The Anatomy of the Breath.
In yoga, breathing is the most central and vital practice, as it is in our daily lives, even if our awareness does not acknowledge this fact. Pranayama, the control of one’s energy through the breath, is a distinct arm of Patanjali’s Eightfold Path and an integral part of our modern hatha yoga practice. To cultivate an awareness and reverence for the breath, we must first examine its structure.
The complete yogic breath itself has four parts: the inhalation (puraka), the retention (kumbhaka), the exhalation (rechaka), and the absence of breath within the body (shunyata). Varying the ratios of these four parts of the breath is an important part of Pranayama. By simply becoming aware of their existence and distinction as we breathe, we strengthen and slow our breath.
The complete yogic breath teaches us to utilize the three anatomical parts of our lungs. Because of poor posture and bad habits arising from unconscious carelessness, many of us breathe shallowly or with compressed lungs, depriving our body of essential oxygen. Furthermore, insufficient exhalation poisons the body by building up carbon dioxide in our system.
In yoga, we also learn to isolate and strengthen the abdominal, intercostal, and subclavial regions of the lungs through practice, concentration, and various asanas. The three parts of the breath are adham pranayama (abdominal breathing), madhyam pranayama (mid-chest breathing), and adhyam pranayama (upper-chest breathing).
A full yogic breath is like a slow wave, first filling the abdominal lobes of the lungs fully, then the intercostals, and finally, the subclavial lobes. The exhalation is full and slightly slower then the inhalation and consciously follows the same succession until the lungs are completely empty.
Connecting the breath, movement, and consciousness
Once we become aware of our breathing and recognize that it is the way in which we can control the energy of our body and mind, we can begin to use it. Without proper breathing, hatha yoga is simply a physical exercise. When we start to move with the breath, we experience a change in our state of mind. We become relaxed, focused, and peaceful. We also begin to enjoy our bodies.
With mindfulness and concentration, we can send the energy of the breath throughout the body, releasing tensions, supplying strength, and bringing stillness to areas where we are troubled. When practicing yoga, we often discover parts of our body that are tight, sore, numb, or painful of which we were not even aware. This is the process of developing mindfulness.
The breath is also a useful tool for meditation. By bringing our awareness to the breath, by actually sitting in physical stillness and taking the time to simply listen to it, we can quiet the mind. Most of our thinking is simply illusions the mind creates to distract us from reality. We often miss out on our own lives by living inside our heads. When we calm the mind, we open our awareness to the direct experience of the present. It is at that moment that you discover your true nature and the nature of the world around you.