Except for certain microorganisms, all living things require oxygen to live. Respiration is the process by which human beings and other living things obtain and use oxygen. It also involves the elimination of carbon dioxide, a gas produced when cells use oxygen. There are three phases : external respiration, internal respiration and cellular respiration. IN external respiration or breathing, a plant or animal takes in oxygen from its environment and releases carbon dioxide. When oxygen is carried to the cells of the organism and carbon dioxide is carried away it is called internal within the cells.
The lungs in a human being are the chief organs of breathing. They are elastic structures in the cavity and each contains millions of small air chambers or sacs. Other structures important in breathing are the chest wall and the diaphragm. The chest wall includes the ribs and the muscles between the ribs. The diaphragm is a dome shaped sheet of muscle that separates the chest cavity from the abdomen. Air enters and leaves the body through the nose and the mouth. The pharynx (back of the nose and mouth), the larynx (voice box) and the trachea (windpipe) are the air passages that connect the nose and mouth with the lungs. The process of breathing involves two acts: inspiration (breathing in) and expiration (breathing out). During inspiration, also called inhalation, air from atmosphere is drawn into the lungs. During expiration or exhalation, air is expelled from the lungs.
Breathing is life-sustaining. Death will occur if you do not breathe even for 3 minutes. The pattern of breathing changes with certain diseases like asthma and bronchitis. It also changes after great physical activity when it becomes rapid and deep. If we undergo a short exercise and run a few hundred yards our lungs become fresh and fit. Several breathing exercises have been evolved a ventilate our lungs for good health. The lungs are the purifiers of our system. Simple breathing, pumps in the much needed oxygen. It pumps out the spent, toxic carbon dioxide gas.
Breathing had an intimate relation to our emotions. When angry, excited, fearful, depressed breathing takes a different pattern. It also changes during and after the sex act. Though the pattern differs with different emotions, as far as we are concerned it is almost unconscious for we do not make any effort.
Proper breathing can be instrumental in toning up our physical and mental health. It is a voluntary and we have control over it. We can change the way in which we breath by making it deep or shallow and even stop it for few moments at will. It is not so with our heart. The heart being a muscle keeps on a rhythm. It does change in disease and with emotions, intentionally, we cannot change in disease and with emotions, intentionally, we cannot change the rhythm of the heart beats but we can do so with our respiration.
Respiration changes with emotion. It was well understood by sages and yogis who had mastered how to control it. They came to the realisation that if the pattern of breathing changed with emotions, we could master our emotions by changing the pattern of breathing. This discovery was a real great boon and our Yogis worked on this idea for centuries. Thy perfected the system of "Pranayama". Pranayama depends upon an intentional control over breathing which in turn controls our emotion. This is the thread that links us to the realm of yoga, "pranayama and meditation". An ancient book "Hatha Yoga Pradipicka" has this to say:
"When the breath is steady or unsteady, so is the mind and with it the yogi. Hence the breath should be controlled". As children we have played the game of breath control. Where one has to count numbers while holding the breath, to see how long we can manage to remain without breathing and complete with other children. While bathing in a river or a pool we try going under water and hold the breath as long as possible and compare it with others. In the sea the most favourite game is to pass over you or be carried with the wave to the bank of sea. We hold the breath when we are submersed. This is in our youthful days. As we grow older and become engrossed with work and display signs of worry we seem to have less time to have these simple period.
Watched a tennis player giving service. He will hold his breath before serving the ball. He does so because it gives him greater concentration and strength. A good runner in a hundred yard dash completes his run often completely out of breath. A javelin thrower or a discus thrower will hold the breath before the supreme exertion greater will be his inhalation and longer he will hold his breath.
