Wednesday, July 14, 2010
The Science of Breath: Pranayama
I’ve been told that my first breath came with a scream as the doctor held me by the ankles and slapped my bottom. From that moment forward breathing seemed such an easy and ordinary thing I have hardly even thought about it.
The most simple of truths seem to always be the most profound and life altering. Breathing, though a simple act we will continue doing whether we think about it or not and will continue doing even when we try not to do it, when we pay attention to it and elevate it to a sincere practice and even an art form, brings us the richness, purity, depth and breadth of life’s experiences. We can say that how we breathe actually defines the quality of our lives. All cultures have recognized this in different ways. The opera singer, the aboriginal didgeridoo, the philharmonic orchestra, pearl divers, and the list can go on…
Through the breath the laboring mother feels the rhythm that allows for the infant to ease into the world. Through the breath the hunter steadies his aim to meet his mark. Through the breath the flutist expresses his soul to the enjoyment of others with his music. Through the breath we can bring about balance within our body and mind which allows for optimal health. Through the diligent practice of working with the breath the Yogi realizes enlightenment.
How we breathe determines our quality of life, and according to some, how long we live as well . The act of breathing could be likened to the churning of the Celestial Ocean of Consciousness. Purusha and Prakriti churn together allowing us to maintain a physical form to experience life as we know it. The evidence for this is that when we stop breathing Purusha and Prakriti again separate and we perish. Our first breath and our last breath determine our lifespan and one can find the dates documented for posterity on our tombstone.
So with the humble experience of breathing for over forty eight years I will hopefully be able to bring you a little insight as to how we can balance our lives and maybe even bring us to a greater realization of our place in the scheme of things or at least learn to breathe a little bit easier.
What Is Prana?
Prana can be considered the life force, life energy, or chi. This is the stuff that energizes our cells and receptors beyond just oxygen and a few other gaseous elements. Prana is difficult to describe since the English language is not designed to consider, let alone articulate such concepts. Maybe “God activated air” or “electrified ions of universal love”, or “no prana, no life”?
Imagine standing on a busy city street corner with buses going by and high rises all around, flashing lights, signs, many loud noises and afflicting smells all of this dominating your senses, now take in a big deep full breath… …do you even want too? Just the thought of it makes you want to keep your chest drawn in tight or have a fit of coughing! Now imagine sitting on a big rock covered in moss in the forest next to a gently babbling brook, you can feel the green speckled sun shining on your face, your eyes are closed as a warm breeze caresses your cheeks, now take in a big deep full breath… …feel the difference? This is Prana.
It seems a bit odd to attempt to recount the history of the breath but here goes. It is all about rhythm. Back to the churning of the Celestial Ocean of Consciousness, back and forth, the action of churning is the rhythm of respiration; the simplest single celled forms of life are recognized because of this simple rhythmical act. In with the new and out with the old. And most critically in with the Prana and out with the mala .
We can’t rightly speak of “history” when the breath brings us unequivocally to the moment as every exhalation and inhalation in the Now is a death and rebirth, when the space between each breath brings us squarely facing the place/space of No Time which has not ever changed, which knows nothing, and certainly knows nothing of history. The macro holographic experience of time as a chronological sequence simply does not exist within the context of conscious breathing (pranayama). So we can speak of the “history” of breath within the development of breathing styles or formulated thoughts about it throughout time.
Patanjali was a great sage who lived around 200 BCE and is attributed to having compiled the Yoga Sutras which is a foundational text of what we now speak of as RajaYoga. Though brief, the Yoga Sutras are an enormously influential work on yoga philosophy and practice. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras contain four chapters or books (Sanskrit pada), with 196 sutras (threads or aphorisms). Pranayama is discussed within the second chapter as one of the eight limbs of ashtanga yoga. Following is a fairly literal translation of the last 10 sutras of the second book which describes the importance of pranayama:
46. Right poise must be firm and without strain.
47. Right poise is to be gained by steady and temperate effort, and by setting the heart upon the everlasting.
48 The fruit of right poise is the strength to resist the shocks of infatuation or sorrow.
49. When this is gained, there follows the right guidance of the life-currents, the control of the incoming and outgoing breath.
