The Breath Never Lies

16/11/2012 20:12



There is one paramount reason why I love Pranayama: The breath never lies. It constantly reflects your state of mind, and no matter how hard you try, you can't fake it. If you are calm and relaxed, then your exhales will be long and you will take fewer inhales, without gulping down the breath. If you are upset or afraid or stressed, you will sip in quick inhales and have very shallow exhales. It's the unchangeable law of nature. And in the context of our yoga practice, the breath always tells us whether we are actually balancing effort with enough ease. If we watch the breath honestly, then we will not force poses or breath work, and we will not push ourselves into injury.

Today I heard the most beautiful metaphor from our anatomy lecturer James Newman: Breathing consciously and unconsciously can be compared to flying a kite. Either the wind takes over or instead of letting the wind take control of your kite, you can perfection the art of flying your quite by tugging on the string. The same is true for our breath. Most of the time, we just let the mind, the wind, have its way with us and the breath will simply reflect our emotional state. In yoga, more specifically, Pranayama, we are taught to use the breath as a tool, as a string, to manipulate the mind. Pranayama literally means “controlling the Prana/breath/life force”. We use the yogic breath to trick the mind into thinking: “All is well, no danger, I can relax.”

Whenever the human being is confronted with a stressful situation, the mind-body complex goes into what we call the fight or flight response. The brain sends a chemical message (adrenalin and noradrenalin) to the whole body to prepare for fight or flight. We begin to inhale more than we exhale in order to get in a higher amount of oxygen  per minute. One of the most evident physiological reactions is that heart and lung action accelerates. The blood vessels constrict in most parts of the body so blood can be efficiently conveyed into the extremities. Consequently our limbs can react quickly to fight or flee. Thus, the digestive organs are drained of blood, so digestion slows down or stops. In extreme cases this pattern of inhaling more than we exhale can lead to hyperventilation.

I’ve always thought it strange how both body and mind, otherwise so intelligent, cause us to fall into this vicious circle: The more we inhale, the less we exhale, the more the sympathetic nevous system is stimulated and the less the mind-body complex can relax. Of course, this mechanism was originally smart when we still used to live in the wild: The need to take in as much as possible and get the supplies where they're needed, in order to act fast when in danger, is a survival mechanism. Also in nature, the animal will rest after a fight or flight moment. However, it becomes a catch 22 as we still react in the same way in our stressful daily lives, even though being late for a meeting doesn’t exactly equal mortal danger. And most certainly, we don't take rest after stressful moments. We just keep going.

I think the life-changing effect that the yoga practice has had for many people I know (including myself) starts on that very elementary biochemical level. The reason yoga is so soothing is not so much the physical practice, but the fact that this practice is synched to the breath.
 Most of us have unlearned to breathe in a way that calms the constantly stimulated nervous system.

When we are exposed to a high level of stress, we usually fall into a pattern of chest or even reverse breathing, sipping in the inhale and having trouble finding a long and regular exhale. Yoga, or more specifically Pranayama, teaches us to inhale slowly and exhale fully, by contracting the breathing muscles so we can get all the residual air out of the lungs. This is why we use Ujjayi breath technique: We tighten at the glottis/vocal cords to pace the breath and to prolong the exhale against that valve in the throat. Slow steady breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, causing both body and mind to unwind. We revert the process: Instead of letting the mind dictate stress to breath and body, we use the breath as a tool to trick body and mind into relaxation. In other words, we control the kite by the string. We don't let our mind, the wind, gallop away with it.

In my personal experience, retraining the breath, also really reprograms the mind. The inhale is very strongly connected to our ego, to the need to grasp, to take in and to never get enough. Don't get me wrong, this mechanism is (literally) vital. We need a healthy ego otherwise we would stop taking in oxygen, food, knowledge etc. But training the mind via the breath to take in moderately (slow inhales) and also give freely (long exhales), has an amazing effect on the ego. Actually, in my experience, the grasping reflex of the ego is weakened a little bit. The ego becomes more porous and over time we start getting little glimpses of a higher wisdom, of the space of the Buddhi.