We all breathe. If we don’t, we die. That’s pretty simple. And yet, breathing is much more than just that. Pattern, frequency, depth… all of these contribute to our body’s biorhythms. We aren’t conscious of breathing most of the time…and therein lies the difference between breathing and pranayama. Pranayam (or pranayama) is the science of breathing consciously, controlling the movement of prana (life force) through the use of specific techniques. Breathing gives us life; pranayam gives us quality of life.
Yogis are aware of the two-sided nature of things: physical and non-physical. In breathing, we take in air, but also prana. The seen and the unseen. Hence, the science of breathing is called pranayam.
What is “Natural” Breathing?
Correct, simple, natural breathing should look like this:
Breathe in and the navel point moves out. Breathe out and the navel point moves in. Use the nose to filter the air and exhale completely.
Many people have incorrectly learned to breathe and inhale by drawing the belly in. This actually makes less space for air in the lungs rather than more. This is key. In fact, it may be the single most important thing you learn in all of Kundalini yoga. How to breathe properly changes everything.
Another common breathing mistake is shallow, erratic breathing done all in the upper chest. Breathing correctly and deeply in your day-to-day life changes the amount of energy in reserve to manage emergencies. It is also the easiest path to the development of higher consciousness. Shallow breathing is caused by stress, and its continued state weakens our nervous system, making an environment ripe for illness. Emotionally, trauma gets stored in our muscular system. Proper breathing allows its release. It’s a way of removing the body armor we build up to shield ourselves from trauma, which stiffens both the body and the heart. Correct breathing increases the flow of prana, so you feel increased vitality and a general sense of well-being.
If we can lower the frequency at which we breathe, great things can happen. Normally, men breathe at a rate of 16-18 cycles a minute; women breathe at 18-20 cycles per minute. Now if we can lower that to 8 cycles a minutes (a cycle includes a full inhale and exhale), we will feel much more relaxed. Stress will begin to melt and mental acuity sharpens as the parasympathetic nervous system is engaged. If we can reduce our breathing further to 4 cycles a minute, we will experience a feeling of greater awareness, clarity, and sensitivity. At this point, the pituitary and pineal glands coordinate to produce a heightened meditative state. If you can make it all the way to 1 cycle per minute, called One Minute Breath, some pretty amazing things start to happen. In One Minute Breath, you take 20 seconds to inhale, hold for 20 seconds, and then exhale for 20 seconds. This stimulates the best cooperation between the brain hemispheres and puts a damper on feelings of fear, anxiety, and worry. Intuition blossoms, as does a feeling of unification with all.
Where to Start with Pranayama
* A note of caution: If you feel dizzy while doing pranayam, stop. You build capacity through regularity, not through force.
Long Deep Breathing
Once you learn Natural Breathing, you can learn Long Deep Breathing. The benefits are off the chain: it relaxes you, increases the flow of prana, prevents buildup of toxins in the lungs, stimulates endorphins, pumps the spinal fluid to the brain (which in turn increases your energy), enhances intuition, re-adjusts the electromagnetic field, cleanses the blood, regulates pH, releases blocks from your energy meridians, aids physical and emotional healing, breaks subconscious patterns, re-channels pain conditioning, and manages negativity. Pretty good, right?
Here’s how you do it:
Long Deep Breathing uses the full capacity of the lungs by engaging the lungs’ three chambers: abdominal (lower), chest (middle), and clavicular (upper). Start by filling the abdomen, expanding the chest, and then finally lifting the upper ribs. Exhale by reversing, expelling the air from the top down. The last stage is to exhale from the abdominal region, pulling the navel point back towards the spine. If this is very challenging for you, practice on your spine so that you can feel and see the parts of your lungs in action. Master Long Deep Breathing and master your self.
Other important Pranayam
There are many important pranayams in Kundalini Yoga, including Breath of Fire, Sitali Pranayam, Alternate Nostril Breathing, Left and Right Nostril Breathing, Cannon Breath, Segmented Breath, Lion Breath, Whistle Breath, Sitkari Pranayam, and Vatskar Pranayam. Discover them gradually as meditations on their own, or find them within Kundalini yoga kriya!
Here’s a Breath of Fire instructional video: