The body can go for many weeks without food and for days without water or sleep, but life will cease in a matter of minutes without air. Thus, the primary element of life is derived from the air we breathe. In yoga, this subtle element is known as prana or life-force. Prana is not the air itself but the subtle life-giving element extracted from the air. The more life-force you have in your body, the more "alive" you are; the less life-force, the less "life". Life-force is present in all forms of nourishment but it is accessible and most constant in the air.
Even though no one can live for more than a few minutes without breathing, most people are unaware of the importance of breathing properly. Most people use only a fraction of their full breathing capacity. A combination of stress, poor posture, long hours behind desks, and flat-stomach phobia turns many people into "chest breathers" - people who expand only the upper chest when they inhale. Chest breathing creates an imbalance in the oxygen/carbon dioxide ratio, which results in hyperventilation and dizziness.
For optimal health, breathing should be full and rhythmic using the diaphragm and ribs to fill and empty the lungs. Proper breathing is governed primarily by the movement of the diaphragm. As it descends, the abdomen expands drawing fresh air in through the nose and into the lungs. Deep abdominal breathing promotes a full exchange of air, keeping the oxygen/carbon dioxide ratio balanced. Proper breathing can tone up your entire system and enhance health and vitality.
Your inhalation and exhalation establish a constant flow of energy and release within you. The inhalation brings continuous energy into your body. The exhalation heals and relaxes you. Emphasis placed on inhalation will generally create a stimulating or energizing effect on the system; while emphasis on exhalation will bring about a more passive or relaxed state.
Breathing is a vital element of hatha yoga. Practicing yoga breathing, or breath control in yogic terms is called pranayama. The word "Pranayama" can be broken into two parts: Prana means life force and Yama means control. By conscious control of the breath, you can create a proper rhythm of slow, deep breathing.
Pranayama breathing exercises are the link between the physical and mental disciplines of yoga. Because the breath, body and mind are so closely linked, a change in one immediately affects the other two. By developing control of your breathing, you can bring about beneficial changes in your body and mind. Yogic breathing energizes and cleanses the body, calms and relaxes the mind, and serves as a perfect warm-up for practicing yoga poses. In coordination with yoga poses, the breath unifies mind and body, balances opposing energies, and helps the body relax deeply and safely into each pose.
Like asana practice, pranayama practice has far-reaching positive effects on physical, mental and emotional well-being. It also encourages spiritual development.
Proper breathing provides sufficient oxygen for the correct and efficient functioning of every body cell. Without sufficient oxygen, the cells cannot metabolize food properly. Nutrients, including precious vitamins and minerals, are wasted. Proper breathing allows the body to metabolize food efficiently and to rid itself of all the noxious gaseous by-products of metabolism, especially carbon dioxide. It nourishes the muscles and organs with oxygen. It dispels fatigue and anxiety.
Brain cells have a high rate of metabolism, so the brain requires much more oxygen, relatively, than any other organ of the body. A lack of oxygen results in sluggishness, fatigue, confusion, disorientation and a loss of mental balance, concentration, memory and control of the emotions.
A mastery of yoga breathing techniques is the best - and most readily available - tool for stress reduction. The common remedy for stress is to take a deep breath. Supplying the brain with sufficient oxygen is the greatest tool in stress management.
Yogic breathing exercises help to keep the two sides of the brain in balance. As well as controlling opposite sides of the body, the two halves of the brain deal with different functions and different aspects of our lives. The right side of the brain is calming, intuitive, inner-directed, emotional, subjective and deals with simultaneous reasoning and spacial and nonverbal activities. While the left side of the brain is aggressive, logical, outer-directed, rational, objective and deals with sequential reasoning and mathematical and verbal activities. Proper breathing helps the two sides of the brain to work together.
Pranayama deepens breathing which stretches the intercostal muscles, strengthens the respiratory system and aids conditions such as asthma
Mental and Emotional Benefits:
By exercising control over breathing, you can learn to control the energy within the body, and ultimately gain full control over the mind. In yogic breathing exercises, the breath is seen as the important link between our physical and mental aspects. Pranayama cleanses and strengthens the physical body, but its most important benefit is for the mind.
Proper breathing soothes the nervous system; calms, steadies, and clears the mind; improves concentration, focuses attention, and increases the ability to deal with complex situations without suffering from stress.
