Inside Yoga 86 (28/10/13)
The ancient yogis believed that when we are born we are allocated a finite number of breaths, which meant when we had used this all up, we would die.
Even though this is a hard fact to prove let alone believe, there is an air of truth in this. Think about how we breathe: if we are stressed, or if for example, we have smoked all our life and as a consequence we struggle to breathe, usually we find that our breathing in both cases is short in length and erratic.
Statistics tend to reveal that stress and smoking are associated with shorter life spans. People who are stressed and those who are suffering from smoking related disease and breathing problems, both tend to have shortness of breath and erratic breathing patterns. Therefore, according to the ancient yogis, these people used up their allocation of breath quicker than others.
Most of us might not feel stressed, or smoke, but we can all improve how we breathe, because a shallow breath can be a habit we have developed, without perhaps even knowing that we are doing this, or feeling unhealthy or stressed.
So using this logic, if we learn to breathe more efficiently – cultivating a steadiness of breath and a rhythm which is deep and long, we will be extending our life span. Simply put, it’s like being born with a bank balance which will never grow – that’s it from the moment we are born, so knowing this, we measure our spending and make every penny last as long as possible.
In a similar way, we learn to extend and steady our breathing. We might not believe the yogic belief in a limited allocation of breath, but it does make sense that if we learn to use our lungs in a better way our overall health will be better. After all it is one of our engines of life.
This week I was in hospital having my blood pressure and other details checked, and one of the measurements checked was my oxygen level in my blood.
The nurse said I had a count of 99 per cent. She remarked that as a former smoker (I quit 21 years ago) I had a very good oxygen level. She said that the average is 97 per cent and anyone under 90 per cent would be a serious health risk, so we speaking about the top 10 percentile. Even though I lead a healthy lifestyle, which includes walking my dog, swimming and playing football, it is the yoga which I have practised for almost 19 years that I believe has made the difference.
The bedrock of yoga is breathing: the breathing when practicing asanas (physical exercises) is very important, but is has been the pranayamas (breathing exercises) that I use which have helped my lungs and breathing to be as strong and as healthy as they appear to be nowadays.
I have kept a regular daily practice going over since 1995 and this is the key: consistency and steadiness of practice even if this means some days I do a short practice and others a long practice. It trains the body, breath and mind if done regularly – and we allow for those blips in our life’s patterns, which mean we might do less sometimes or have a short break. As long as we stay aware of our actions, our practice is maintained; for example, it is still a daily practice if we decide not to practice that day, due to illness, work or another factor. And make the intention to practice the next day or soon as we can.
It is about not forgetting. In the same vein as not forgetting to practice, we remember to breathe and try not to forget about the quality of our breathing.
Here is an exercise that will help increase your lung and breathing capacity, as well as breath control. It is a simple pranayama – ratio breathing of 2:1 and is one technique I often teach classes. We count our breathing on the in-breath and double the exhalation – simple as that! The quality of the breath is important so we must mantain a steady rhythm throughout the exercise, which means for example we do not try a length of breathing that is too long and one we cannot mantain a steady flow. For example, it is better to use a ratio of 5:10 breaths (in:out) than 9:18 if this means the longer breath is uncomfortable, unsteady and we run out of air on the exhalation while still counting. It is quality of breath that we seek.
By breathing out twice as long as the inhalation we can empty our lungs of unwanted carbon dioxide more effectively, and fill our lungs on the inhalation with the Oxygen which we need – and by developing a larger lung capacity at the same time we are helping our body to be fed by the oxygen than it needs. This is of course quite straight forward and put like this most of us would see the sense in breathing more effectively and deeper, yet we forget how to breathe in a healthy way. A shallow breath is a habit we can form and become stuck with, and as a consequence our energy levels, health and capacity to concentrate can be adversely affected. So this exercise is about reclaiming our ability to breathe again. Try this and see for yourself.
See my class details at: https://www.yogabristol.co.uk/?page_id=11
And workshop details at: https://www.yogabristol.co.uk/?page_id=37