Yoga is for everyone!
In my previous post I described the benefits of proper breathing and the dangers of dysfunctional breathing, as well as a simple breath awareness technique. In this post I will take you a bit further into a more structured approach, where we are crossing into the territory of Pranayama. First, a bit of a refresher on the terminology.
Pranayama is sometimes translated from Sanskrit as "breath regulation", but that is not correct. The Sanskrit grammar dictates that the same vowel at the end of the first word and at the beginning of the next word must be joined into one. The word Pranayama consists of two words: Prana, and Ayama. Prana has been extensively discussed elsewhere in this blog, it means "Life Force", also known as "Chi" "Qi" in other modalities.
The word Yama means restraint, and Yoga Sutras of Patanjali talks about the Yamas and Niyamas - the restraints and observances that are like the ten commandments of Yoga. When a prefix "a" is put in front of a word, it signifies that the meaning should be the opposite, so "ayama" means "no restraint".
Therefore, Prana-a-yama, correctly translated, means "Prana without restraint", not "breath regulation". However, the way we achieve that free-flowing Prana is through breath regulation. Therefore Pranayama describes not the process, but the end result.
Prana gets blocked by dysfunctional habits, and dysfunctional breathing habits are best broken the way physical habits are broken - by practicing the new, healthier habit. Through breath awareness we can discover what our habitual pattern is.
It is important to note that I am not using the word "bad" and "dysfunctional" to describe the pattern itself, but rather I refer to the fact that when it becomes "habitual" is when we run into trouble. When we know nothing else but that habit is when we drive ourselves into the imbalance.
The Three-Part Yogic Breath is a great tool to discover your habitual pattern and to practice its opposite. You can do this breath seated or lying on your back. The important thing is to find a neutral alignment of the spine, with a little lumbar arch, with an openness in the chest, and the head level with the rest of the spinal column (head hanging forward is often the case when we slump). This will allow you to experience the breath more fully.
To sit up straight (or for some, to lie on the back with the shoulder blades flat on the floor and the forehead level) is actually really hard, and if the dysfunctional posture has set in, downright impossible. This is the reason why we usually do some Asana, or Yoga poses and movements - to strengthen and stretch the body, so that you are able to achieve the good posture, and be comfortable in it for the length of time required to feel the effects of Pranayama.
So, arrange your body as closely as you can to the neutral, and practice the simple breath awareness for a few minutes first to get started. Lengthen your exhale, allow your inhale to gradually deepen as well, but wait for that to happen naturally (I describe the whole process in my previous post).
Notice where you experience the movement of the breath first - your chest, your midsection/lower ribs, or your abdomen/diaphragm. Notice where else you experience the movement of the breath after that initial phase of the inhale. You may experience the following: first the belly will rise as your diaphragm descends down and displaces the internal organs, then the lower ribs will expand, then the chest will rise. Or you may experience the reverse of that - first the chest, then the lower ribs, then the belly. Or you may experience the breath in only one part - just the belly rising and falling, just the ribs moving, just the chest. Like I said, there is nothing "wrong" with any of it until it becomes the only way you ever breathe. So, discover your habitual pattern through breath awareness.
Then attempt to "organize" the breath by mentally dividing the stages of the inhale and exhale into the three parts I already mentioned: chest, midsection, abdomen. Attempt to create movement in each of these three parts as you breathe. It need not be much, just enough for you to notice that yes, something stirs there, never strain or force it. Work until you are using the muscles of each part efficiently and without strain. Different muscles are involved when we send the breath into different areas of the body.
Once you are able to detect movement in all of the three parts, practice changing the order in which they are engaged: from the top down or from the bottom up. For example, a very grounding breath is to breathe from the top down - first fill the chest, then the midsection, then the abdomen. Release the air on the exhale in the reverse - from the belly first, then the midsection, then finally the chest. For a more uplifting breath you can reverse the pattern: first breathe into the belly and fill from the bottom up like a glass with water, empty on the exhale from the top down. Notice which of these patterns feel like your habitual one and which feels new and strange. Practice the new and the strange until you are very comfortable with it. For an even greater articulation of this technique you can add Krama, or slight pause after each part during the exhalation (for soothing, cooling effect) or inhalation (for energizing, warming effect).
What Yoga Therapists have noticed is that people who have the habit of mostly breathing into the upper chest area suffer from asthma, anxiety, high blood pressure, there could be stubborn belly fat. Those who have their breath confined to the belly area also have in common digestive upsets such as colitis, irritable bowel, food intolerances/sensitivities, depression, and what looks like belly fat is often bloating and constipation/gas (I talked about how dysfunctional breathing affects metabolism in my previous post).
Very few people are able to find their breath in the back body/around the lower back ribs initially - that is often the dullest and least responsive area because both of the above patterns make back body breathing difficult. Those that struggle with it the most often complain of low back pain, because where there is no movement, there is stagnation, and where there is stagnation and lack of blood flow, toxins build up and cause pain.
What I am leading to is this: whatever pattern you notice yourself stuck in, gradually begin to practice its opposite. So, if you experience the breath mostly in the chest, send the breath deeper into the belly. If your breath is already stuck in your belly, add a bit of expansion through the lower ribs and up into the chest. Involve all three parts where movement of the breath is possible to experience. We do this by intentionally separating the stages of the breath into three parts, hence the name, and training our awareness to register the sensations of the breath in these parts and to encourage a little bit of movement in the areas where we observe a lack.
Some Yoga teachers from various traditions have been taught that there is only one correct way to breathe, and they will cue to breathe into your belly and will disagree strongly with me on this. And it is true, a habit of chest breathing is a very common dysfunction on our society today. However, as a Yoga Therapist, I know that it is not the pattern itself that is dysfunctional, but the habit of it, and to tell someone whose breath is already confined to the belly to do more of the same would serve to good. In order to achieve balance we must learn to do the opposite of what we are used to.
This leads us back to what we started with: Prana. When we break free from the habits that block blood flow, awareness flow, and Prana flow (remember - where the mind goes, there the Prana goes), we restore the free flow of Life Force to areas previously closed to it. Prana is not the same as breath, and cannot be influenced directly, but through Pranayama we can achieve, sometimes profound, effect on the autonomous nervous system, heartbeat, circulatory and digestive systems, as well as the mind. A free flowing Prana promotes a sense of ease in body and the agitations of the mind are reduced when the breath flows clear and smooth.
By sustaining our attention on the smooth flow of the breath, we are able to enter a very special mind state - meditative. When we enter the meditative mind state, the thoughts quiet down, one becomes relaxed yet focused at the same time.
Therefore, just as Asana is sometimes a necessary prerequisite for Pranayama, Pranayama is sometimes necessary before meditation. As I mentioned, different breathing techniques have different effect, and in my other posts I will talk in greater detail about such practices as Nadi Shodhana and Seetali, as well as how to play with the length of the breath using ratios.