Posted by on Nov 5, 2018 in Uncategorized

Yogic breathing

“When the breath wanders the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still, and the yogi achieves long life. Therefore, one should learn to control the breath.”

 

– Hatha Yoga Pradipika

The Five Principles of Yoga are the basis for attaining a healthy body and mind through the practice of yoga. One of these principles is proper breathing (pranayama). Pranayama means “to control the breath” or “mastering the life force.” According to the ancient philosophy of yoga, breathing controls the flow of prana, the cosmic life force in the body. Also, according to ancient texts, the nose is the proper instrument for breathing rather than the mouth and breathing should be abdominal breathing in a slow and rhythmic pattern, rather than chest breathing. The ancient yogis and yoginis believed that this form of breathing facilitates the flow of prana.

Original yoga manuscripts, for example, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Gheranda Samhita and Shiva Samhita advocate restraining, keeping in, calming, and holding the breath. They do not make any mention of deep (big) breathing.

For the ancient yogis and yoginis, proper breathing involved nose breathing during both inhalation and exhalation. It also involved abdominal (diaphragmatic) breathing in a slow, rhythmic pattern, as opposed to chest breathing. Only a few classical techniques for breath control require breathing through the mouth. Unfortunately, many modern Yoga teachers lack knowledge on what constitutes healthy breathing and what constitutes unhealthy breathing. Also, they seem to equate ‘breathing’ with ‘breathing exercises’ carried out in a Yoga session, as opposed to correct breath on a 24/7 basis.

Some types of pranayama involve fast breathing or over-breathing (hyperventilation). Unfortunately and somewhat worryingly, there appears to be a lack of knowledge among many modern Yoga teachers that pranayamas of this type may be contraindicated for individuals with certain medical conditions or have to be performed with caution.

Most pranayamas are intended for healthy or relatively healthy people. However, individuals who do not fall into one of these categories need to be wary of well-meaning teachers who are under-educated in relation to breathing and may instruct their students to perform certain pranayamas that could result in potentially harmful consequences.

If you would like more information on the above, please see an article I wrote that was published in Contentment (a publication of the American Institute of Stress) in June 2018. You may access the article via the link below. It appears on pages 26 to 31. Also, for ease of access, the article can also be viewed below.

https://www.stress.org/wp-content/uploads/Newsletter/Contentment%20June%202018/index-h5.html#page=26

 

 


Yogic breathing: ancient and modern

By Dr. Alan Ruth

 

Introduction

Yoga originated in ancient India about 5,000 or more years ago. The name yoga is derived from a Sanskrit word which means “to yoke or join together”. The Five Principles of Yoga are the basis for attaining a healthy body and mind through the practice of yoga. One of these principles is proper breathing (pranayama). Today, there are numerous types of yoga and it is difficult to know how many types are being practised around the world as different variations and/or combinations of elements could represent a ‘new’ type of yoga.

 

Ancient Yogic Breathing

 

“For breath is life, and if you breathe well you will live long on earth.” – Sanskrit proverb

Yogic breathing is called ‘pranayama’. Pranayama means “to control the breath” or “mastering the life force.” According to the ancient philosophy of yoga, breathing controls the flow of prana, the cosmic life force in the body. Also, according to ancient texts, the nose is the proper instrument for breathing rather than the mouth and breathing should be abdominal breathing in a slow and rhythmic pattern, rather than chest breathing. The ancient yogis and yoginis believed that this form of breathing facilitates the flow of prana.
Original yoga manuscripts, for example, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Gheranda Samhita and Shiva Samhita advocate restraining, keeping in, calming, and holding the breath. They do not make any mention of deep (big) breathing.

To illustrate, below I have listed some translated quotations from Hatha Yoga Pradipika:

“Respiration being disturbed, the mind becomes disturbed. By restraining respiration, the Yogi gets steadiness of mind.”

“So long as the (breathing) air stays in the body, it is called life. Death consists in the passing out of the (breathing) air. It is, therefore, necessary to restrain the breath.”

“Just as lions, elephants and tigers are controlled by and by, so the breath is controlled by slow degrees, otherwise (i.e., by being hasty or using too much force) it kills the practiser himself.”

