Inside Yoga 296 (3/3/2020)
At the heart of our yoga practice is our breathing, in fact, our breathing is integral to our health, and with these uncertain times with the outbreak of Coronavirus it is especially important to maintain our health and this starts with how we breathe.
In yoga the concept of prana is vitally important: prana is the energy which sustains life, in both fauna and flora (animals and plants). No prana = no life. So the yoga exercises aim to increase the amount of prana we have within us. Take for example, how many of us feel energised and healthier through practising yoga; this is a result of increasing the amount of prana within us.
Prana is not the air itself, but you could say it is carried by the air, and by breathing deeply we encourage more prana to enter us and to flow more efficiently around our body. So encouraging healthy breathing is essential to practice of yoga and therefore our health.
It is simple to explain, the more difficult part is remembering to practice it. Simply become more aware of how you breathe not just during yoga exercises, but other exercises, or even just during the course of your day. Keep checking your breathing, and during the day there is a good chance that you catch yourself breathing badly, for example, a short shallow breath which does very little for our well-being.
Breathing deeply not only helps get the energy around the body but it helps maintain the health of our lungs. Many of us have developed the bad habit of shallow and erratic breathing. Picture your lungs as a shopping bag, when each time you shop it is only filled half way, and after each shop something is left inside, an unwanted receipt, or wrapping. This is left in the bag and then the next time, more shopping goes in, a quick shop of a few items, and then again, more forgotten items are left in the bag. The bag never gets filled to the top, and gradually all the leftover rubbish means less can get in the bag.
This shopping bag represents the lungs of many people who tend to breathe a shallow rushed breath due to stress, or perhaps lack of exercise, but importantly through a lack of awareness of how we breathe.
In yoga we train ourselves to breathe, making every breath count, breathing slowly and filling our lungs every time, and importantly, emptying our lungs completely after each breath. This is why when teaching I place so much emphasis on the exhalation being longer the inhalation. This way we get rid of unwanted air, especially carbon dioxide which we often fail to exhale fully, by emptying the lungs so we can get more in the next time, like the shopping bag.
Emptying the lungs and using them fully will hopefully rid ourselves of unwanted items such as infections as well, like a well-maintained machine, our lungs work best when used well.
There are a couple of yoga kriyas, cleansing exercises, which helps the efficiency of the lungs: bhastrika and kapala bhati.
Bhastrika translates as bellows, the sort of hand pumped bellows used to get a wood fire burning. The exercises entails breathing deeply and strongly, through the nostrils with mouth closed, in a series of pumps to completely fill the lungs and then, as if we were trying to get a fire going, pumping the air out as fast and as strong as we can. We do not need to do too many, three round might be enough, as we will feel the shifting of energy rapidly. It can feel very invigorating, a wake-up in many respects, as I practice this every morning to help wake up the body and get my lungs going. This exercise helps to strengthen the lungs and also the diaphragm.
Beginners are advised to take it slowly at first: it does not take many “pumps” to do enough, maybe just three pumps will be enough, because this depends on our experience of the exercise and our health. Doing too many too fast can make us very light-headed or even nauseous. Note: this is not recommended for anyone with high blood pressure or a heart condition.
Kapala bhati translates as skull cleanser, and like bhastrika is a good wake-up exercise. Here we pump air out of the lungs, first out of one nostril at a time, then out of both. A beginner should do it slower than full flow, and only a few rounds of each part – slow and gentle is advised at the start. With practice the number of breaths and intensity can increase, but always with awareness to how we feel. Too much too fast can make us dizzy and nauseous. As above this is not recommended for those with heart conditions or high blood pressure.
With the focus on the exhalation, the inhalation is an automatic impulse to breathe in. This pumping action of the exhalation is a good exercise for the diaphragm and strengthening of the lungs. We might already do this kind of exercise, because it is very similar to someone blowing their nose! For this reason I recommend having a tissue handy when practising! I also use this in the morning as a way of clearing myself of unwanted mucus which might be in my nostrils from the night’s sleep.
These are simple practical ways of maintaining our precious lungs. And as mentioned at the beginning, beside doing these more intense kriyas, all we need to do is improve how we breathe, and practising with more awareness.
And thoroughly recommended with the current advice to avoid crowds, go for walks or runs in the open air. It will do you good.
I have written numerous articles about how we breathe: if you are interested in reading more, click this link and see list of related blogs: https://www.yogabristol.co.uk/?s=breath
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