Understanding The Power of Breath

Audio Introduction: Breath of Life

Breath has a significant effect on the mind and body. It may seem difficult to understand at first that such a simple thing as breathing can have a major impact on our health. We are all familiar with how our breath changes according to what we are doing and thinking. If the breath is affected by both body and mind, is it not possible that by changing the patterns of the breathing we can then reverse this process and use breathing as a vehicle to affect both body and mind? This chapter is about your breathing, its importance to health, and techniques to harness the power of the breath. The benefits range from helping to balance your nervous system and enhancing your energy levels, to calming your mind.

In the HELP program, breath is seen as a crucial connection between your body and mind. When we are angry and upset our breathing tends to be very rapid and shallow, illustrating the link with our thoughts and emotions. A sob of grief, a yawn of tiredness or boredom, a sigh of resignation are just a few of the other signals of this connection with the mind. Of course, not only does the mind affect the breath but changes in our bodies also affect our breath. For example, when we walk briskly or jog up a hill, the exercise increases our oxygen requirements and we therefore breathe faster and deeper to bring more oxygen or energy into the body to cope with this exertion.

The Science of Breathing

There is a whole science of breath based on yoga breathing practices called pranayama. This science guides us in becoming aware of the connections between the breath and the rest of our functions. It also shows us how to alter our breathing patterns to directly promote positive changes in our body and mind. Breath is no longer just a result of mental or physical changes but becomes a tool to affect them. According to these teachings, prana is energy or the vital force, and the breath is the vehicle for prana in and out of the body. Yama means control, and so these pranayama practices allow us to gain control of this energy, and to be able to use it to improve our health. We can survive for many days without food and water, but without breathing we would cease to exist in this physical body in just a few minutes. In normal breathing, we use only the upper portions of the lungs. The breath tends to be shallow. By altering this breathing pattern and using full abdominal breaths, we can move 8 to 10 times the volume of air moved by our shallow normal breaths. While breathing is an autonomic bodily function that carries on essentially on its own, we do have the capacity to change our pattern of breathing consciously through awareness and practice, and thus improve the quality of our lives

If the breath is so crucial to our overall health, why are most of us not breathing more deeply now, and how did shallow breathing come about? First, despite the physiological evidence regarding the importance and dynamics of breathing, most of us have never been informed about the power of the breath and its impact on mind and body by our health practitioners or teachers. When we breathe our chest only, the breath is usually irregular and rapid, which triggers stressful feelings and occasionally the fight-or-flight response in the mind and body. Also, on an anatomical basis, the lower portion of the lungs have the greatest amount of blood flow, and with shallow chest breathing there is very little oxygen getting to this crucial part of the lungs. By altering this pattem and deepening the breath-instead of an anxiety reaction in the body and a limited amount of oxygen being absorbed into the bloodstream-we can produce a sense of calm, a greater alertness of mind and a healthier body through a greater flow of oxygen.

In addition to the lack of education about the importance of deep breathing, there are several other factors that account for shallow breathing. Accumulated anxiety and emotional trauma cause our abdomens to become tight and this stops us from taking deep inhalations. Another factor is our lifestyles. Due to advances in technology, we are far more sedentary than ever before and, without exercise, our breathing becomes shallow. Finally, many people have been encouraged in their early years to create a “desirable” posture, by sucking in their belly and puffing out their chest. This practice undermines proper breathing, as it constricts the abdominal muscles and makes it impossible to take in full deep inhalations. The good news is that we can develop control of our breathing. Through greater awareness and the practices that follow in this chapter, all of these obstacles can be removed.

Reflecting on Breath Awareness

The first step is to reflect on how you are breathing right now. This technique will allow you to establish a base point from which you can make improvements and to breathe properly. Record observations of your breathing in your journal to compare with later periods.

Include:

  • Rhythm
  • Depth
  • Sound
  • Body movements

Exercise

Sitting with your spine straight, head, neck and trunk in alignment, place your right hand on your chest and your left hand on your abdomen. Without trying to change the flow of breath from its natural rhythm, just observe the movement of the hands. If your right hand rises more than your left hand, then you are breathing from your chest. If your left hand rises more than your right, then you are breathing from your abdominal area. Again, just observe the next few breaths and take note of how you are breathing now. Are you breathing through your nose or your mouth? Is your breath flowing and smooth? Notice the sound of your breath. Once you have been practicing breathing techniques for a while you will be able to compare your breathing.

