By Dr. Rita Khanna
‘Breath is life; hence the better we breathe the better we live.’ Of course we all know this, but we don’t bother much about it and don’t care as often as necessary.’ To breathe slowly is to prolong one’s youth and one’s life.’ So say the Yogic texts which caution us to breathe as if, at birth, only a fixed and immutable number of breaths had been allotted to us. If this is so, then each slow breath we take preserves our precious respiratory credit balance and prolongs our existence.
Our Respiratory System:
The organs of respiration consist of two lungs, one on either side of the chest and the air passages that lead to them. The lungs are located in the upper thoracic cavity of the chest, one on each side of the median line, and are separated from each other by the heart, the greater blood vessels and the larger air tubes. The lungs are spongy, porous, and their tissues are very elastic, containing innumerable air-sacs or alveoli. Each lung consists of an apex and a base. The base is directed towards the diaphragm, the muscular septum, the dividing wall between chest and the abdomen.
The air passage consists of the interior of the nose, pharynx or throat, larynx or voice box, trachea or windpipe, right and left bronchi and the smaller bronchial tubes. When we breathe, we draw in the air through the nose and after it has passed through the pharynx and larynx, it passes into the trachea, thence into the right and left bronchial tubes, which in turn subdivide into innumerable smaller tubes called bronchioles, which terminate in minute subdivisions in the millions of small air-sacs of the lungs. When spread out over an unbroken surface, these air-sacs of the lungs would cover an area of 1,40,000 square feet.
The air is drawn into the lungs by the action of the diaphragm. When it expands, the size of the chest and the lungs is increased and the outside air rushes into the vacuum thus created. The chest and lungs contract when the diaphragm relaxes and the air is expelled from the lungs.
The lungs purify the blood. The blood starts its arterial journey bright red, richly laden with life-giving qualities and properties. It returns by the venous route blue, laden with the waste matter of the system. From the right side of the heart the impure blood goes to the lungs for purification. It is distributed among the millions of tiny air cells of the lungs. A breath of air is inhaled and the oxygen of the air comes in contact with the impure blood through the thin walls of the hair-like blood vessels of the lungs called pulmonary capillaries. The walls of the capillaries are very thin, like muslin cloth, and thus oxygen easily penetrates through the walls of these thin capillaries.
When the oxygen comes in contact with the tissues, a form of combustion takes place. The blood takes up oxygen and releases carbonic acid gas generated from the waste products and poisonous matter which have been gathered by the blood from all parts of the system. The purified blood passes into the different arteries of the body. It is estimated that in a day 35,000 pints of blood traverse the capillaries of the lungs for purification.
By controlling the motion of the lungs or respiratory organs, we can control the Prana that is vibrating inside. The mind is fastened to Prana, like a bird to a string; therefore, by control of Prana, the mind can be easily controlled. Just as the bird that is tied to a post by a string, after flying here and there, finds its resting place on the post, so also this mind-bird after running hither and thither, to various sensual objects, finds its resting place during deep sleep in Prana.
Sitting Posture for Pranayama:
Sit up with spine erect, in any Meditative pose. Close eyes. Place hands in the Mudra of your choice, ideally Chin or Jnana Mudra, with tips of thumb and index finger touching. Remember, even the pressure on the index finger may have opposite/varying impact. The index finger is related to the element of air or Vayu. Touching the index finger tip gently increases the air element. Pressing it down controls or decreases it.
Pranayama has three components: the external breath, the internal breath and the steady state in between the two. When the breath is expired, it is Rechaka, the first kind of Pranayama. When the breath is drawn in, it is the second, termed Pooraka. When the breath is suspended, it is the third kind, called Kumbhaka or retention of breath.
Kumbhaka increases the life-span of an individual. It augments the inner spiritual force, vigour and vitality. If you retain the breath for one minute, this one minute is added to your span of life. By taking the breath to the Brahmarandhra, the fontanelle at the top of the head (said to be the connecting point between the spirit and the body) and keeping it there, the Yogi can defeat the lord of death, Yama, and conquer death.
In the practice of Pranayama, Rechaka, Pooraka and Kumbhaka, are controlled and regulated by space, time and number. The duration of the inhalation, exhalation or retention is 1:4:2. The practices of Pranayama can be done by sitting, walking and lying down positions.
Pranayama While Walking: Walk with the head up, shoulders back and with chest expanded. Inhale slowly through both nostrils counting Aum mentally three times, one count for each step. Then exhale slowly through both nostrils while you count six Aums (if it is possible). This completes one set. If you find it difficult to count Aum with each step, count Aum without having any concern with the steps.
If you want to do this Pranayama with retention then after inhalation retain the breath while you count 12 Aums (if you can) then exhale slowly through both nostrils while you count six Aums.
Kapalbhati Pranayama: This Pranayama can also be done during walking. Those who are very busy can practice during their morning and evening walks. It is like killing two birds with one stone. You will find it very pleasant to practice Pranayama while walking in an open space, when a delightful gentle breeze is blowing. You will be invigorated and innervated quickly and to a considerable degree. Practice, feel and realize the marked, beneficial influence of this kind of Pranayama. Those who walk briskly, repeating Aum mentally or verbally, practice this natural Pranayama without any effort.
Pranayama While Lying Down: Those who are very weak can practice Pranayama in this pose while lying on the ground or on the bed.
Posture: Lie down on your back on a blanket comfortably. Keep the hands on the ground by your sides and your legs straight. The heels should be kept together, but the toes can remain a little apart. Relax all the muscles and the nerves.
Draw the breath slowly inside through both nostrils, without making any noise. Retain the breath as long as you can do so with comfort. Then exhale slowly through both nostrils. Repeat the process 12 times in the morning and 12 times in the evening. Chant Aum men