When you go under a cold shower on a winter morning, you hold your breath in the beginning of the shower to gather more strength to fight better the on-coming cold water. When you contemplate a beautiful landscape and watch if for the first time, the breath stops in amazement and wonder for a few moments struck by the scenic beauty. You yawn, when tired and you all short of breath. Looking at a great painting created by a master there is a feeling of vibrant sensation in the body, the mouth half opens, the breath stops for a few moments. This momentary stopping of breath we call Kumbhaka in pranayama. It is the source of strength to our body and helps control our emotions.
Breath is the bridge between the body, the senses and the mind. Our aim is to strengthen this bridge. For healthy living we have to build it and make it stronger and above all develop harmony between body senses and the mind. How to develop this bridge? This has been the greatest challenge before our ancient sages. They have tried to perfect breath control to suit occasions and there by master the emotions. Today, more than ever before, this is making an impact as we try to get rid of tensions of an industrialised and materialistic world. Yoga is the only answer. Hordes felt conscious people are being drawn to yoga centres. Modern medical science has come to the realisation that pills are no answer for a hurried and worried world. A lasting solution may be found in the 6,000-year old science of yoga. Their research on the effects of yoga, pranayama and meditation on the human body are proving positive. They see a ray of hope in their fight to conquer the gravest riddle of tension-induced or psychosomatic, diseases.
The way we breathe is often inadequate, we breathe shallowly and lazily, so the blood is seldom, sufficiently oxygenated. The implication of this is far reaching. It is not sufficiently realised that several symptoms of poor health have their root cause in the fact that the circulation of blood is slow, it is insufficiently not oxygenated. It is then that not only the internal organs, glands and nerves are insufficiently nourished. Also the excretary system does no function efficiently, the body waste products are not removed.
Why do we breathe so badly? First, we are not aware of our shallow breathing as it does not put us immediately to any discomfort of breathlessness and it has already become a habit. Second, the cramped position many assume during their working hours, slumped in the executive chairs, typists bending down on their typewriters, clerks bending over their files, we compress our diaphram lowering our lung capacity.
Third, our ribs and spine are so stiff that they do not allow the lungs to expand properly due to the limited space in the rib cage. Fourth, breathing is restricted by tight clothes, tight waist belts, tight trousers and the use of corsets to control our figure. Hampered, in this way we breathe in only an estimated one tenth of our oxygen requirement and use approximately 1/3rd of our lung capacity. The average civilized individual today is not breathing but merely avoiding suffocation.
There is a belief among the superstitious that every one of us is born with a certain count of breaths. When the number of these breaths is full one has to leave this world. Why not slow down, take a longer breath and live longer, Normally we breathe 15-16 times in a minute. By breathing 12-13 times, the count will be slow and you will go a long way. It seems logical; If you breathe slowly and deeply, health will improve. With better health you are bound to cross all your limits. There are three distinct types of breathing generated in three different parts of the body:
- Calvicualr breathing or upper breathing
This breathing is more natural to women not due to the difference in the anatomy but because of the type of clothers they wear and the jobs they do. This ype of breathing raises only the ribs, top of the shoulders and the collar bone. The breath is introduced only in the upper part of the lungs. As this is the smallest part, only a little amount of air reaches the lungs. In the west and now this fashion has made its way to India, women have to do their chores, their habits of sewing, handwork, bridge or typewriting which require them to work in a bad posture. Working in this way 2-3 hours, there cannot be any other way except "upper" breathing.
Try the following experiment. Stand upright, to attention, with hands rigidly at your sides. Lift your shoulders a little and breathe deeply. Let your shoulder fall and throw back your head, and you will see that you can breathe in still more. Now sit at a table, leaning over forward a bit, just as we do while working. Breathing wil be shallow as the shoulders are in an unnatural, high position.
- Thoracic breathing or middle breathing
It is little better than upper breathing. It involves little of abdominal breathing. The middle lungs are filled instead of the upper lungs. This is the way most men breathe when they stand erect or sit in a crowded room, or cinema or when the air. We have to resort to hasty, short breathing. Observe your self next time you are in a cinema. This can be seen best in animals like a horse or dog which use thoracic breathing during exertion. It is also practised consciously by athletes.
