Breath is Life
When a baby is born, the first thing they do is take their first life sustaining breath. A full, lung expanding inhale to declare physical and physiological independence. This is the most important and forceful inhalation a human will ever take.
The force of the first inhalation of a human’s life is three to four times greater than a normal inhalation. This force is required to overcome the inner surface tension of the lungs and inflate them for the first time.
That first breath brings a surge of blood to the lungs, the heart separates into two pumps, and the specialized fetal circulation shuts down, allowing us to breathe in the air around us independently for the first time.
The dynamics of breath from a yogic perspective, prana, agni, and apana correspond to functional activity shared by all living things.
Prana refers to what nourishes a living thing, and has come to also be known as the action that brings nourishment. Prana is the manifestation of an all generative life force. Agni is associated with digestive fire, and with our ability to metabolize and assimilate anything that can nourish us on any level. Apana is the waste that is eliminated, as well as the action of eliminating such waste.
Prana is what brings the materials of nourishment into the body, agni is what turns those materials into nourishment, and apana is about eliminating what is not needed.
Prana enters our body at the top of our body’s system. When it enters as a solid or liquid form, it travels through the digestive system, with all of its twists and turns, moving down and out. The force of apana, when acting on solid or liquid waste, must move down and out. Therefore, there is a strong association of apana as a downward force of elimination.
However, prana, our life force, also enters our bodies through our breath, in gas form. As it enters the lungs, it stays above the level of the diaphragm, exchanging gases deep within the lungs. The waste gases in our lungs are expelled the same way they enter the body. Therefore, in this prana giving process, apana must move upward to assist with exhalation.
Through a consistent yoga practice we can develop the ability to reverse apana’s downward action. The ability to cultivate an upward apana is closely connected to improving postural support through our breath.
From the viewpoint of breath practice, our bodies need to experience good, centered, unobstructed space so our prana and apana can have a healthy reciprocal relationship. The more good space we make in our bodies and minds, the more freely our pranic forces may flow, restoring and maintaining normal healthy function.
You could say that yoga therapy is largely about waste removal, since 70 percent of our waste is in the form of carbon dioxide, and exhaled air holds 100 times more CO2 than inhaled air. This applies to the insight that if we take care of the exhalation, the inhalation will take care of itself.
Breathing as Two Body Cavities Changing Shape
Typically, breathing is defined as the process of taking air into the lungs, and expelling it from the lungs, with the exchange of gases in between. The ability of our lungs to move the air in and out of our body is due to the change in shape of two of our body cavities, the abdominal and thoracic. Both cavities contain vital organs.
The thoracic cavity contains our heart and lungs and opens at the top end to the external environment. The abdominal cavity holds our stomach, liver and gallbladder, small and large intestines, kidneys, bladder, spleen and pancreas, and is open to the external environment at the bottom. The two cavities are connected in the middle by the diaphragm and are both attached to the spine posteriorly, sharing in its mobility.
In terms of breathing, our abdominal cavity changes shape, but not volume, like a water balloon. However, in terms of other life processes our abdominal cavity changes shape and volume. When we have a large meal, are ready for a big bowel movement, or are pregnant, it can be more difficult to breathe, because any increase in our abdominal cavity decreases the volume of our thoracic cavity.
The thoracic cavity, in terms of breathing, changes both shape and volume. It is a flexible gas filled container, similar to a bellows. When the shape is expanded, the volume increases, pulling in air. Alternately, when the shape is compressed, the volume decreases, pushing air out.
These two cavities are like stacking the accordion on top of the balloon. A change in shape of one will result in the movement of the other. Understanding breathing as a shape change in these cavities, you can understand what constitutes effective or ineffective breath.
Effective breathing is the ability of the structures that define and surround these two cavities to produce shape change.
The Universe Breathes Us
Volume and pressure are inversely related; when volume increases, pressure decreases and as volume decreases, pressure increases. Air flows into areas of lower pressure. Therefore, when you expand the volume in your lungs, the pressure lowers, and air fills the lungs. This is inhalation.
Exhalation happens passively. As your lungs and thoracic cavity return to their initial volume, air is pushed out, allowing them to return to their original shape.
