Pranayama Breathing Exercises

Modern Ayurveda

Ayurveda the Science of Life

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You can learn a lot about life by paying attention to your breathing. Right now, take a deep breath in and hold it. Feel the increasing discomfort that builds as you resist the natural impulse to let go. When it becomes too uncomfortable, release your breath and notice the immediate relief that you feel. Holding on to anything when it is time to let go creates distress in your body and mind. Now take a breath, fully empty your lungs, and hold your breath. Become aware of the increasing discomfort that develops when you resist something from entering your life that you are meant to accept. Notice the relief that you feel as you take your next breath.

Ingesting, absorbing, releasing, and eliminating— these are the key components of a healthy life and of natural, balanced breathing. When these basic functions are working well, you are able to absorb what you need and eliminate what you don't, resulting in life-sustaining nourishment and detoxification. When you take a bite of an apple, for example, you ingest potential nourishment, but the energy and information contained within the food do not become available to you until you've absorbed the basic nutrients through your small intestines. In every substance you ingest there are components that do not serve you, so a healthy digestive system releases the nonnourishing remains of the food into your colon. It is necessary to eliminate the residues of digestion on a regular basis for you to remain healthy.

These same steps are applicable on an emotional level. When people engage in emotionally powerful relationships, they often ingest more emotional energy and information than they are capable of digesting. To maintain a healthy emotional life, we must all selectively absorb those aspects of the emotional experience that are nourishing, while releasing and eliminating those components that, if retained, could be toxic.

The Law of Giving and Receiving is in continuous play during the practice of pranayama breathing exercises. Conscious breathing means focusing your attention on the perpetual exchange that is taking place between your personal body and the extended body of your environment. You exchange ten billion trillion atoms with your surroundings with every breath you take. The atoms you inhale every day have traversed the bodies of living beings across the universe and across time. Within you right now, you have carbon atoms that once inhabited the body of a cheetah in Africa, a dolphin in the South Pacific, a palm tree in Tahiti, or an Australian Aborigine. Ultimately, every particle in your body was stardust, created at the dawn of the universe. Your breathing is a continuous testimony to the Law of Giving and Receiving.

Conscious breathwork is also an expression of the Law of Least Effort and the Law of Dharma. In a healthy body, breathing is an effortless process, automatically speeding up or slowing down, becoming deeper or shallower with the subtlest shift in your body's requirements for energy. The oxygen you inhale supports the purpose (dharma) of every cell in your body, enabling each to exercise its unique talent while serving the wholeness of the physiology.

On both physical and emotional levels, pranayama breathing exercises clear the channels that enable you to effortlessly exchange your personal energy with the energy of the universe. Consciously directed, your vital energy can be used for creativity and healing. Pranayama breathing exercises are tools to help you channel your vital force in evolutionary ways that bring you higher levels of physical and emotional well being.

Bhastrika—Bellows Breath

When you have a lot of energy moving through your body, you naturally breathe more vigorously. You spontaneously move more air when you are exercising or dancing because your body requires a greater quantity of oxygen to supply your energy needs. In the same way that invigorating action increases the depth of your breathing, you can consciously deepen your breathing, resulting in greater energy available to your body.

One of the most empowering breathing exercises in yoga is known as Bhastrika, which translated into English means "bellows breath." This is an energizing and cleansing breath. Although it is generally a very safe technique, it is important that you stay tuned in to your body during this process. If at any time you experience uncomfortable sensations or feel light-headed during the process, discontinue the Bhastrika for a few moments, then resume the exercise in a less intense manner.

Begin by relaxing your shoulders and practicing slow, deep abdominal breathing. After a few deep breaths, fully exhale, and then begin forceful complete exhalations followed by forceful deep inhalations through your nose at the rate of one second per cycle. The entire breathing movement should be from your diaphragm. Keep your head, neck, shoulders, and chest relatively stable while your belly moves in and out.

Start with a round of ten Bhastrika breaths, then resume normal breathing and simply observe the sensations in your body. After about fifteen to thirty seconds, begin the next round with twenty breaths. If you feel light-headed or experience tingling in your fingers or around your mouth, discontinue your deep breathing and simply observe your normal quiet breathing until the sensations completely subside, then resume the process.

After a pause of thirty seconds, perform a third round of thirty breaths. Again, suspend your Bhastrika breathing if you feel woozy. After the third round, simply witness the sensations in your body. For most people, this breathing exercise creates the experience of feeling energized and invigorated.

If you feel sluggish in the morning, perform a set of Bhastrika breaths and you will feel the clouds clear from your body and mind. You can also perform a couple minutes of Bhastrika during the day if you are feeling drowsy or lethargic. If you are trying to lose weight, performing Bhastrika several times per day will increase your digestive power and help your metabolism burn more intensely. It is generally not recommended that you perform Bhastrika pranayama close to bedtime as you may have difficulty falling asleep. Although Bhastrika clears the mind, it enlivens energy.

Kapalabhati—Shining Breath

A variation of the bellows breath is Kapalabhati, which involves forceful exhalations followed by passive inhalations. Sitting comfortably with your spine in an upright posture, forcefully expel all the air from your lungs, then allow them to fill passively. The primary movement is from your diaphragm. Perform this movement ten times, then allow your breathing to return to normal and observe the sensations in your body. Repeat these cycles of ten movements three to four times. Like Bhastrika, Kapalabhati is a cleansing and invigorating pranayama.

Dirgha—Complete Breath

Dirgha pranayama is a cleansing and balancing breathing exercise that shows prompt benefits. it involves consciously filling three different areas of your lungs. You start in the lower chambers, move up through the middle thoracic regions, and finish with the upper spaces. This breathing technique is a simple expression of the Law of

Intention and Desire. Simply by shifting your intention as to where to direct your breath you will notice a deeply relaxing and releasing effect.

Perform Dirgha pranayama either sitting upright or lying flat on your back. Both the inhalations and exhalations are through your nostrils.

For the first breath, inhale slowly and deeply, directing the air into your lower lungs by consciously using your diaphragm. When this is performed properly, your belly should inflate so you look like you are a little pregnant. As you exhale, deflate your belly, as if air were escaping from a balloon. Repeat this pattern several times, drawing the air into your lungs' lower chambers, maintaining smooth and rhythmic breathing.

After you are comfortable with this first step, begin bringing air into the middle section of your lungs. Start by filling your lower regions as before, then direct your inflow to your mid-lung region by opening your rib cage. You will feel your ribs expanding between your diaphragm and your chest. Inhale and exhale several times, filling both the bottom and middle areas of your lungs.

Finally, draw air into the bottom and middle regions of your lungs, then continue filling your upper lungs by breathing into your collarbones (clavicle). Practice the complete breath so your inhalation and exhalations flow in a smooth, continuous motion, sequentially directing your attention from your diaphragm to your ribs to your clavicle. Envision this deep, conscious breathing nourishing the organs, tissues, and cells in your body, enabling them to perform their vital functions effortlessly and in accordance with their dharma.

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