In the first part of this article we discussed the four functions of the mind and the importance of managing these functions. We also talked a little about breath awareness as a tool for preparing the mind for meditation. Now, let’s talk further about the breath and describe the foundation for all yogic breathing practices.

The Yogis approached spirituality as a science. They made their inner discoveries, practiced techniques to duplicate their experiences, and verified the results. One of the inner discoveries they made was that breathing is the only physiological process that is both voluntary and involuntary. Which means that if we think about it we can consciously control (voluntary) the way we breathe, but if we don’t consciously control the breath it happens automatically as a function of the autonomic (involuntary) nervous system. As the Yogis sat in deep stillness they started observing the breath and it’s functions, and by manipulating the breathing process they were able to produce subtle changes in the body, mind, and senses. Eventually, the Yogis mastered the breath and as a result they were able to gain conscious control over many aspects of the autonomic nervous system. This control allowed them to perform feats that are considered impossible by western science. These breathing practices that the Yogis perfected and passed down to properly prepared students are classified in the Raja Yoga system by the term, Pranayama.

How this applies to us in practical terms is that we can learn to affect our nervous system through the proper application of simple breathing exercises. This is the first step toward meditation and calming the mind and emotions. The foundation practice in the process is learning to breathe diaphragmatically. This is how we start off breathing as young children, but we often switch to the habit of chest breathing as we get older and deal with the stresses of life. The involuntary nervous system consists of two parts – sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system stimulates our stress response (among other things) and causes the contraction of blood vessels and muscles, speeding up of the heart rate, etc. The parasympathetic nervous system opposes the sympathetic system by dilating blood vessels and relaxing muscles, slowing the heart rate, and stimulating the relaxation response. Breathing from the chest gives stimulus to the sympathetic nervous system (and encourages a stress response) whereas breathing diaphragmatically stimulates the parasympathetic nervous systems which activates the relaxation response. By controlling the way we breathe, we can affect our stress levels and help calm the mind and emotions. Breathing diaphragmatically is the foundation of all breathing practices of Yoga because it allows us to release tension in the body, calm the mind and emotions, and subdue the reactionary habits which rob us of inner peace.

There are basically five indicators of optimal breathing. The first and foremost is breathing diaphragmatically. Secondly, deep diaphragmatic breathing should be smooth without any jerkiness. Typically, if one is accustomed to chest breathing and is trying to make the switch to diaphragmatic breathing, the initial efforts make seem a little jerky. This is usually because the diagram muscle is weak and needs to be strengthened. After a few weeks of practice, the process of diaphragmatic breathing becomes smooth. The third indicator is that the breath should be quiet. If all of the air pathways are open and free of obstructions, this should happen naturally. If one is experiencing sinus blockage, a cold, or chest congestion, the breathing process will produce noise. The fourth aspect is evenness, meaning ones capacity to inhale and exhale in equal capacity. For example, if one inhales for 4 counts, they should exhale for 4 counts. This insures a proper exchange between oxygen entering the lungs and carbon dioxide leaving the lungs. It also balances the autonomic nervous system as inhalation stimulates the sympathetic system and exhalation stimulates the parasympathetic system. Lastly, there should be no pause or stoppage during the breathing process. The breath should be a continuous flow between inhalation and exhalation with a only slight transition. Sometimes people say that they feel like they are holding their breath. This is usually an indicator of fear, anxiety, or pronounced stress.

Working with the breath should be done systematically and built upon the foundation of diaphragmatic breathing. Having a competent teacher is recommended if one wishes to attempt more advanced Pranayama exercises. Pranayama exercises can be injurious if attempted without guidance or if applied randomly. A teacher should be able to explain exactly why they are teaching a particular pranayama practice, what the effects of the practice are, and why they are recommending it specifically for you. Practices that involve holding the breath are not recommended for those who have not first learned to control (prolong) inhalation and exhalation, or have not mastered diaphragmatic breathing. It is also not recommended for those who smoke or haven’t first cleansed the lungs. There are other precautions as stated in the Yogic texts. For practical purposes, if one can simply master diaphragmatic breathing and maintain an awareness of the breath during the day, and particularly when meditating, other pranayama exercises are not needed.

When one has learned to regulate and control the breath, stilling the mind and emotions becomes easier and one finds greater success in their meditation practice and overall quality of life. The Yogis use the analogy of the mind being like a kite and the breath being the string attached to the kite. Like the kite, the mind may get carried by the shifting winds of thoughts, emotions, and sensory input, but as long as one maintains control of the breath (or string) one can reel in the mind whenever one decides.

Pandit Jerome

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