Atmospheric pressure around you becomes higher than the pressure inside the lungs as you increase the volume of the lungs (by the diaphragm pulling down). Air is then pushed into the lungs by the weight of the planet’s atmosphere.
You create the space, and the universe fills it.
Physiological Effects of Breathing
When we inhale the internal thoracic pressure is lower than atmospheric pressure and the pressure in the abdominal cavity. This helps venous, oxygen poor, blood to return to the heart from below the diaphragm. This pressure change also squeezes our esophagus shut, preventing stomach acid from drawing upward.
Exhalation (and slow, controlled breathing) increases the tone of our vagus nerve, which sends messages of relaxation to our internal organs. This in turn may influence immune function, and suppression of inflammation.
Nose Breathing vs Mouth Breathing
Anatomically, there are many reasons that nose breathing is superior to mouth breathing.
Inhaled air is warmed, moistened, and filtered through the many complex structures of the nose, sinus cavities, and turbinates. Nitric oxide is secreted within the nasal sinuses. Nitric oxide relaxes smooth muscle of the blood vessels, which causes them to dilate, lowering the blood pressure.
While mouth breathing may bring more quantity of air into our lungs, nose breathing brings more quality to our overall breathing experience and result.
What About Agni?
Earlier we discussed agni as the process of digestion and assimilation, as fire. Fire was worshipped as a deity in ancient times. The importance of fire to our ancestors provides a clue to the origins of yoga.
At its origin, yoga involves mostly sitting still. This time to sit still together was required and valued in early tribes to ensure that members were willing to share food that had been gathered. However, this ability to spend time sitting together took time, necessitating division of labor and the use of fire.
It is thought that man would not have come out of the trees, grown big brains, and learned to be more sociable without the use of fire to cook their food and to protect themselves from predators at night. Early vedic text shows that it may have been the innumerable hours spent sitting around communal fires (sharing earliest technologies and information) that made us human.
Prana (breath) and yama (act or restraining) has been a common translation of pranayama into “breath control”. Another translation also discusses the un-obstruction of prana as the goal of pranayama.
Sitting in stillness, controlling the breath allows for this unobstructed downward flow of prana and the upward flow of apana. When these are balanced and brought together, they can both be offered to the agni or fire.
There are many pranayama techniques including nadi shodhana, kapalabhati, bhramari, ujjayi, and bhastrika pranayama. Each of these techniques are incredibly powerful in their own ways to enhance overall health and wellness.
Some benefits of pranayama are stress reduction, improved sleep quality, increased mindfulness, lower blood pressure, improved lung function, enhanced cognitive performance to just name a few.
Controlling our breath can have so many profound effects on our physical and mental bodies, we can spend a lifetime learning and improving our techniques.
The last thing we do in this life, in this human form, is exhale completely. It is the time between this first inhale of life and the final exhale that the magic happens.
Let us move.
Let us sit in stillness.
Let us breathe.
Let’s stoke the fire.
Let’s make magic.
Pre Holiday Relaxation Yoga Nidra ~ Pranayama
Friday, November 17th @7pm
The holidays bring a time of high energy that can be overwhelming at times. Kick off the season by settling into a deep restful meditation and deep breathing exercises to counter the hustle and bustle. Come in for a guided relaxation.
Pranayama is the yogic practice of focusing on breath. Prana means “life force” and yama means “to gain control”. We will use guided breathing techniques to balance the nervous system and to better respond to outside stimulation.
Yoga Nidra, or yogic sleep, is a state of consciousness between waking and sleeping. During this practice you will relax completely into a sleeping position and find yourself lulled into a relaxed state by guided meditation.
December Deep Dive Meditation ~ Pranayama
Saturdays 2nd, 9th, and 16th @830am
Pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (concentration), and dhyana (meditation) are all closely related in controlling our senses and becoming closer to who we truly are and how we fit into this universe. How we show up for ourselves is most important, especially as we navigate how to better show up for others.
Discover the benefits of establishing a personal deep breathing practice. Learn about potential health benefits (mental and physical) of various breathing and concentration techniques, and find what works best for You. (Three Saturdays)