50. The life-current is either outward, or inward, or balanced; it is regulated according to place, time, number; it is prolonged and subtle.
51. The fourth degree transcends external and internal objects.
52. Thereby is worn away the veil which covers up the light.
53. Thence comes the mind's power to hold itself in the light.
54. The right Withdrawal is the disengaging of the powers from entanglement in outer things, as the psychic nature has been withdrawn and stilled.
55. Thereupon follows perfect mastery over the powers .
I believe that all of the ancient lessons were in the form of sutras for the convenience of memorization by the student. As these began to be preserved through the written word, there have become inumerable interpretations, treatices, and expounding upons. It may be possible that Patanjali has received the credit souly due to his insight in writing down what had been passed from generation to generation for eons. So we can’t say how far back in time this science has been practiced.
Pranayama is life force energy control (prana=life energy, yama=control). Breathing is the medium used to achieve this goal. The mind and life force are correlated to the breath. Through regulating the breathing and practicing awareness on it, one learns to control prana. There are many different kinds of pranayama, each with specific goals. All pranayama ultimately works towards the awakening of the kundalini shakti at the muladhara chakra . The awakening of kundalini energy and its ascent to the crown chakra is the final goal of Raja Yoga. This is a path to liberation of atachment of the material world also refered to as moksha.
Pranayama should not be considered simply as breathing exercises. Pranayama influences the flow of energy and nervous system balance in the body and mind. Pranayama provides methods where the life force is activated and regulated to attain a higher state of energy and awareness.
The mystic practices pranayama in the context of an ascetic lifestyle, which frees nervous energy for intuitive purposes.
Sankara Saranam, Ontology and Pranayama
Many different methods or exercises are described differently by many different teachers. Before we describe a few of the breaths most practiced today lets look at the fundamental physiology and function of the pranic and respiratory systems.
Chakras and Nadis
This is an image depicting the seven primary Chakras and the three most essential Nadis.
Chakras are centers of spiritual energy. They are located in the astral body, but they also have corresponding centers in the physical body. They can be seen by clairvoyant eyes. They loosely correspond to certain plexuses in the physical body. These important Chakras (from bottom to top) are: Muladhara at the anus; Svadhishthana at the genital organ; Manipura at navel; Anahata at the heart; Visudha at the throat and Ajna at the space between the two eyebrows. The seventh Chakra is known as Sahasrara, located at the top of the head.
Nadis are astral tubes made up of astral matter that carry the Pranic currents. They also can only be seen by the astral eyes. They are not the nerves. They are 72,000 in number. Ida, Pingala and Sushumna are the most vital ones. Sushumna is the most important of all.
Ida is the left channel, is white, feminine, cold and represents the moon. It originates in Muladhara and ends up at the left nostril. Pingala is the right channel is red, masculie, hot and represents the sun. It also originates in Muladhara but it runs up to the right nostril. Sushumna is the central channel and runs up the body from just below Muladhara chakra to Sahasrara chakra at the crown of the head. These channels carry prana to the entire body, activating the life force of our entire living system.
The respiratory system allows for our breath and the assimilation of the air element. It draws oxygen and other gases in as well as prana with the diaphragm into the lungs.
The diaphragm is the strong wall of muscle that separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity. By moving downward, it creates suction to draw in air and expand the lungs. It has been found that in general most people do not use this muscle properly and thus are starving themselves of air and prana. Pranayama focuses on learning to fully utilize this muscle and through stillness of the mind learn to control the breath.
Preparing the spine through yoga for pranayama is very important and allows for air and prana to flow freely to all aspects of our being. It also assists in our ability to comfortably sit still without distractions. The primary purpose of the postures (asanas) is to lengthen, flex, extend, bend, twist and compress the spine. This increases the flexibility of the spine and the capacity for us to receive air and prana.