- Abdominal breathing or deep breathing or diaphragm breathing
Here the base of lung re filled with air, aided by the lowering of the diaphragm. Most men breathe this way when lying down or resting. It is the most efficient of the three way of breathing but still inadequate. The purest form of abdominal breathing is found in strong healthy men, soldiers, athletes, farmers and mountain shepherds.
The diaphragm plays an important role since it is a strong partition of muscles separating the chest and the abdomen. At rest it arches upwards towards the thoracic cavity. When it is functioning, it flattens out more and more pressing the abdominal organs downwards and arching the abdomen outwards.
In upper breathing, it is the upper part of the lungs which will up with air. In middle breathing, only the middle and a bit of the upper parts are used. In abdominal breathing the entire lower and middle parts are filled up with air, hence this is the better of the three.
The best type of breathing however would be when the upper, middle and the lower part of the lungs are filled up with air. This we will try to learn, it is called pranayama breathing. It puts the entire respiratory system into action, including every cell and muscle.
The first and the most important rule of breathing is: breathe through your nose. Many people breathe through their mouth, especially while speaking. Through habit, many neglect to breathe through their nose while sleeping. This habit has to be curbed. Pay more attention to your breathing ways.
Be careful and see how your child breathes. If he acquires a right habit he will carry it throughout his life. Many children breathe through their mouth. Their growth will be stunted, their thyroid will not function properly. They will have problems of bad throat an tonsils. The adenoid seems to be a cause of breathing brought the mouth, but it is the other way round if we teach our children right breathing their adenoid seems to be a cause of breathing through the mouth, but it is the other way round if we teach our children right breathing their adenoids can be helped.
The nose has been equipped with all the defence devices. The air we breathe is filtered by the hair in the nose of just particles an small insects. Further as the air passes the winding passage before it reaches the lungs, it is warmed, if too cold, and cooled if too warm, and so it is made more suitable. With the help of poisonous gasses. Our breathing changes to avoid as much as we can, of these toxic gases. Adenoid helps us to fight the harmful bacteria and virus which find their way aling with the air we breathe. Adenoids are useful so do not be in hurry to cut them off when you have tonsilitis because many a time the problem of a bad throat persist even enter after the tonsils are removed. We have realised now that tonsils are useful and part of our immunity system to help us to fight diseases.
When we have a cold and cannot through the nose how quickly we lose strength. When we cannot eat through the nose then why breathe through the mouth, except during emergencies which are an exception. In learning the right way of breathing we must proceed slowly an avoid overexerting ourselves. Too much of anything is bad and this is also true if we are erratic or disordered during the practice of pranayama. Let us build the foundation with patience, lest the building cumbles.
Stand erect in a normal restful posture. Exhale vigorously and then breathe in slowly. We will see our abdomen move outwards. In deep inhalation we push down the diaphragm by expanding the lungs. This pushed the abdomen out. It will be a surprising discovery. Just by expanding the abdomen has caused air to enter the lower part of our lungs. To be more sure you may place the palm of your hand on the abdomen to feel the movement. Men will find that the first phase of yoga breathing is not difficult. Women who have not participated in sports or done exercises will find it difficult. But they wil surmount their difficulty with patience and will power. It will be interesting to note that the person who cannot do abdominal breathing has digestive problems, constipation and gynecological disorders.
In the second phase we try to incorporate middle breathing. We spread our lower ribs and the middle part of the chest so that little by little the air streams into the middle chest. In the third phase we do full arching of the chest during inhalation. You will realise that after full inhalation by arching the chest you can inhale further. We combine it with drawing in the abdomen. It will give support to lungs and help the upper lungs to fill up with air. This is theoretical. In practice we glide from one movement into another without interruption. When seen from the side, yogi breathing will appear a wave like movement from the abdomen upwards.