Guidelines for Breathing Practices

A few guiding principles are worth mentioning before introducing some of the breathing practices that will help transform both your breathing pattern and your well-being. Always try whenever possible to breathe through the nose. The nose has been designed to act as a filter for the air, as well as warming the air before it enters the lungs. Be aware of your posture, particularly your shoulders: they should be held back without being stiff. It is best to have the chest cavity as open as possible to help promote deep breathing. Try to focus the mind on the technique that you are employing. The mind will have a tendency to drift off to other areas once you have learned the specific practice. When the mind strays it may very well affect both your posture and the actual technique itself. For maximum benefit, try to keep the awareness always with the breathing technique you are practicing. The breathing techniques, while simple, must be taken seriously and practiced regularly in order to reverse patterns of breathing that have developed over a lifetime. The cautions are the following:

  • If at any time you feel light-headed or dizzy, discontinue the technique and return the breath to normal until steadiness returns.
  • Never do the practices to extreme. Follow the instructions and gradually build up your capacity.
  • If you wish to go beyond the techniques given here, do so only under the guidance of an instructor qualified in pranayama.
  • Do not underestimate the power of the breath and its ability to transform your health if done properly, or to be detrimental if instructions are not followed.

Abdominal Breathing

As most of us are breathing from our upper chest, the first technique is to learn abdominal breathing so as to allow us to deepen the breath and feel less stressed and more balanced.

Exercise

Begin by checking your posture, taking in a deep breath and then exhaling as much air as you possibly can as you fully contract the abdominal muscles. If you want to place one hand on the abdomen to that it is pulling in fully on the exhalation, feel free to do so. This exhalation will force out all the stale air from the lower portion of the lungs, and the resulting is one of a vacuum, which will pull in a nice deep inhalation with the abdomen expanding out like a balloon. Always remember, as you continue this practice over the next few minutes, that the abdomen is expanding out on the inhalation and all the abdominal muscles are contracting on the exhalation, causing the belly to flatten. If you happen to be a reverse breather and find your natural breath involves your abdomen expanding on the exhalation and contracting on the inhalation, then you will have to practice this technique as much as possible to retrain yourself to breathe in the correct manner.

If you experience difficulty in isolating the abdominal part from the rest of your breath, just lie down on on your back with your arms relaxed and slightly away from the body, and your feet shoulder width apart. Now place a small, light weight on your abdomen, such as a little sandbag, thin book, or other similar object. Concentrating on the object, observe it rising and falling with each respiration. This will give you a physical point of reference to focus on while deepening and changing your breathing pattern. If this practice seems strange or unnatural at first, give it time and through regular sessions this abdominal breathing will become automatic.

Deep Three-Part Breathing

This practice incorporates the abdominal breathing you have just learned and takes it further. It is an excellent practice for stress management and for improving the supply of oxygen into the body. Because you take your breathing wherever you go, this practice can be done at any time. You may find it particularly useful in breaking the anxiety cycle, by altering your reaction to external circumstances that are beyond your control. If you feel a sense of worry or anger building up in an anxious moment, just practice this technique to help calm the body and mind, and thereby change your reaction to the situation.

Exercise

Again, begin by checking your posture–head, neck, and trunk in a straight line, with the shoulders back but not rigid. Placing your right hand on your chest and your left hand on the abdomen, exhale completely through your nose. Begin inhaling by filling your abdominal area and allowing it to expand out like a balloon. During this expansion your left hand should begin to rise while the right hand is not moving.

After filling your abdominal area, keep the inhalation flowing as you allow the air to rise up and fill your lower chest. This should cause the right hand to rise and the ribcage to expand. Keep inhaling as you now let the airflow into the upper chest. As the air reaches the top of your lungs the collarbones will rise slightly. The lungs are now almost completely filled with air as a result of this three-part technique. First the abdomen, then the lower chest, and finally the upper chest.