In addition, proper breathing calms the emotions, increases emotional stability, helps with emotional control and equilibrium, reduces craving and desire, combats depression, helps in the relief of grief and sadness, puts you in touch with your inner self and gives you poise and serenity.
Sit comfortably in a cross-legged position on the floor or lie flat on your back in the Corpse pose. Place a cushion under the buttocks if you need more support when sitting on the floor. Hands may be relaxed by the sides or you can place one hand on the abdomen to feel it rising and falling. Relax your mind and body. Inhale slowly and deeply through the nose, feeling your abdomen expand and rise while keeping the chest still. As you exhale, feel the abdomen sink down. Expand the abdomen on the inhale and contract the abdomen on the exhale. Practice this exercise for ten breaths (one inhalation and one exhalation equals one breath.)
Benefit: Breathing slowly and deeply brings air to the lowest part of your lungs and exercises your diaphragm which can greatly enhance breathing capacity. It relaxes mind and body, massages internal organs, calms emotions and induces restful sleep.
Rib Cage Breathing
Sit comfortably in a cross-legged position on the floor or lie flat on your back in the Corpse pose. Place a cushion under the buttocks if you need more support when sitting on the floor. Hands may be relaxed by the sides or you can place the hands on the sides of the ribs to feel them expanding and contracting. Gently contract the abdomen. Inhale slowly through the nose into your rib cage. Do not pull the breath deep into your lungs, but keep it focused between your ribs. Feel the ribs expand outward and the chest open as you breathe in. As you exhale, feel the ribs contract inward. Repeat five times.
Benefit: Relaxes the mind and body and strengthens the lungs.
Sit comfortably in a cross-legged position on the floor or lie flat on your back in the Corpse pose. Place a cushion under the buttocks if you need more support when sitting on the floor. Hands may be relaxed by the sides or you may place one hand on the abdomen and the other on the rib cage to check that you are breathing correctly. Inhaling slowly through the nose, feel the abdomen expand first, then the rib cage, and finally feel the air filling the upper chest. Your abdomen will automatically be drawn in as the ribs move out and chest expands. Slowly exhale, emptying the lungs from top to bottom. Your shoulders and head should stay essentially in the same position throughout; don't raise your shoulders on the inhale or slouch forward on the exhalation. Your inhalation and exhalation should be about the same length of time. Do not hold your breath either at the top or the bottom of the breath but make the transition smooth. Inhalation is done from the bottom up and exhalation from the top down. Repeat five times.
Benefit: This is the technique you will probably use most often to combat the tensions and stress in your life. You can use it anywhere, anytime to calm your mind and help quiet physical responses to stress - rapid heartbeat and breathing, and tense muscles. Use this technique to center yourself before your meditation and before asana practice to make them even more effective.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
Sit comfortably in a cross-legged position on the floor or on your knees in Thunderbolt position. Keep your spine and neck straight, but not tense. Do not lean forward. Place a cushion under the buttocks or the knees if you need more support. Rest the left hand on your left knee. Extend the thumb, ring finger and little finger of your right hand and fold down your other two fingers into your palm. Start by closing your right nostril with your thumb and inhale slowly and deeply through the left nostril for a count of 8. Then press the ring and pinky fingers against the left side of the nose, sealing the left nostril closed while keeping the thumb against the right nostril, and hold for a count of 8. Lift the thumb from the right side of the nose, opening the right nostril. Exhale slowly and fully through the right nostril for a count of 8. Inhale slowly and deeply through the right nostril, still holding the left nostril shut for a count of 8. Cover the right nostril with the thumb and hold for a count of 8. Release the left nostril and exhale through the left nostril for a count of 8. Repeat sequence five times.
Benefit: Calms and balances the mind and body, aids relaxation, improves concentration, strengthens respiration.
Sit cross-legged on the floor or on your knees in Thunderbolt position. Keep your torso straight and do not lean forward. Place a cushion under the buttocks or the knees if you need more support. Inhale slowly, keeping the mouth closed and partially closing, or contracting, the back of your throat to slow down the breath. Hold for a few seconds. Exhale, again partially closing or contracting at the back of the throat to slow down the breath. This breath will make a hoarse hiss-like sound like steam being released from a radiator. Repeat five times. As you get better at this, try to exhale for longer than you inhale.
Benefit: Increases lung capacity, opens the chest, relaxes the nervous system, increases oxygen in the blood, reduces phlegm and strengthens the immune system.
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