While exhaling, do so in a slow rhythmic manner through the nose in the same sequence. First we draw in the abdomen, press the lower ribs together and finally we lower the collar bone and shoulders. While exhaling, we press the abdomen and lower ribs together to such a degree that very little air remains behind. Do not be aggressive about it.
Practise this simplest form of pranayama morning and evenings, preferably on an empty stomach. Begin doing it one minute everyday and slowly upto five minutes. Continue it for a few days. Now you are ready to go in for deeper yoga breathing. This breathing will help increase resistance to cold and cough, help if you are suffering from bronchitis. Develop good healthy lung tissue to resist bacteria. Boys and girls with an inferiority complex or a feeling of guilt tend to draw their shoulders forward pressing their chest together. This is a bad habit and this awkward posture leads to less oxygen going to their lungs.
Such children with drawn shoulders are likely to have stunted growth and bad health. They fall prey to masturbation and sex abuse. See that your child is not repressed by brother and sisters and your give them a lot of affection and love to remove their anxiety and develop self-confidence. In many cases a lot of improvement can be achieved by breaking the habit of shallow breathing. Deep breathing allows more oxygen to enter the lungs. When oxygen runs through the blood vessels, more oxygen will reach all our different organs of the body and improve their function. Digestion will improve. Energy will increase. The heart will be stronger and your child will become more alive and creative. During exercises also we get increased breathing and an increased supply of oxygen but it is consumed by the exercising muscles. During yoga breathing however we store this extra energy and increase vitality. We are able to work longer hours without getting tired. Mentally, we will be more alert and keep ourselves calm and composed.
Art of Sitting in Pranayama
The pranayama should be done in a silent place, the air should be clean and pure. An open space is preferable or a garden, a park or a room with windows open. You must have only undergarments or loose clothing. You should sit on ground preferably covered by a blanket or cloth. The body, head and neck should be erect and you should remain still with eyes closed. Sit in padmasana or vajrasana if you can. This sitting posture is an automatic device to make you hold your spine straight. If you cannot sit in this way sit in the sukhasan posture against a wall or adopt a comfortable posture keeping your spine straight. If you are not in the habit of sitting on the floor or if you cannot due to old age, bad knees, then sit on a straight chair, draw yourself in the back of the seat and keep yourself erect against the back rest of the chair. The posture must be comfortable so that it may not be necessary to change the posture during practice. The best time to practice pranayama is the best is early morning. It can be performed in the evening also. Attend to your morning duties first, wash your self and take a bath if you can. It should be done on an empty stomach or four after the meal. Keep your mind calm and the mood must be cheerful and light hearted.
The practice of pranayama should not be a mechanical act. The mind should be kept alert, the position and flow of breath should be watched from moment to moment. You will acquire control over your breath gradually, although it takes time. This is like the taming of a dog or the training of a tiger or elephant by an expert trainer. The sound of breath should be maintained uniformly. During pranayam you feel a definite surge of energy and you will get feeling of your mind calming down. The body will be more relaxed after the pranayama is over.
In pranayama there is endless variety. Here we will like you to practice one simple technique and master it. There are three stages of pranayama.
- Inspiration or Breathing in (Poorak)
- Holding the breath (Kumbhak)
- Expiration or Breathing out (Rechak)
Holding the breath after breathing in is called antar Kumbhak and holding the breath after breathing out is called Bahir Kumbhak.
Sit in a posture of your choice. Sit straight. Lift your right hand and make it ready to hold the nostrils. First, close the right nostril with the right thumb and breathe in through the left nostril. Breathe in slowly and take in as much air as you can. Open the right nostril and close the left nostril with the right middle finger. Breath out slowly from the completely from the right nostril. Breathe in again slowly from the same nostril. Close again the right nostril with the right thumb and breathe our slowly from the left nostril. This will make one round. Repeat it 15-20 times. Remember that you should not breathe out from the nostril from which you breathe in. Make the breathing out time longer by and by. After a few day’s practice you can make it twice longer than the breathing in time. Do not hasten with your breathing. Breathing should always be smooth.
