meditation in a yoga group
During my recent Ayurveda internship in India, my teacher Dr. Amruta Athale organized yoga sessions for me with a Professor of Yoga, Prabha Gujrathi.
In order to become a yoga instructor in India, four years of studying at the university level must be completed. To become a yoga professor, practitioners study yoga for four more years in graduate school. It was a great privilege and opportunity to study with Prabha privately in her home and to now be able to share some of what I learned about pranayama yoga breathing exercise in this article.
I will discuss some of the mechanics of breathing here and in subsequent articles will discuss various breathing strategies and techniques. This information can be beneficial to people of all ages and fitness levels, as it is believed that if a pranayama practice is done properly it can be a complete treatment for any health condition.
We cannot live without breath, and if we can control our breath we can control our living capacity.
To understand and eventually master this skill, we must first learn about the breathing process. Each breath involves taking air from outside and exhaling air from the lungs. This follows the law of physics that air moves from areas of more to areas of less pressure. When we breathe in, the ribs move upwards, the diaphragm moves downwards, and the abdominal muscles move forwards. When we breathe out, the exact opposite occurs: the ribs move downwards, the diaphragm moves upwards, and the abdominal muscles move in.
There are four types of breathing:
1. Slow breathing – when the body is calm.
2. Deep breathing – when control over slow breathing is achieved.
3. Fast breathing – inhalation and exhalation are done quickly.
4. Completely controlled inhalation and exhalation with a breath hold in between.
With each breath we take in 500 cm2 of air. With deep breathing we take in 3000-4000 cm2 of air. If you are practicing yoga properly, you can go up to 6000-7000 cm2 of air. There is always 1350 cm2 of residual air in the lungs that does not participate in the inhalation/exhalation process.
Normally people breathe in and out 15-18 times per minute, and the heart rate is 4 times the rate of respiration. 25,000-26,000 breaths are taken every day. Fast breathing, strenuous exercise, and day to day activities can all increase the breathing rate. Every year we take 10 million breaths. There is a lot of potency in the lungs/respiratory system, as they never take a rest from birth to death.
One way we can provide a type of rest is by slowing down the speed.
Pranayama revolves around four things:
3. Breath hold with lungs filled with air/Antar kumbak
4. Breath hold with empty lungs/Bahri kumbak
The length of kumbak varies. Unless we try to purposely hold our breath, our natural inclination is to breathe out after inhalation and breathe in after exhalation.
Inhalation and exhalation are dependent on:
1. Metabolism – The more oxygen that is required, the more breaths are needed per minute. For example, with asthma deeper and more effortful breaths are needed. While sleeping we need less oxygen, so the respiration rate is slower. With inhalation, oxygen is getting mixed in the blood, and carbon dioxide is entering into the lungs. When carbon dioxide is in a higher concentration in the lungs, the body’s response is to exhale it out. With a very fast metabolism, both things happen very quickly. If metabolism is slower or not excessively fast, the respiratory rate is slower. Once your body relaxes in a yoga asana or pose, the breathing rate is slowed down. It is advised to relax your body as much as possible, even in advanced poses, so you will automatically have a decreased need for oxygen. The goal for each asana is to be: 1) relaxed 2) happy, and 3) steady
2. Emotions – If we are stressed by excess of any emotion, the rate of respiration is higher than normal. When the mind is at peace, the respiratory rate is naturally slower.
3. Will power – All yoga is related to will power, as we use it to control our breathing. The control of breath that comes from metabolic and emotional changes will come from increasing our will power. Slowly we will be able to control our breathing according to our will, and over time as will power becomes stronger, kumbak can become longer. Eventually your body will become more efficient and you will need less oxygen.
The body prepares before inhalation by expanding the lungs and bronchi. As the lungs move downward, this creates a pressure of air inside the lung. For exhalation, this pressure causes us to breathe the air out of the lung and the pressure lowers. With deep inhalation, we have to create tension in the lungs, respiratory tract, and chest. To remove all air from the lungs, we try to reduce this tension, which is why more effort is required for exhalation than inhalation.
As exhalation tension is released, new air automatically goes in. This reduces the effort of inhalation, therefore exhalation should be improved first. With controlled breathing, the exhalation should be prolonged. The measurement of exhalation should determine how long the inhalation should be in pranayama. If you can start by controlling the exhalation, control of the inhalation will come.
An example of it’s importance and how this is used in practice is with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Forced expiratory volume (FEV), the amount of air that can be blown out in the first second, is used to diagnose this disease. It could be as low as 50% or 30% of the Forced Vital Capacity (FVC) or the total amount of air that can be exhaled. Anything below 70% is considered an airflow limitation.
An increased emphasis on exhalation can also be seen during the breathing technique called Kapalabhadi, where the expiration is done forcefully, and the inhalation occurs reflexively. Also, with Omkar chanting or chanting Om, the m sound is always less in people who are new to it, due to decreased exhalation strength.
A breathing exercise that can be tried at home is to practice controlled breathing while slowly increasing the inhalation to exhalation ratio. The first stage to practice is a 4 second inhalation, followed by a 4 second exhalation. The second stage is a 4 second inhalation, followed by a 6 second exhalation. The third stage is a 4 second inhalation, followed by an 8 second exhalation. Each stage can be practiced for 5 minutes, and the sound of a ticking clock can be used to measure the length of the breaths.
There are many benefits to improving our breathing capacity. In yoga literature it is written that God has determined the amount of breaths you will have in your lifetime. You can control the length of your breaths, and in this way you can prolong your life. https://orthophysio.com/news/therapeutic-fitness/therapeutic-yoga/