“The air should be expelled with proper tact and should be filled in skilfully; and when it has been kept confined properly it brings success.”

You may access an English translation of chapter 2 (on pranayama) of Hatha Yoga Pradipika via the link below.

http://terebess.hu/english/HathaYogaPradipika1.pdf

Interestingly, Dr. Artour Rakhimov, a Canadian based Buteyko Breathing Method expert and author, has reported that Professor Buteyko, during one of his public speeches, mentioned that prana was simply CO2. Dr. Rakhimov has gone on to state:

“ ……… if one reads old Hatha yoga books, while substituting ‘CO2’ instead of ‘prana’, deep physiological sense in traditional yoga teaching, can be found.”

There is an interesting book titled ‘The Hindu-Yogi Science of Breath’ by Yogi Ramacharaka. Yoga Ramacharaka is a pseudonym for William Walker Atkinson (1862-1932) who left his law practice in Chicago to practice Yoga. It is thought that he had an Indian co-author. This book contains 2 interesting chapters on breathing. In one of these chapters (chapter 6, page 20) it states:

“One of the first lessons in the Yogi Science of Breath; is to learn how to breathe through the nostrils, and to overcome the common practice of mouth-breathing. The breathing mechanism of man is so constructed that he may breathe through the mouth or nasal tubes, but it is a matter of vital importance to him which method he follows, as one brings health and strength and the other disease and weakness. It should not be necessary to state to the student that the proper method of breathing is to take the breath through the nostrils, but alas! the ignorance among civilised people regarding this simple matter is astounding”.

You may access this book via the link below.
http://www.arfalpha.com/ScienceOfBreath/ScienceOfBreath.pdf

 

Modern Yogic Breathing

Recently, I visited Dublin’s 3 biggest book stores and scanned the content (including the indexes) of about 40 modern books on yoga. In only 3 of these books was I able to find any mention of nose/nasal breathing. One of these books was co-authored by Dr. Georg Feuerstein, an internationally renowned Yoga researcher. Under the heading ‘Breathing through your nose (most of the time)’ this book, titled ‘The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Yoga’ states:

“No matter what anybody else tells you, yogic breathing typically occurs through the nose, during both inhalation and exhalation. For traditional yogis and yoginis, the mouth is meant for eating and the nose for breathing.”

Having said this, the book makes the point that a few classical techniques for breath control require you to breathe through the mouth.

The second book, by Adriana Sobi-Wilderman states, under the heading ‘Breathe correctly’:

“Most pranayama exercises are done through the nose, and very rarely ever through the mouth. Further, almost all exercises require you to breathe into your abdomen, what is known as belly-breathing. Only in some cases will the breath be taken into the chest. You must therefore learn to isolate your breathing properly. Unless otherwise specified, keep your lips closed and your jaw relaxed. If you’re doing the latter correctly, there should be a gap between your upper and lower teeth. The tip of your tongue should also be pressed against the back of your upper teeth.”

The third book was written by Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar, better known as B.K.S. Iyengar. Bellur was the founder of the style of yoga known as “Iyengar Yoga”. He was considered one of the foremost yoga teachers in the world. In the book titled ‘Light on Pranayama’, under the heading ‘Hints and Cautions’ he states:

“Breathing in pranayama should always be through the nose, except where otherwise stated as in Ch. 24.”

Chapter 24 of his book refers to two pranayamas in which inhalation is done through the mouth and not the nostrils. These are called Sitali Pranayama and Sitakari Pranayama. The pranayamas cool the system. In Sitakari Pranayama the breath is drawn with a hissing sound between the two lips.

Whilst the other books I scanned made no mention of nose/nasal breathing; statements in the main text of some of these books advocated such actions as bigger, deeper breathing, breathing more, and expelling “toxins” like CO2. Indeed, in a book titled ‘Bikram Yoga’ by Bikram Choudhury (described in his book, as the world’s foremost authority on Hot Yoga), he states:

“For most of the postures I tell you to breathe normally: As you begin to move into each position, inhale as fully as possible, trying to fill the lungs 100 percent; then exhale the breath completely when you achieve the posture. Continue inhaling and exhaling fully while maintaining the posture – this is Normal Breathing.”

