Pranayama – Part II

Ενημερώθηκε: 22 Σεπτ 2020


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Breathing is how we mobilize the space in our bodies, and posture is how we stabilize our bodies in space. ‘Leslie Kaminoff’ 

Pranayama as explained in Part 1 is the Sanskrit term for the breathing techniques which expand Prana (the life force) into the body. I discussed about the importance of the breath that influences our prana and how this that flows in you, is what makes you ‘you’.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras indicate the qualities of Pranayama in chapter II.

”bāhya-ābhyantara-stambha-vṛttiḥ deṣa-kāla-saṃkhyābhiḥ paridṛṣṭaḥ dīrgha-sūkṣmaḥ |”  Y.S.II50 “The external, internal and suspension movements are seen to be long and subtle through place, time and number.”

The movements of the breath (vrtti) that refer to Exhale (bahya), Inhale (abhyantara) and holds (stambha) should be long (dirgha) and subtle (suksma) and are supported by the Place (desa), referring to the place within the energetic body, by the Time (Kala), practicing for a long period of time, and Number (Samkhya), practicing more.

Apart from the philosophical implications to P/Y though which I will come back to, let’s explore a bit more though the mechanism of the breath as other.. western experts helped me comprehend it. Although I’m not a medical expert, there are many facts and studies which, along with my own practice and experience, have formed an opinion on this matter. Luckily, long before medical science looked inside the body to see the mechanics and the chemistry on how the body functions, yogis had very useful images of the flow of energy throughout the body, of which breath was a key part. Images can be a very powerful tool especially in yoga and they are used extensively in a yoga class, they can be real as experiences…But then sometimes, my western mind is thinking that we need to consider: do the images (or metaphors) that we extensively use correspond to objective reality? Or how we can bring imaginary based into fantasy down in reality? And how clear would that be?

Regarding the anatomical reality of the breath some traditions follow the ‘bottom up breath’ pattern whereas others the ‘top down breath’. The pranayama techniques that exist following these patterns are numerous and each one of them serve a purpose for our existence. Hence, there is no right or wrong way to breath. Let’s be clear on that. Being stuck in any pattern will create problems, regardless of how useful that pattern may be in a given context.

Anatomy of the breath


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What is actually happening everytime you take a breath, is when you INHALE air is drawn into your lungs by the movement of the diaphragm and other respiratory muscles (primary and secondary respiratory muscles). Air enters your lungs via your nose and down to your windpipe to be divided into each lung by your trachea. As the air enters the lungs, it is channelled down even smaller pathways, similar in shape to an upside down tree. At the end of these pathways, there are tiny air sacs called alveoli. It is here that oxygen in your inhaled air is transferred into your blood, while carbon dioxide is expelled into the environment. This process is repeated in every breath you take. What is very important to understand is that the main organ that facilitates the breath is the diaphragm which separates the thoracic cavity and the abdominal cavity. We also need to understand the pathway as to where the air is travelling during breathing. As teachers, we commonly say **Air rises upward into the chest** but technically this is a mistake because the air is never rising into the chest. The movement of the air is  moving in and out from the lungs by means of the bronchial tree and what is happening here is the change of shape of the body cavities during inhalation. The inhaled air enters from the top downward, branches left and right and the exhaled air follows the opposite pattern. This pattern remains the same no matter how you manipulate the respiratory muscles. During this movement of the inhalation there are certain muscles contracting so ‘rising the air up to the chest’ has to do with the very common confusion between air and muscular movements. Because of this confusion there is a very common image that is used extensively and in actual fact is structurally wrong according to experts; it is the one with a glass or a bucket filling with water from bottom upwards following the 3-part breathing pattern, fundamentally is wrong because the lungs are not a bucket and air is not water. A strict approach to a simple visualisation that helps a beginner to follow the movement of his breath inside the body but if you think about it, it IS actually wrong. Let’s come back to the change of the shape in abdominal-thoracic cavities.

