Change your breath, Change your mind.
Updated: Aug 23, 2021
How can we change a mind prone to discontent, constantly fluctuating from the stories of the past and anxious about the future? According to the systems of Indian philosophy the solution to the cause of this suffering isn’t in the mind it is the mind (or in Sanskrit Chitta ). The ancient Yogis investigated this problem by exploring the effects of the breath on the mind, in the system we know today called Hatha Yoga. This system which includes all modern forms of asana today can be described as a system of working the body and breath in order to investigate meditatively deep and subtle feelings, responses and reflexes in relation to the conditioning of the mind.
We can turn to ancient texts such as Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras , the oldest and most authorative text we know on the whole subject of yoga . Patanjali who had realised this path, defines for us the state of Yoga and how to achieve it. In the second and third of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras he describes the state of Yoga as consciously channelling the activity (vrittis) of the mind (chitta) towards a calming of all aspects of the mind, upon absolute calming of the mind we reach a state of abiding in our own true self, meaning we merge with complete oneness. If this state of mind is reached we don’t need to read the rest of the 193 sutras. However, if we look at at sutra 4 and discover that we are still prey to the fluctuations of the mind then we are not in the state of Yoga and need to read on.
1.2 Yogās citta vṛttinirodhaḥ
Yoga is the channelisation of the behaviour ( or functions) of the citta
(the mental frame consisting of the mind, intellect and ego).
The result of repeated practice would then be
1.3 Tadā draṣṭsuḥ svarūpe’vāsthānamāṃ
When the mental frame is controlled and channelised properly, then draṣṭa, the seer [Self] abides in his own true nature. You are that true seer you are not the body, nor the mind. To understand this, the mind must be quiet, otherwise it seems to distort the truth.
Hatha literally means ‘sun’ ( Ha) and ‘moon’ (tha) it is a practice that unites the opposite patterns within the nervous system in order to open up the core of the body for our observation. It is referring to the right and left channels (or nadis) connected with the right and the left nostrils. The right channel is called Pingala or Surya or Sun Channel and the left channel is called Ida, Chandra the Moon Channel.The Sun (Surya) represents masculine energy, with an active quality and the Moon (Chandra) a more feminine or passive quality.
The ancient Hatha Yogis understood the relationship between the breath and the mind, and the mind and its effect on the breath. They understood through the evolution of practice and deep introspection, plus certain insights what would lead us towards the goal of Yoga. These practices were originally passed on from guru to disciple. This is the practice and the science of the breath they called Pranayama. The separating of techniques we know today as yoga and meditation are defined within the 8 steps that Patanjali defined as Angas or the eight limbs of Astanga. However to achieve the ultimate state of Yoga the physical techniques (which include yoga asana) need to compliment and unite in the entire process so yoga and meditation become one.
Swami Kuvalyananda, who propagated scientific research into Yoga to test and explore its efficacy founded Kaivalydham Institute in India in 1924, a spiritual, therapeutic, and research centre with a specific aim to coordinate ancient yogic arts and tradition with modern science; According to Swamiji the goal of Yoga practices would be to, free us from stress so that the body could return to its natural state of balance so we could experience health and wellbeing. These practices are highly beneficial to the individual but they also impact society as whole.
Research continues today at Kaivalydhama and the lineage continues through Swamaji’s disciple Sri OP Tiwari who is currently collaborating with senior student Paul Dallaghan who’s phd research is on the relationship of breath and stress and how this relationship can be managed with better understanding. In his thesis the impact of efficient management of the breath is key to keeping the body physically and emotionally in balance with the ability to face stress and any situation in life with equanimity.
To gain full benefits of Yoga Asana and Pranayama there needs to be an understanding of the breath, how to free it up and be aware of what restricts its natural movement. In order for there to be full efficacy in the practice of Pranayama, there needs to be an impact on the nervous system, we have to consider how we breathe and how it can relax the nervous system. However the practice of Pranayama is much more than just deep breathing and should never be confused with it.
Stress and the breath
The breath may be compromised throughout your daily activity and even during your Yoga practice as the toll of daily insults manifests in stressful ways across the body based on workload, the everyday stress of work, kids, traffic, not to mention the endless tasks we have on a daily basis. This will leave the untrained breath shallow, distorted, quick and therefore unhelpful in response to this stress.