By practice you will be able to regulate the intensity of each breath. If you are susceptible to colds and cough, do it 5-7 minutes every day. Preferably, do the Savasana (corpse pose) at the end of pranayama.
Ud or uj means upwards or expanding and jaya means conquest or success. Sit in a straight posture. Breathe normally. Consciously, feel the flow of breath for a few minutes. Now breathe in slowly and deeply. See that, as you breathe, the chest expands to the full outwards and upwards. Breathe out slowly and deeply, emptying the lungs completely. Synchronise all these movements. Keep on breathing like this for 5-7 minutes.
This preparatory stage will help to lengthen your breath and make it smooth and slow. Do it for 3 days. Try to breathe out slowly and make it linger than normal. Make your ratio of breathing in time and breathing out time as near as possible to 1:2. Do not exert, do it slowly, take your own time, avoid jerky movements, gradually you will reach this target in a few days. Do not be in a hurry, go slow. Do it for 10 minutes. Do Savasana at the end of pranayama.
If your breathing has gone on smoothly you can start proper Ujjayi pranayama. Give a fractional pause after each expiration and inspiration. Try to increase this pause slowly and smoothly. Do not exert, do not suffocate yourself. Time you will be able to hold your breath longer. When you have retained your breath, feel the air reaching the remotest core of the lungs and percolating in your entire body. Practice 10-15 of them. If you feel tired switch on to normal breathing or you can go on alternating to normal breathing. When you feel you can easily hold your breath longer prolong the period to 10-15 seconds.
If you feel tension around the temple or head or tightness in the lungs you are exceeding the limit. Reduce the internal retention. Breathing out slowly. Your breath should be slow and smooth. After completing this practice take a few deep breaths and do savasana. It develops harmony between the nerves and mind. If done correctly, you will feel yourself brimming with energy. It will increase your capacity to work. It will help those suffering from low blood pressure or laziness. It is not advisable for patients with high blood pressure or heart disease.
You are ready to retain your breath after breathing out. Breathe normally, smoothly and slowly emptying the lungs as far as possible, without straining. Hold the breath as long as possible then inhale normally, continue for 10 minutes. Pressures at the temple and a feeling of gasping in the abdomen indicate that you have crossed your limit. Reduce the time of retention. Take a few deep breaths and do savasana. This is good for relaxation and helps to reduce blood pressure. It brings about quietness of mind.
Safety valves - They are also called Bandeaus. They are of three types - Jalandhara Bandha, Uddiyana Bandha and Moola Bandha. They are used during internal retention after you have mastered the rhythm of breathing. After doing internal retention, bend your neck forward, bring your chin nearer to the chest (Jalandhara Bandha) Contract and draw in your anus (Moola Bandha). These two bandhas can be introduced when you are able to retain your breath for 10-15 seconds. The practice of contracting the sphincter muscles (Moola Bandha) is also a good exercise for people suffering from piles and anal diverticulitis.
External retention can be combined with Uddiyana by a advanced students. It should never be forced. After external retention, one pulls in the abdomen (Uddiyana). Initially, four or five cycles of normal breathing may be followed by one internal or external retention with bandhas. As stability is gained by practice we can reduce the number of normal breathing periods. Remember while doing bandhas, not to strain the neck. Do not use force at any point. Do not external or internal retention with bandhas more than 6-8 cycles at a stretch. Increase the duration of retention and the number of cycles as per your capacity. It should be done once a day only and it is always better to seek training from a good yogi.
Mudras of your hand are important and play a role in altering the breathing and giving calming effect to your mind. You do them with palm facing downwards or upwards. Do it sitting and keep your spine straight. You can do it in Padmasana, Vajrasana, sitting cross legged or even sitting on a chair.
