exploring pranayama breathing
Breath, awareness and existence are inextricably woven. The flow of breath is the flow of life. We take our first inhalation when we arrive in the world, and our last exhalation in the final moments of our existence. Most of us take approximately 17,000 breaths each day, usually without giving the process much thought. Meanwhile, with each breath, we exchange 10 billion trillion atoms with the extended body of our environment.
Even more amazing, the atoms we inhale every day have traveled through the bodies of living beings for eons. Right now you might be carrying carbon atoms that once inhabited a metallurgist in the Middle Ages, an African lion a century ago, or a rose that bloomed and faded last week.
When the flow of your breath is unimpeded, you effortlessly exchange your personal energy with the energy of the universe, taking in the oxygen that support the cells, tissues and organs of your body, as well as the intentions, desires, and creativity of your mind. If your breath is shallow or otherwise limited, the movement of vital energy, of prana, is restricted.
Prana is the primordial impulse that sustains your mind and body, as well as all evolutionary processes unfolding in the universe. Enlivening prana is essential to a life of inspiration and enthusiasm.
If prana is life force, then extending, or stretching this life force with the use of our breath is called ‘pranayama.’
Regulating the breath through the practice of pranayama breathing quiets, balances and focuses the body and mind. You can understand essential truths about life by paying attention to your breathing.
Right now, take a deep breath in and hold it. As you resist the natural impulse to exhale, notice the discomfort building in your body. When it becomes too uncomfortable, release your breath and feel the immediate relief. Holding on to anything for too long creates distress and toxins in the body, hindering the natural processes of ingestion, absorption and elimination.
Now, take another breath and then fully exhale, emptying your lungs. Hold your breath at the end of exhalation and notice how quickly you become uncomfortable when you resist the ingestion of energy and information nature wants to provide you. Breath teaches us about the fundamental principle of giving and receiving and reminds us that to have peace, we need to surrender our resistance to the flow of life.
One of the most invigorating breathing exercises in yoga is known as bhastrika, which translates in English as “bellows breath.” To practice this breathing exercise:
- Begin by relaxing your shoulders and taking a few deep, full breaths from your abdomen. Now, start exhaling forcefully through your nose, followed by forceful deep inhalations at the rate of one second per cycle. Your breathing is entirely from your diaphragm, keeping your head, neck, shoulders and chest relatively still while your belly moves in and out.
- Start by doing a round of 10 bhastrika breaths, then breathe naturally and notice the sensations in your body. After 15 to 30 seconds, begin the next round with 20 breaths. Finally, after pausing for another 30 seconds, complete a third round of 30 breaths.
Although bellows breathing is a safe practice, stay tuned to your body during the process. If you feel lightheaded or very uncomfortable, stop for a few moments before resuming in a less intense manner.
Bhastrika energizes the body and clears the mind, making it an effective technique to use when you’re feeling sluggish. If you’re trying to lose weight, doing a few rounds throughout the day will increase your digestive power and help speed up your metabolism. Performing bellows breathing close to bedtime isn’t recommended, however, as it may invigorate your mind, making it more difficult to fall asleep.
Bhastrika breathing exercise brings your attention into your body, reminding you how to move energy consciously. All success and fulfillment depend upon the ability to manage the essential life force of prana.
Dr. David Simon was the medical director and co-founder of the Chopra Center for Wellbeing located in Carlsbad, California. For more information, visit chopra.com or call 760.494.1639.