So even if you have become proficient with your breathing during your Yoga Asana practice you may ask yourself ;
Has your breath ever felt short during particular physically demanding posture?
Have you ever found yourself breathing through your mouth during the day?
Do you know how you breathe when you sleep?
In stressful situations does your breath become uneven, too high or stuck in the chest or shallow and rapid?
All of these situations will affect the function on both the brain and the body .
According to the pranayama teachings and Dallaghan’s research, in order for the breath to function optimally the tension in the upper abdomen needs to be free and there needs to be a certain management and support over the lower abdomen. Unfortunately when many of us breathe we become tight in the upper abdomen which causes a locked and stressed state, without the support of the lower abdomen. According to Dallaghan cellular respiration is influenced by how we breathe, the taking in of oxygen, the exchange of that oxygen and the use of it in cellular metabolism. All of this is crucial to overall energy levels, therefore the quality length and volume of the breath has an impact right down to the cellular metabolic level. As you regulate your breathing your heart rate will change through different situations and movements. In other words your breath should meet your physical outcome, so you have the appropriate oxygen levels not only whilst practicing yoga but also whilst you take on the tasks of the day and face stressful situations. With regard to practicing Yoga asana Dallaghan shares this insight;
“It’s not just important to breathe when doing asana, it’s about how you manage the body in terms of breathing. If I initially put my focus on the exhale, a proper exhale is driven or managed by the engagement of the lower abdomen. Now a bad exhale will squeeze the upper abdomen and create stress; this fights with your autonomic nervous system. An exhale is technically parasympathetic. If you’re squeezing the upper abdominal muscles, or if you’re doing a yoga pose and you’re squeezing the body inappropriately, although your intention is to try to do a yoga pose, you’re actually creating an internal environment of confusion. The solar plexus, located at the upper abdomen, is a major second processing site; stress is processed a lot in this area.
The upper abdominal area, specifically the upper triangle part of it, is where we process stress. We do not need to over activate that area when it’s not needed. When the upper triangle is over-activated, then health is compromised. If you are over dominant in your upper triangle, you might be more prone to injury because your internal cocktail is always telling you to be on alert. This influences stress hormones, which compromises your immune system and keeps inflammation higher than it should be. Again, if you look at all non-infectious disease, inflammation is behind it, and mismanagement of stress is behind that. Theoretically your yoga practice should be helping you to better manage the stresses that come to you. But if we don’t understand this, then we will just repeat the same patterns in our yoga practice. This needs to be taken into account in our yoga practice on a functional level.”
How can we retrain the breath?
Many people come to a yoga class because they are stressed, most are unaware of that they can re-train their breath to reduce stress and the habitual mental patterns that cause it. We need to see the training of the breath in two stages; opening the breath with simple breath work which can then progress onto Pranayama. Simple breathing exercises and Kriyas ( classis yogic cleansing exercises) can first open up the breath and address tension built up in the diaphragm, abdomen and jaw. This helps to liberate the breath and the life force energy because breathing especially when it evolves into the practice of Pranayama is more than just the movement of air in and out of the lungs. It involves the management of the internal pressure by manipulating and controlling the pelvic, abdominal and chest muscles . This takes time and practice and is essential if there is to be a full benefit of extending and lengthening the exhale for the practice of Pranayama.
Simply becoming conscious of the breath is the first step in how to feel the relationship between breath and nervous system. You can even start by lying down and just sensing the movement of the natural rising and falling of the abdomen. Just being in a state of acceptance , no need to change anything. We can discover so much from this place, how our body feels, what is happening emotionally and much more. Simply observe how the breath enters through the nasal passages, how it brushes the back of the throat, and filters down to the lungs . Where does the breath make contact with the ribs? How does it flow into the back of the body , frontal ribs? Is there any restriction around the diaphragm , the lower ribs?
How often do we really listen to the inner space of our body? Your inner intelligence has an amazing feedback system, it can, if you listen, give you direct feedback of the state of the nervous system.
