In many cultures and languages , the breath is related to Spirit. In Greek the word pneuma for breath meant spirit. In classical philosophy it is indistinguishable from psyche which originally meant breath of life but is most often translated as soul. Similarly in Hebrew the word ruach means wind, breath or spirit and can mean the spirit of a person or their soul, and is found almost 400 times in the Old Testament. In English the word inspiration refers to both the act of breathing in as well as the state of being filled with spirit and energy.
It is interesting that we can not normally consciously control our internal organs, but we do have the ability to alter the breathing of our lungs. Every emotional state has a corresponding pattern of breathing associated with it. You know how if you have a near miss on the highway or before public speaking your breath can become quick and shallow as adrenal stress hormones surge and stimulates your sympathetic nervous system. But you may have also found by breathing deeply and slowly, often in your nose and slowly out your mouth, you can calm your nerves again,
The yogi’s of India found that mastering and controlling the breath was the key to mastering consciousness, the senses and the body. Normally when we are awake, all the energy in our nervous system is directed outwards like searchlights towards the five senses. But they found through breath mastery, they could reverse those currents and begin to sense and experience the world within, the world of Spirit.
Pranayama is the mastering of our life force or the formal practice of controlling the breath, which is the source of our prana, or vital life force. It is said that this practice of this science of pranayama cleanses the 72,000 nadis or channels in the body, which is part of the subtle nervous system and related to the acupuncture meridians from the Chinese system. These breathing practices helps purify the blood and respiratory system. Of course deeper breathing also enriches the blood with more oxygen, needed by all our cells, and is the most vital nutrient in our body. It is essential for the integrity of the brain, nerves, glands and internal organs. We can do without food for weeks, without water for days, but without oxygen we will die within a few minutes.
Practice of pranayama yoga has been reported to be beneficial in treating a range of stress related disorders, improving autonomic functions, relieving symptoms of asthma, stuttering and reducing signs of oxidative stress. Pranayama techniques are also effective for depression. Practice of prayanama develops a steady mind, strong will-power and sound judgment. In addition regular pranayama helps extend life and enhances perception.
In the West we often have shallow breathing. Watch a baby sleep and see how its belly rises and falls in deep peaceful breaths. Many adults in a stress response breathe quite shallowly with the upper part of lungs, but it is when we do deep abdominal diaphragmatic breaths that we can extract the most oxygen and prana from the air and exhale the stale carbon dioxide waste. When we breathe with our full diaphragm it also massages our internal organs and moves our lymph which helps expel waste and enhances our immunity.
Traditionally Pranayama techniques are best practiced while sitting on the floor on a folded blanket. However; any other posture even on a chair will do provided the back is kept erect from the base of the spine to the neck and perpendicular to the floor. Bad and poorly held posture will lead to shallow breathing and low endurance. It is a good idea to empty the bladder and bowels before starting pranayama yoga.
In yoga philosophy there are three channels that raise energy up the spine, the shushmna, the inga and the pingala. There is a technique called alternate nostril breathing or nadi sodhana pranayama that balances these channels.
Sit with a straight spine. Now use your thumb of your right hand to close the right nostril. Inhale deeply using the left nostril. Now close the left nostril with the ring finger and exhale using the right nostril. In the same way, now with the left nostril still closed, inhale using the right nostril, then close the right nostril again and exhale with the left one. You can continue doing this exercise for around 8-12 times.
There is a simple pranayama technique that balances the nervous system called box breathing. You inhale to the mental count of 8, hold the breath for 8, breath out to the count of 8 and then hold the breath out for another 8 and then begin again. Try it while I count. Try doing it about 12 times. See how calm your mind can become. This can be a quicker way to calm down then just trying to stop your mind while meditating without the breath control.
There is one simple breathing technique if you want to fall asleep quickly. After you are comfortable in bed, simply inhale through your nose for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds then exhale slowly through your mouth for eight seconds. Repeat until you fall asleep.
Traditionally pranayama was especially recommended when prana levels were highest about 2 hours before sunrise. But you can practice these techniques four times a day, early in the morning, at noon, at evening and at night. But even once a day is better than none.
Now Western medicine is taking note of breath control. Breathing deeply and slowly can improve your blood flow and regulate your heart rate which leads to blood pressure reduction. Deep breathing has been proven so effective that the FDA has approved it as a treatment for both lowering stress levels as well as blood pressure.
Many adherents claim not just physical benefits like weight loss, But things like purpose, intention and direction. Pranayama was often practiced before deep meditation to help with concentration. So now you have another tool in your toolbox to help with stress, energy and health. Keep on breathing!