By Dr. Rita Khanna
Is pranayamas the breath of life? Tube lights require a certain voltage to come on. If the voltage is required to be 220 and it goes down to 180, what happens? No light. Air conditioners have a booster attached which completes the circuit so that they can continue to function even when the voltage is low. However, if the voltage is very high, say 440, the tube light and the armature in the air conditioner will burn out. Similarly, in our bodies there is energy, Shakti, which can be increased or decreased. When this Shakti is decreased, the mind-body and all of its functions are impaired. On the other hand, when the energy level is raised too high, the brain becomes hyper excited or manic. Pranayama helps us to moderate this energy. Everyone hopes to enjoy a long, active and healthy life, free from disease. Therefore, it is most important that everyone should practice certain Pranayamas and Asanas on a daily basis.
Conscious and Proper Breathing
In scientific investigations it was found that most people do not breathe correctly and enough to fulfil the needs of their body and brain. Breathing is a natural process; it’s normal rhythm is 15 rounds per minute, 900 rounds per hour and 21,600 rounds per 24 hours. When the breathing rate is increased, longevity is decreased. Fifteen rounds per minute is the rate which correlates to 75 or 80 years of life. Ten rounds per minute lengthen life to about 100 years. However more than 15 rounds, say 30 to 35 rounds limit the lifespan, as with a dog for example, to 10 or 15 years.
Quick, shallow breathing is an aging factor, and not really beneficial for emotional integration and balance. Therefore the first prerequisite in the breath of life is conscious breathing. Learn to maintain the normal breathing rate of 15 rounds per minute. Relax your body and most people do not breathe correctly. Stop thinking and worrying for one minute and the breath rate will drop down to 15. But if you continue to think, the breath rate will be higher. The thinking process affects the breath and the breath affects the thinking process.
By freeing your mind from emotional tension for half an hour, you can become aware of how you breathe. Psycho physiological experiments have proved that during moments of stress and strain the intake of oxygen is very high while consumption is very low, only about 1/10th of the actual need. This means that the greater portion of oxygen intake goes unused. Thus, after learning to breathe consciously 15 rounds per minute, it is necessary to learn to breathe completely to the full capacity of our lungs. This is the second prerequisite of Pranayama.
Chest breathing is incomplete. In Yoga the complete breath consists of abdominal (diaphragmatic) breathing, chest (thoracic) breathing and shoulder breathing. This has to be practiced for some time until you are able to train your system to breathe correctly. Complete breathing is done through the abdomen. In the beginning, practice with your hand on your navel. Relax all the tension in the chest and shoulders. Breathe a little deeper than natural and feel your abdomen expanding and contracting. When this is perfected – inhale, first expanding the abdomen and then the chest in one slow, smooth motion. When the maximum amount of air has been drawn into the lungs, the shoulders will raise automatically. Complete breathing will free you from colds, cough, allergic asthma, sinusitis, migraine and many other problems.
Wrong breathing affects the heart; a person having a heart attack can control it immediately with correct breathing. This means that with the help of the breath of life it is possible to gain complete control over the voluntary as well as the involuntary functions of the heart.
Three Stages of Pranayama
Pranayama is based on the three stages of respiration: Pooraka (inhalation), Kumbhaka (retention) and Rechaka (exhalation). By permuting and controlling these three, different Pranayamas are obtained. Kumbhaka is a very important part of Pranayama, especially for those who suffer from nervous break downs, poor memory and incorrect breathing habits like inhaling in short, quicker shallow breaths. When we do not breathe correctly, the brain is not supplied with sufficient oxygen and therefore breathlessness is experienced.
During Pranayama the bodily secretions are arrested and controlled. Therefore, the right time to practice Pranayama is in the morning on an empty stomach. It should not be practiced on a full stomach, not even after tea.
Pranayama is for all people regardless of age, physical or mental condition. Anyone can learn and practice it. However, Pranayama should be taught by a teacher, individually and not collectively. Each person has his own physical and mental constitution. Therefore the teacher has to study his student’s particular makeup and according to that the breath of life and its ratio has to be adjusted.
Pranayama and Relaxation
For some people relaxation means an easy chair, a cup of tea or coffee and television viewing. In Yoga, relaxation means freeing the whole system from tension not only the physical body but also the conscious and subconscious mind. Sometimes when the physical body is resting the mind is not. Sometimes the conscious mind is relaxing but the subconscious mind is not. If you take tranquilizers your conscious mind and body may be relaxed, but deep rooted worrying still goes on. Pranayama can be utilized very effectively to bring about total relaxation and emotional integration, because in this system we maintain perpetual awareness while bringing the mind down to deeper levels of the subconscious.
Abdominal breathing is a good technique for relaxation. This can also be done while lying down. Take a deeper breath than usual and during inhalation feel the movement of the abdomen. Forget your nose. Feel that you are breathing in through the abdomen. Feel the abdomen expanding and contracting with each inhalation and exhalation. Count each breath with total awareness from 100 back to 1 (don’t count from 1 to 100). If you make a mistake or lose count, start again from 100. Practice like this- 99 yes, 98 I know, 97 I am aware, 96 I am still counting. It is important to register each number in your conscious awareness. Relaxation techniques stress total awareness of all mental functions, and in this particular practice awareness of the counting is very important. Awareness of the mind enables you to relax, but when you lose this awareness there is tension. So count from 100 back to 1 without losing awareness, without making any mistakes. At the same time feel that the diaphragm is breathing, moving up and down with each inhalation and exhalation.
Next go to the throat. Listen to the sound of the breath and feel that the throat is breathing. Count each round from 100 back to 1. Now move up to the nostrils; keep your concentration between Nasikagra (the tip of the nose) and Bhrumadhya (the eyebrow centre). Don’t go beyond that. Feel that the whole breathing process is taking place between the tip of the nose and the eyebrow centre, and count from 100 back to 1.
We have found that abdominal, throat and nose breathing is very good for all those suffering from hypertension or high blood pressure. However, for people with normal blood pressure this practice is not recommended as it may cause their blood pressure to drop below normal. They can do the following technique.