Now exhaling, repeat the same process but in reverse from top to bottom. Begin by exhaling and releasing air from the upper chest, allowing the collarbones to fall. Then continue to exhale from the upper chest while moving down to the lower chest, feeling it beginning to contract. Conclude with the abdominal area and expel all the remaining air by contracting the abdominal muscles fully.
Continue this practice with your next inhalation: abdomen, lower chest and upper chest, and exhale in the reverse order. Practice for a few minutes become familiar with the dynamics of deep three-part breathing.

The benefits of the deep, three-part breath are many. In addition to the stress-management application already mentioned (by transforming your shallow breaths), this technique will allow you gradually to increase your lung capacity. It will have a noticeable effect on your energy level and mental clarity as a result of greater oxygenation of the blood. It is also particularly beneficial for people suffering with chronic lung and bronchial conditions

Rapid Diaphragmatic Breathing

The greater awareness of the abdominal muscles gained from the previous two techniques provides a good basis for this next practice, which involves vigorous expulsion of breath using the diaphragm and abdominal muscles, followed by a relaxation of the abdominal area resulting in a slow, natural inhalation. The emphasis is placed on the exhalation, on making it rapid and forceful. The exhalation is immediately followed by a relaxed inhalation replacing the air expelled. This practice is particularly helpful if you are feeling sluggish, as it is very good for boosting energy levels.

Exercise

Check the posture as before. Inhale fully, then exhale forcefully a small quantity of air and immediately follow this with a natural inhalation. Only the abdominal muscles should be moving: they contract with the rapid forceful exhalations, then release to allow the air in with each relaxed inhalation. Again, you may wish to put your hand on the abdomen to ensure that this abdominal action is taking place with each breath. Once you become accustomed to the action of the breath, begin to increase the frequency of the breathing to about two exhalations and inhalations per second. When beginning, start with between 15 and 20 forceful exhalations, followed by relaxed inhalations. On the last exhalation, expel a larger quantity of air, then take a deep three-part breath, followed by a slow relaxed exhalation.

This constitutes one round. After allowing the breath to return to normal, do two more rounds when you are ready. Again, if at any time you feel discomfort, immediately return your breath back to normal.

Alternate Nostril Breathing

The alternate nostril breathing practice is one of the most beneficial and powerful of the breathing techniques. While most people are not aware of it, during the day the flow of air through your nose shifts from predominantly one nostril to the other, changing for most people at about two-hourly intervals. This technique has been designed to ensure a state of balanced breathing through each of the nostrils. Upon completing the practice, people generally feel a calming and relaxing sensation in both mind and body. It has a soothing and strengthening effect on the nervous system, increases mental alertness, and helps to cleanse and open the nasal passages.

While medical science has yet to go beyond acknowledging that this shifting of nostrils and breathing patterns does take place, there is, according to yogic texts, a direct linkage between this breathing pattern and the mind. It is generally recognized that the different hemispheres of the brain are responsible for different functions.

The right side of the brain is responsible not only for the motor functions of the left side of the body but also for orientation in space, artistic ability, and our capacity for recognizing familiar places and people. This right hemisphere possibly serves an integrating function, allowing us to respond to a situation as a whole. People who have suffered injuries to this hemisphere experience difficulties in these areas while other brain motor functions remain intact.

The left side of the brain is responsible for the right side of the body, and controls verbal skills, logical thinking, and mathematical functions. It deals with cause-and-effect relationships, and inputs in a sequential fashion.

In the yoga approach to breathing, when you are breathing predominantly through the left nostril you are activating the right side of the brain, and thus stimulating the activities associated with that hemisphere; and vice versa. When the breath flows evenly through one nostril and then the other, both hemispheres are in balance, producing a sense of calm and relaxation.

Exercise

To practice this technique, sit in a comfortable position, and once again check your posture, ensuring the head, neck and trunk are in a straight line, the spine is straight but not stiff, the shoulders are back, and the body is relaxed. Now make a gentle fist with your right hand, releasing the thumb and the last two fingers. The technique is to block off the right nostril with the thumb while breathing through the left nostril, and then alternate. Exhale fully. Now place the thumb against the right nostril and inhale through the left nostril. At the completion of the inhalation release the thumb, close off the left nostril with the ring finger and exhale through the right nostril. Next inhale through the right nostril and, at the completion of the inhalation, block the right nostril off with the thumb and exhale through the left nostril, releasing the ring finger. Continue this pattern: exhale, inhale, and then switch nostrils. Change nostrils after each inhalation. 