How we utilise the respiratory diaphragm is key to understanding how we may have developed and embodied holding patterns and restricted the breath through constant stress. This will be illuminated through the practice of Uddiyana and Nauli Kriya as well as Agni Sara, as so much tension can be stored around the navel which restricts the natural movement of the breath.
As we free up the space around the navel and upper abdomen the respiratory diaphragm will also free-up, then we can focus on the lateral movement of the ribs, allowing a fuller deeper breath which utilises the fullness of the upper abdomen and switch the breath from shallow to deep diaphragmatic breathing. This has immense benefits for both body and mind and is the ideal breath to be cultivated during a Yoga Asana practice. This management of the breath can then progress to simple Pranayama practice consciously expanding the breath and lengthening the exhale to double that of the inhale and eventually slowing down the whole breathing cycle.
Three simple steps to open and free the breath
This can be done lying on your back and then progressing to sitting upright if possible.
1. Lay on your back with a block or heavy object on the navel, lifting the block with the inhale, this will help to release tension around the navel area and the diaphragm. The exhale relaxes to a free and empty feeling.
2. Place the palms on the side ribs to feel the lateral movement of the breath feel the space between the ribs expand.
3. Slide one hand into the center of your abdomen and the other hand placed on the heart center. Breathe in the exac
t same manner but feel it first touch your lower hand and a microsecond later touch your upper hand. By the top of the breath you should feel both hands full and rounded. There should not be any sucking in of the upper abdomen yet as the inhale continues the upper abdomen is drawn wider.
Progressing from simple breathing to Pranayama requires control over the
pelvic floor and lower abdomen
( see diagram), below the navel is firm and supportive and management over
the internal pressure can then be managed, it requires much focus and concentration.
The Inhale is a combination of the slight movement of upper abdomen whilst the ribs move laterally with freedom of the upper abdomen and diaphragm, then the fullness of inhaling can be felt at the very top of the chest all the way to the clavicle. With the exhale all the muscles relax from inhale allowing the breath flow out and the muscles of the lower abdomen draw back without gripping of the upper. The isolation and control over these muscle groups takes time to develop especially without the addition of pinching or gripping of the upper abdomen.
The breath through the practice of Pranayama is the way to access the intimate part of us .The breath takes us deep into the subtle realms that moves the prana through the channels or nadis and eventually into shushumna the central channel. The power is within us and is not some far away place only accessible to the spiritual super rich, but it lies as close to us as our most intimate self. When we make this central channel our goal & our focus , we can begin to trust this process , we can begin to experience this thing called Yoga. We can literally go with the flow allowing the current of this magical river of life to take us where we need go. No need to hold on . It is because the patterns of our mind follow the patterns of our breath, that when we begin to slow down and lengthen the breath, it feels like time too has slowed down and our stress begins to dissipate. The mind can then move into deeper states of awareness and stillness. These steps of Yoga are termed Dhyana, Dharana and Samadhi.
Pranayama done correctly and sincerely can channelise or re-direct the behaviour of the mind, so the mind is laser sharp; the mind becomes less reactive to situations; we are more able to respond to situations without being dragged down by negative emotions and we can more easily move past inhibitions and limitations which hold us back from experiencing who we would like to become. Over time, we can become masters of the mind instead of the mind controlling us.
So the victory of Yoga is to overcome those internal battles within us that keep us bound to suffering, divided in our thoughts and slaves to negative emotions. When we build a better awareness of the breath, the space that it inhabits, it creates gaps in our thinking, in turn helping us to focus and direct thoughts more positively. With conscious awareness to the breath we feel more present and the relationship with ourselves improves. We feel like there is more time as stress is reduced and the mind is less reactive, not only do we get to know our selves better the relationship with others improves too.
We begin to see and feel the unity behind all living beings, that essentially we are all in this together.
Vicki Shields, Director of Evolve Yoga Training has been studying with Paul Dallaghan since 2003, she was introduced to Yogic Master Sri OP Tiwari in 2007 and has had a dedicated daily Pranayama practice ever since, studying directly with her teachers Paul and Tiwariji on annual trips to India to participate in Anusthan and auspicious Fire Ceremony as well as Advanced Trainings with Paul in Thailand. She endeavours to pass on the wisdom of the practice & philosophy of Pranayama.