. The chest also widens. When the diaphragm relaxes it moves back into its upward curve within the thoracic cavity.
The diaphragm is a muscle sheath that separates the lungs and heart from the stomach, kidneys, liver and other abdominal organs. It is attached to the lower border of the rib cage by powerful muscles that attach from the first to the fourth lumbar vertebrae. It is the diaphragm and the chest muscles that activate the lungs as the lungs themselves do not have muscles.
The various muscles of respiration aid in both inspiration and expiration, which require changes in the pressure within the thoracic cavity. The respiratory muscles work to achieve this by changing the dimensions of the thoracic cavity. The primary muscles of respiration include the diaphragm, the external and internal intercostal muscles and the abdominal muscles. Both the external intercostal muscles and the intercondral part of the internal intercostal muscles elevate the ribs. During shallow, stressed breathing, muscles such as the sternocleidomastoid and the scalene muscles become more active. This can cause tension in the neck and shoulders.
A more eastern explanation for the importance of the practice of pranayama is the ability of these techniques to balance and increase the flow of prana in the body. Yogis believe that prana exists in all things and is found in the sunlight, air, water and food. The key to understanding prana or energy is breath. A person with strong lungs and a good breathing capacity can also be expected to have abundant energy. As the mind becomes more balanced, the breath becomes more even and rhythmic.
Nasal breathing is also said to stimulate the sixth chakra or Ajna chakra, the subtle energy center located near the sinuses in the spot between the eyebrows. This important spot is the meeting place of the left (cooling) and the right (heating) current of vital energy (prana) that acts directly on the nervous and endocrine systems. Eastern wisdom describes an energy network in the body that corresponds to the nervous system. This energy network is called the nadis. Energy is absorbed through the breath and flows throughout the nadis. The nasal passages also have more nerve endings than the mouth which is another reason for breathing through the nose during the practice of postures.
It is important to practice pranayama on an empty stomach in a quiet place with plenty of fresh air. The early-morning is traditionally considered a good time to practice pranayama when the mind and body are refreshed. A regular morning practice creates good breathing habits throughout the day and increased self-awareness on all levels. You can greatly enhance the value of your pranayama exercises by fully participating with your mind. Feel the air enter your lungs. Feel your muscles work. Feel your body as a whole. Visualize precious life energy entering your lungs and every cell of your body. Allow this life energy to rejuvenate and energize you. Closing your eyes can help you to focus internally. In some exercises, placing your hands on the part of the body you are breathing into can help you feel it expand upon inhalation.
Yogis believe that the universe is an ocean of vibrations. Nirvana is thought by some to be the experience of the continuous vibration of the universe. This is a vibration that exceeds the three dimensions of space. Some quantum physicists call this a holomovement. These people believe that the human mind and body are continually vibrating, but that this vibration is out of harmony with the vibration of the universe at large or ultimate reality. It is this disharmony that creates a sense of alienation and separation from each other and the world we inhabit. One of the goals of pranayama and yoga is to remove this vibrational disharmony so that we can return to our natural sense of joy and connection with everyone and everything.
Intellectually, we can solidify this abstract concept by considering the nature of our breath. Each breath we take contains about ten sextillion atoms (10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000). With every breath we take we inhale an average of one atom from each of the ten sextillion breaths in the atmosphere. Upon isolation, you release one atom to each of these breaths. The result is that the breath you just took contains a quadrillion (1,000,000,000,000,000) atoms breathed during the past few weeks by the other 5 billion people in the world. We quite literally share each other’s breath and life force.
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