Once you feel comfortable with the dynamics of the technique, work toward making the exhalation longer than the inhalation, with it eventually being twice as long as the inhalation. The breath should be flowing smoothly and deeply throughout the technique, and you should be using a correct posture. Again, if at any time you feel like you are not getting enough air or feel light-headed or dizzy, discontinue the practice and return your breath to normal. Continue this technique for up to 2 minutes. If your arm gets tired, just bring the elbow in toward your chest. When you are ready to conclude, finish on the exhalation through the right nostril and allow the breath to return to normal, then sit quietly for a moment with your eyes gently closed.

Suggested Daily Practice

To begin this program it is suggested that you allot a minimum of 5 minutes daily for the breathing practices in conjunction with your other program activities. You may start with 30 seconds of abdominal breathing, a minute and a half of deep three-part breathing, a minute of rapid diaphragmatic breathing, and conclude with 2 minutes of alternate nostril breathing. Once you feel comfortable with the practices and techniques, slowly begin to increase the time you spend doing them. Again, make the increases in time gradual, giving your body a smooth transition and working within your limits and toward realistic goals.

When wanting to extend the practice of rapid diaphragmatic breathing, begin by increasing the number of exhalations per round from 15 to 20, to 20 to 25, never exceeding increases of 5 at any stage. After each increase, wait three weeks before the next one. Always be gradual in the process and, again, if you notice any disconcerting states or return the breathing to normal at once. The key is regular practice rather than increasing the number of rounds once a week to make up for times you have missed. Through gradual and steady increases that are sustained daily, the maximum benefit will come to you.

Alternate nostril breathing should be approached on the same basis. Slowly extend the time you do the practice, by up to 30 seconds at a time. Practice that increase daily for at least one week, and make sure you can handle it comfortably before making any further increases. Also, be aware of building up the length of the exhalation, eventually trying to make the exhalation twice as long as the inhalation. Proceed slowly when working on extending the exhalation. You should not feel like you are gasping for the next inhalation. The breath should be quiet, smooth, and steady. You may wish to count, initially inhaling to a count of 4 and exhaling to a count of 8. Gradually work the exhalation up to a count of 10. When you have been able to sustain that for at least three weeks, increase the inhalation to 6 and the exhalation to 12, as you are able to do so. Using the same formula of waiting at least three weeks to build up your capacity, and monitoring the effects, aim to breathe for 3 minutes at a count of 10 for each inhalation and a count of 20 for each exhalation, without gasping, and keeping the breath quiet and smooth.

Try to incorporate deep three-part breathing as much as possible into your awareness, using the abdominal muscles as frequently as you can when breathing throughout the day-whatever you are doing. The abdominal breathing and deep three-part breathing should be practiced as much as possible, whenever and wherever you find yourself, to help develop a whole new pattern of breathing and a wonderful range of benefits for body and mind.

Daily breathing practice with awareness will help to transform your overall health, bringing vitality, balance, and energy into your life. The breath is a wonderful tool for both body and mind. By becoming more aware of your breathing patterns, and slowly changing them, you will experience the dynamic power of the breath of life.

Helpful Hints for Breathing Practices

  • Put a reminder simply saying BREATH AWARENESS on your office wall, in your wallet, by your bed.
  • Get together with others who may be interested in improving their health, and share these practices.
  • Join a yoga class that has breathing as part of the class.
  • Use the HELP audio resource to help guide you through your breath routine or listen to others.
  • When out in the country or at the beach take advantage of fresh clean air with deep breathing.
  • Never pass up the chance to blow up balloons, mattresses, and beach balls.
  • Exercise regularly to help develop lung capacity.

Further Reading

Swami, Ballantine, Rudolph Hymes, Alan. The Science of Breath: A Practical Guide, Himalayan International Institute of Yoga Science, Honesdale, PA, 1979.
Satchidananda, S. To Know Your Self, Anchor Books, New York, 1978.
Integral Yoga Hatha, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, New York, 1975.
Speads, Ways to Better Breathing, Healing Arts Press, Rochester Vermont, 1978.

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