“Pranayama breathing feels strange at first, because your lungs are not used to maximum expansion and contraction. They will feel tight and small, which is perfectly normal. It might even be impossible for you to inhale fully for six counts (roughly 6 seconds). But with each class, you will find that your breath becomes deeper and fuller.”

Following my ‘research’, based on the books I found written by modern Yoga ‘gurus’ and my extensive research using the World Wide Web, I concluded that modern Yoga ‘gurus’ generally appear to lack knowledge on healthy breathing and they appear to equate ‘breathing’ with ‘breathing exercises’ performed in a yoga studio or at home. There appears to be no recognition of the importance of correct breathing on a 24/7 basis.

 

Pranayama and hyperventilation

Although numerous studies show beneficial health effects of pranayama breathing, some studies show that fast breathing pranayama can cause hyperventilation, which may hyper-activate the sympathetic nervous system, stressing the body more.
Indeed, according to Dr. Artour Rakhimov:

“You can practise yoga for months and years (the way it is now taught by leading health yoga gurus), and your health may not improve or even can get worse. Why does modern yoga provide very limited benefits? Why was it successful in the past? To put it simply, modern yoga leaders and yoga teachers do not know how to breathe!”

According to the Indian Yogi, Swami Rama (1925 – 1996), simple breathing exercises such as diaphragmatic breathing can be healthy and helpful. However, in order to really practice pranayama, the knowledge and application of the bandhas is important. Bandhas are “practices for unfolding, controlling, and re-channelling the finer force that is awakened through some of the vigorous pranayama exercises done by yogis.”

Without the application of the bandhas, pranayama practices can be injurious to health. Importantly, Swami Rama also noted that the majority of breath practices and pranayama techniques are intended for relatively healthy individuals.

According to him:

“ ……….., the most widespread caution is that one must never force or “overdo” any breathing exercise. Creating discomfort of any sort is an immediate cue to release the effort, return to natural breathing and only begin again if it can be done with ease.”

 

Precautions and contraindications

Dr. Shirley Telles and Dr. Nilkamal Singh of the Patanjali Research Foundation, India have noted that some pranayamas are associated with precautions and contraindications. These include the following:

Pranayama practices involving changes in breath rate e.g. kapalabhati.

Based on clinical observations, the precautions and conditions which are contraindicated are:

  • Hypertension
  • Coronary Artery Disease
  • Recent Abdominal/thoracic surgery, and
  • Epilepsy (as it can provoke an attack)

The practice may result in over-breathing. Therefore, it should be avoided in individuals who have a tendency to hyperventilate e.g. individuals who have panic attacks.

Pranayama involving changes in which nostril (left, right, or alternate) is breathed through – Based on research findings, of the 3 practices, there are contraindications for right nostril breathing alone. The technique should be avoided in those with, or predisposed to hypertension.

Bumblebee breathing (Bhramari pranayama) – This practice is generally considered safe but based on clinical observations is best avoided in tinnitus.

Bellows breathing (Bhastrika pranayama) – According to Telles and Singh, this practice results in over-breathing and is best avoided in individuals who hyperventilate or have an anxiety disorder. Also, according to the Chopra Center, other contraindications are: pregnancy, uncontrolled hypertension, epilepsy, seizures, or panic disorder.

Pranayama with breath holding – Certain pranayama techniques involve breath holding. According to Telles and Singh, breath holding techniques are not recommended for beginners because if they are practised incorrectly they can have adverse psychological effects. They also note that such techniques should be avoided in hypertension, coronary artery disease, and in people on a medication for a psychiatric condition.

According to Judith H. Lasater (in the book titled ‘The Joy of Yoga’):

“The highest form (of pranayama) is to remain completely aware of the breath, allowing it to come and go without injecting control into the process ………………………………… This ability to remain aware of the breath and yet not control it is at the heart of meditation. Virtually all systems of meditation begin with simple breathing exercises or with a technique to make you aware of the breath.”

Although Lasater considers not controlling the breath to be an aspect of what she calls the highest form of pranayama, from a health standpoint, such lack of control would seem inappropriate for someone with dysfunctional breathing habits.