Both cavities – by definition – must change shape in the act of breathing; the diaphragm is the floor of one and the roof of the other. There is, however, a significant difference in how the two cavities change shape in the act of breathing. The thoracic cavity – like the bellows – changes its shape and volume, while the abdominal cavity – like a water balloon – changes its shape, but not its volume. This is why it is misleading to describe an abdominal breath as an “expansion” of the belly; it is actually a bulging of the abdomen, who’s contents are non-compressible or expandable. This is in the context of breathing only; in the context of other life-processes, the abdominal contents will of course fill and empty, thus changing their volume. It should be noted though, that any increase in abdominal volume will require a decrease in overall thoracic volume. This is why it is temporarily harder to breathe “on a full stomach” and chronically harder to breathe if you are obese or pregnant…from Leslie Kaminoff.

The way L.K. describes this mechanism as above is very accurate and I think that no matter which Pranayama of breathing technique tradition we use, we need to keep ourselves informed about the structure of the breath and what is actually happening, then  experiment a lot with it…with care…

Now, apart from the cavities as explained there are the muscles of inspiration and the muscles of expiration. The main active muscle that increases thoracic volume is the diaphragm and the muscles that decreases thoracic volume are the abdominal and internal/external  intercostal (primary respiratory muscles). There are also a few secondary (accessory) respiratory muscles that facilitate the action of breathing such as sternocleidomastoid, scalene, the obliques etc.

Brahmana – Langhana practice  

The ‘top down breath’ is the way I’ve learned breathing from my teachers. It is what also TKV Desikachar quotes from numerous ancient texts talking about the ‘prana’ going down to the ‘apana’.  From a mechanical standpoint if you watch closely the spine gets more continuous work when you start from the chest going down. The chest fills, then the belly – there are no gaps or breaks in the working of the spine. When you start from the belly up there is a slight pause as the diaphragm is going down it looks like an S. It is subtle but noticeable.

I sometimes have the sensation that bottom up draws more attention to the belly and is more grounding and top down draws attention to the head and is more uplifting. But then this is explained by Hatha Yoga texts as the energetic effects of the langhana/brahmana relationship in our asana/pranayama practice. When we are working the extension of the spine we emphasize inhalation with chest expansion (this is a more Brahmana = {energised} practice). When the belly rises on inhalation we want to calm our system (this is a more Langhana = {reduce, ground one’s energy} practice). If we want to emphasize sympathetic activation (sympathetic nervous system), thus to do a more brahmana practice, then we might emphasize on increasing the length of retention after inhalation. For a more langhana effect, activating the parasympathetic nervous system when we feel agitated, we are lengthening or even work on retention after exhalation. These practices should be done under proper guidance.

In Pranayama we also place the mind in different directions when we use the different techniques. In ‘Ujjayi Pranayama’ for example we control the flow of the breath from the throat, in ‘Nadi Sodhana’ the right and left nostril, in ‘Sitali’ the tongue. We might use ratios in Pranayama looking at the 4 parts of the breath (inhale, retention after in, exhale, retention after ex).

We can use mantras, japas or sound to create different effects in our pranayama practice depending of the intention of our practice (i.e if we want to prepare ourselves for meditation) .

We also might want to explore the relationship between asana and pranayama choosing postures for a more brahmana or langhana practice that prepare the body for specific pranayama. There is a funny and a very interesting question that I encountered recently on the net by L.K.; he tried to answer the question ‘is breathing an asana?’ In other words ‘can we bring sthira and sukham while changing the thoracic and abdominal cavities?’ Of course they are not the same thing but thinking about it, yes we can bring the qualities of an asana to our breath. Or we can bring the awareness of our breath to any body shape we are right now..trying then to change or adjust the 2 cavities… In other words, regardless of the position my body is, as soon as I become aware of the process of breathing, no matter of what I need to do to change the shape of my cavities in the most efficient way possible, I’m bringing some quality of asana to my breathing. Breath is how we mobilise the space in our bodies and posture is how we stabilise our bodies in space. So those 2 definitions come together in the question. Breathing and asana are linked because we wouldn’t be able to perceive the breath without the body that we live in. Bringing questions like this and try to understand something that is outside of our habitual tendencies is what makes asana and conscious breathing very important.

When working with the breath in Pranayama it’s perhaps less appealing initially, but ultimately more attractive, satisfactory and effective, to initiate and sustain a focus of Sukshma or Subtlety, supported by Dirgha or Length. That’s how the yoga darshana is evolving and manifests its magic.!

I take a nice deep inhale (up to the chest ;)) and with my exhalation I send out to the world a kiss and a warm thought.!

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