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Yoga and Breathing The Good the Bad and the Ugly

Dec 12, 2007
Yoga, being one of the most effective self help approaches to life and living, invites me to help ensure that it is being integrated with maximum wisdom related to breathing. This page is about supporting and educating the Yoga community in its quest for superior knowledge and effectiveness about proper breathing. It is our responsibility to alert everyone about this as there are probably millions of students and teachers with an unclear or distorted idea of
healthy breathing.

Nowadays, you can take weekend courses and call yourself a teacher. Many teachers are then first to defend their breathing development proficiency but alas, last to prove it. One needs to experience good breathing to teach it.

From a Breathing Times subscriber:
Breath is the unifying principal of the three systems - mechanics, metabolism and mentality. It is the psychopharmacological link between conscious and unconscious states. Each of the three mechanical aspects of breath has specific neurotransmission function. Any technique(s) that emphasize(s) one aspect of the mechanism exclusively will shift neurometabolism accordingly. Yoga practices are designed for this purpose, stimulating a specific aspect or relationship of aspects. I realize that contemporary yogis don't always explain it this way,and I think that also leads to misuse and abuse. Right knowledge is yoga or union. That union is from bringing together all aspects, and applying iscernment.
- Jim Nettles

A few words from Else Middendorf
"All the yoga ways of breathing come from the male way. The Eastern way of thinking is to find God in one direction, in a male way. 'The way is directed. I go there and I have to go; I must go'. This male way of being needs will. When this is the basis, the breathing is under the law of the will."

Mike adds: "This can also transform conscious breathing into "self-conscious" breathing. It gets out of balance."

Just as lions, elephants and tigers are gradually controlled; so the prana is controlled through right practice. Otherwise the practitioner is destroyed. Verse 15 of Chapter 2 of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika

The word Prana translates as something akin to "life force". The second part of the word is "Ayama", meaning "non-restraint". The practice of Pranayama is meant to free the life force, not restrain it or over energize it. The techniques are meant to open up the inner life force... which may not feel like a "deep" breath. I think there's a big misunderstanding about these techniques.

They are intended for the more experienced practitioner, and are intended for deeper states of meditation (they often work with increasing the body's capacity to tolerate CO2 - which enhances meditation). According to a former colleague and psychotherapist, who also teaches yoga, "Pranayama is meant to be a spiritual practice, and is not meant as a way to take deeper breaths. The body needs to be well-prepared, through the Hatha yoga practices, before the Pranamayakosha, or energy body, can work with the Pranayama practices appropriately."

In my opinion most Pranayama is not appropriate because it does not allow first to learn about healthy natural breathing that is NOT controlled. Lung and breathing mechanics problems manifest in varied ways from this forced way of addressing the breath. Pranayama, toning and chanting, while being potentially quite beneficial, often constricts the lung volume and hinders breathing sequencing and balance and invite throat blockages.

From a newsletter reader:
Dear Mike, I do Pranayama but I want to know what I can do to make my breathing better. How can I make each breath longer?

From Mike: Work with our fundamentals program.

From a newsletter subscriber:
I had started Alternate Nostril Breathing Pranayama (with no retention) and I was doing it everyday for 25 days. Initially I felt very light and nice. But lately I started to feel pressure with pain in my head as soon as I start Pranayama. My face and eyes, too, look a little swollen. Do you know why this is happening? I have stopped the practice. Please reply, as doctor could not diagnose the problem." MP

From Mike: If you are going to experiment in Pranayama, please first develop a strong balanced, healthy, natural breath so your nervous system knows where to return to after the altered state experience. Practice makes permanent, not necessarily perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.

Measured Breathing Exercises
The 7 count inhale, 4 count hold and 8 count exhale is often cited. But if you are stressed out, you breathe too quickly and over-stimulate your nervous system and or invite carbon dioxide issues. Slowing down the breathing rate will prove beneficial. But to reach and
maintain inner balance, breathing mechanics must be developed to expand and contract in without force or resistance, even during sleep. Learn more of this from Dennis Lewis' Free Your Breath and Free Your Life.

Beware of long term breath following exercises
They can be helpful for some if they slow down and even out the breathing pattern but harmful for others whose breathing mechanics will not allow for that. I use a scientifically proven biofeedback device to measure blood carbon dioxide saturation and heart rate variability and learn that even the slightest attention to breathing can sometimes cause the inhale to develop a subtle and almost undetectable gasp or erratic breathing sequencing during the exercise which can develop into permanent what I call Unbalanced Deep Breathing or Undetected Dysfunctional Breathing aka UDB. If you've tried breath following and felt they did not work for you, you may have UDB. The point is that success is not a given. In another example an individual, although a proclaimed expert in good breathing tradition, was unable to escape hypocapnea except when practicing yoga, which he had practiced daily for more than ten years. His learning about breathing, unfortunately, had been state specific, and had not generalized to the rest of his life.

According to Michael White yoga - the stretching aspect of it - is generally quite good for the human body. It is just not breathing specific. Many of the Yoga developed bodies are better integrated and very responsive to Optimal Breathing Work. Distorted internal breathing balance sets in with restricted and inappropriate muscular development resulting in various forms of energy/emotional/volitional blocks that only worsens with time. More about this in our article The Breathwave and The Speed Bump of Life at our website.

In support of professional counseling
Do we suggest that because someone says they can teach pranayama to the Western mindset that they are qualified to assist in another's deepest process? I think not. I believe that pranayama falls within the category of Transformational Breathwork. I recommend that the really deep work be done with seasoned professional facilitators such as Denis Ouellette, Thom Goode or Joy Manne or a licensed or church certified and accountable psychotherapist or health professional.

Breath Holding
When you hold your breath you often cause excessive physical restrictions. A few need to slow the breathing and make it more from the belly to help regain CO2 balance. There are but two ways for them to be certain they are back in proper balance. One is having that confirmed in real time by an experienced teacher getting feedback from the while working with their breathing and the other is measured by a particular biofeedback device called a capnometer. Breath holding, taken too far can lead to issues such as anxiety, snoring and sleep apnea. Long inhalations often energize and also can over-stimulate and cause or worsen anxiety.

From a client of one of our students:
In my own yoga practice, good breathing has always been confusing. Sometimes it is assumed that if one can perform the asanas well, then pranayama will come easily. This is not my experience. Firstly, the seated pranayama techniques can be difficult for people who are not used to sitting for a long time on the floor. In my own experience, sitting cross legged was not a good idea, because I had a Psoas imbalance that caused lots of tension in the breath. Kneeling with support was much more preferable, but I still did not feel very relaxed. From this I conclude that it is better to begin with the supine position. There needs to be no tension whatsoever, this can be assisted by a teacher who is calm and accepting of all students, adapting to their needs.

Now in my second week of Optimal Breathing practice I can honestly say I am amazed with my improvement. The asanas have a flow, and ease about them. My jaw is relaxed, I am much more aware of my body. Meditation comes easier, especially when preceded by the Optimal Breathing work. Overall I have felt much more balanced in my practice, even in a class environment.

Let's get the physiology right. Learn to breath optimally, THEN experiment with whatever you wish. First prepare your home base so when you soar into the cosmos you know where it is you need to land.
About the Author
Michael White is a health educator, author, breathing development specialist, public speaker, vocalist, and CEO of Breathing.com and the Optimal Breathing School. He has studied breathing development since 1975 and helped thousands transform their lives through correct breathing and nutrition. Visit Breathing.com
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