Prithvi (Earth) Mudra. Form a circle by touching tips of your index finger and thumbs. Do not put any pressure otherwise the circle will become angular. Place palm and fingers on your knee or thigh facing downwards. Now inhale your breath slowly and smoothly lasting 5 seconds, retain your breath for two seconds and exhale it for 7 seconds, now hold out your breath for 1 second. Repeat it 5 to 10 times. You will feel air entering your upper lobes of your lungs.
Vayu (Air) Mudra. Keep your circles intact and fold three other fingers in form of a half fist and put back on your knees or thigh facing down and start breathing same way again, you will find your breath entering the middle lobes of your lungs. Repeat 15 second cycle 5 to10 times.
Akash (Sky) Mudra. First place your thumb across your palm so that the tips touch the base of little finger. Now close the four finger over thumb to form a fist. Place your fists on your thighs or knees facing downwards and repeat the breath cycle again. you will feel air entering the lower lobes of your lungs.
Dhyana (Meditation) Mudra. There are 3 other Mudras which will help you to relax and while doing them you will feel peace and tranquillity riding over your mind.
Shraddha (Faith) Mudra. Form again the circles by touching the tip of index fingers and thumbs. Keep all other finger extended and keep again on knees or thighs but this time palm facing upwards. Breathe normally, and now gradually slow it down.
Medha (Illumination) Mudra. Here you bring the tips of your index fingers down to touch the middle joint of your thumbs.
Prajna (Wisdom) Mudra. Here the tips of your index fingers slide down futher to the base of the thumb.
The hands are open and facing upwards. Put your left hand down in your lap facing upwards. Place your right hand on your left hand facing upwards. This is a mudra for deep relaxation. This mudra was used by Buddha and Mahabir for meditation. In these Mudras you do not count seconds. Do not hold in or hold out the air. Just watch how your breathing continues, without any conscious manipulations.
You can keep on changing the mudras of your hand as you go on doing the pranayama. Preferably do pranayama, one hour each day, if not at least for half an hour. It will keep you young. It will keep you calm and composed. It will normalise your sleep. It will lead to better concentratin and efficiency in work.
Mahabandha with Pranayama
When doing Bandhas in Pranayama, special mudra of hands is useful. Put your right thumb on your right palm and close with all fingers. Same way do the left hand. Place the hands on your lap touching the knuckles face to face and fists facing upwards. This mudra is useful when pranayama is done with retention of the air inside or outside. While retaining of air it must be done simultaneously with three safety valves. The head should bend forward, the chin should be brought close to chest, the anus should be drawn in, the abdomen should be drawn in and should be continued till the retention continues. This is also called Mahabandha.
If you find that you cannot do pranayama, may be you do not have suitable time or place or that it does not suit your temperament. Never mind, you may try something else more vigorous, and for which you do not require a silent or secluded place. It might agree with your temperament if it is more vigorous. And that is swimming, more precisely, breast-stroke swimming.
While swimming, you will remember how breathless you have felt when you first started. You had to hold the breath for a certain period and then gasp for breath. The capacity to cope progressed as you practised and became more experienced. Do half an hour breast from exercising your body wil help you to do perfect yoga breathing. Swimming is one of the best forms of exercise, because you are bouyant and capable of moving all your limbs and body in every possible direction.
Swimming will help you not only as exercise but will have all the benefit of pranayama included. You will loose weight if you are overweight and gain weight if you are underweight.
I know a lean and thin gentleman who was aspiring to gain weight. Somehow he learnt that if you are thin and you exercise you may become still thinner. He was a good swimmer. He did not agree to my idea of swimming to gain weight. As he was fond of water and did not like to waste his energy by swimming he decided to go in the sea and play with the incoming waves. He would let himself be carried away by the waves to the shore and then walk back to deeper sea and do it again. This game compelled him to hold his breath. After a month or so he found some increase in weight and he gave me the good news that somehow he had found a way. My futher pursuasion to him to swim and not to be afraid of exercise was somewhat more convincing this time. He decided to give it a try. To his surprise and my expectation he went on gaining more weight. After a few months he was average weight and a friend.