Dr. Ines Steward, a New Zealand Buteyko Breathing Method expert has a lot of personal experience with pranayama. In June 2016 she posted an interesting piece on her website titled ‘On Yogic Pranayama Breathing Practice’. Among the points she made in this article were the following:

“Yogic pranayama at its best teaches healthy diaphragm use and at its worst strengthens a pre-existing breathing dysfunction or causes symptoms of ill-health. It all comes back to the knowledge a yoga teacher has about breathing mechanics, breathing physiology, breathing habit development and maintenance, as well as how perceptive he or she is and how much time he or she can spend to focus on an individual client.

“All too often, people with an unidentified breathing dysfunction attend a yoga class and believe the well-meaning but under-educated teacher. This may have undesirable and potentially harmful consequences.

“If a person has dysfunctional breathing habits with low CO2 levels then doing pranayama could reduce these levels further and symptoms may arise. This is particularly the case when doing an over-breathing practice at rest e.g. before meditation. Symptoms may include chest tightness, constriction in the throat, stuffy or runny nose, heart pain, feeling dizzy, headache, or trouble concentrating during meditation. Probably the worst case scenario would be an asthma attack or an anxiety attack.”

Ines has outlined what she calls ‘The Breathe Right and Live Better Principles for Your Yoga Practice.’ These are:

  • Breathing silently at all times – the steam train approach is counter-productive
  • Use your diaphragm predominantly
  • Breathe gently and slowly
  • Breathe rhythmically – alternate nostril breathing is a great practice if the breath is not forced in any way
  • Breathe evenly – when inhale and exhale are the same length then a coherent heart rate pattern can develop
  • Enjoy a natural pause after the exhale
  • Allow your own breathing reflex to decide when to breathe in again – after all your body knows better than your head how to self-regulate its chemistry
  • See a breathing therapist if pranayama causes symptoms or if you know that your breathing is dysfunctional e.g. you know you are a chest “breather”

Conclusion

For the ancient yogis and yoginis, proper breathing involved nose breathing during both inhalation and exhalation. It also involved abdominal (diaphragmatic) breathing in a slow, rhythmic pattern, as opposed to chest breathing. Only a few classical techniques for breath control require breathing through the mouth. Unfortunately, many modern Yoga teachers lack knowledge on what constitutes healthy breathing and what constitutes unhealthy breathing. Also, they seem to equate ‘breathing’ with ‘breathing exercises’ carried out in a Yoga session, as opposed to correct breath on a 24/7 basis.

Some types of pranayama involve fast breathing or over-breathing (hyperventilation). Unfortunately and somewhat worryingly, there appears to be a lack of knowledge among many Yoga teachers that pranayamas of this type may be contraindicated for individuals with certain medical conditions or have to be performed with caution. Most pranayamas are intended for healthy or relatively healthy people. However, individuals who do not fall into one of these categories need to be wary of well-meaning teachers who are under-educated in relation to breathing and may instruct their students to perform certain pranayamas that could result in potentially harmful consequences. As a general rule, Yoga students who have a significant health problem should never overdo any breathing exercise or do one that is physically very demanding for them. A good maxim is “If in doubt, leave it out.”

 

For yoga therapists/teachers and their students

In early 2018 I had the pleasure of meeting Robin Rothenberg who had travelled to Ireland to attend a Buteyko Breathing practitioner training programme. Robin who lives in the United States, is an internationally respected yoga therapist and author. She has been involved in several research studies on yoga therapy, and is the founder of the Essential Yoga Therapy training program. The link below is to a record of an interview with Robin in which she talks about Buteyko breathing and how it dovetails perfectly with yoga. She states:

“Buteyko is not moving away from yoga but actually dovetailing perfectly with it. The original teachings about breath in yogic texts such as Yoga Sutras and Hatha Yoga Pradipika and the Yoga Rahasya are congruent with everything I’ve learned from my Buteyko teachers.”

https://www.yogauonline.com/yoga-practice-tips-and-inspiration/pranayama-redefined-breathing-less-live-more-interview-robin

Even more interesting is a 36 minute video recording of an interview with Robin titled ‘Breathing for Health: Pranayama and the Buteyko Breathing Method’. You may access this video via the following link.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T7Nr_JFQVzU