All pranayama begins with breathing properly by fully engaging the diaphragm. When the diaphragm muscle contracts, it pulls the bottom of the lungs downward, causing them to fill, while the ribs flare outward to the sides. The chest and abdominal muscles are not used in diaphragmatic breathing. Conscious diaphragmatic breathing is extremely relaxing to the autonomic nervous system. The chest should not be moving perceptibly or the belly. The expansion should be more lateral in the ribcage. The breath should not be noisy or unsteady. This practice should be done sitting cross legged or upright in a firm chair, with spine erect, back, neck and head aligned, and the shoulders relaxed. Most usually the hands will be palms up resting on the knees or in the lap.
The length of the inhalation, the pause and the exhalation is now to be considered. This will strengthen the diaphragm and steady the breath which in turn steadies the mind. The time ratio of inhalation, retention and then exhalation is that of 1: 4: 2. So if the duration of the inbreath is 2 seconds the retention of that breath should be 8 seconds and then the outbreath will be of 4 seconds. Then one expands the time span as they gain strength and mastery. The precautions for the practice is to stay within your own level of comfort. Once this breath is mastered then one can work with the other forms of breathing.
Like I said before there are many styles or forms of breathing exercises. Even ones with the same names are practiced differently by different teachers. Following are a few of the most widely practiced breaths.
Anuloma Viloma or Nadi Shodhanam
Ones natural breathing cycle constitutes the air flowing freely through the left nostril for about an hour and then it flows freely through the right nostril for about an hour. This cycling occurs without effort in a balanced individual. The ida and pingala are activated equally. The nadi shodhanam breathing sequence reinforces this natural cycling and brings balance.
To begin with sit comfortably as described before and with the right hand up by your face place the thumb against the right nostril to gently hold it closed. The forefinger can rest on the forehead between the brows and the other fingers prepared to close the left nostril. We then breathe in a deep, slow and steady breath through the left nostril, open the right nostril and close the left and then exhale through the right nostril. Now we breath in through the right nostril, open the left, close the right and exhale again but this time through the left nostril. This is considered one cycle. Dr. Lad recommends ten cycles with a rest and then ten more cycles.
Bhastrika or Bellows Breath
This breath is described as like a bellows you inhale and exhale with equal volume and force. This is a very active breath and can produce a lot of heat. When practicing this breath you should begin with just twenty breaths, rest and then 20 more. Work up to one hundred at a time but rest before continuing if there is any dizziness. According to Sri Swami Sivananda this breath should end with the deepest possible inhalation, suspended breath for as long as is comfortable and then a complete, slow and steady exhalation. In this manner one should only do ten to twenty breaths for each round or cycle and do as many as three cycles in one sitting. Again never allow yourself to get dizzy. This is a powerful breath and should not be overdone. He goes on to say that the practitioner will never suffer from any disease and will always be healthy .
Bhramari or Bumble Bee Breath
This breath is done sitting upright with the eyes closed, the thumbs up against the ears gently pressing them closed, the rest of the fingers spread across the face above the eyes, over the cheekbones, with the pinkies resting on the jaw bones. Take in a long deep breath and exhale slowly while humming. When done correctly you will only be able to hear the humming in your head and feel a refreshing buzzing all around your sinuses and brain. My experience of this breath is that it clears the sinuses and the mind.
There are a multitude of breathing exercises within the practice of pranayama that allow for many amazing results. Reports of being able to live on only prana for an indefinite period of time have been given. Once the Kundalini is awakened and rises up sushumi then all sorts of seemingly supernatural feats can be accomplished.
Levitation and many psychic powers can be attained. These all become mere parlor tricks compared to the peace and liberation experienced by the yogi who masters pranayama. The gift of the adept is their presence, the level at which they vibrate raises the consciousness of everyone else in which they come into contact.
Anyone wanting to practice pranayama should do so with pure intentions. This practice amplifies the primary law of Ayurveda, in which like increases like. Practicing each step and not proceeding until the first step is mastered and working directly with a teacher is the safest. Always listening to and following your body, mind and spirits greatest good.