The Breath of Life
Pranayama Medicine for Health
by Eliza Bishop
The best anti-stress medicine we have may be right under our own nose. Amidst all the medicines and high-tech solutions offered for today's quick culture, calming down is really as simple as giving-and-taking a few deep breaths. “Slow, deep breathing is the single best anti-stress medicine we have,” says James Gordon, a clinical professor of psychiatry and author of Comprehensive Cancer Care: Integrating Alternative, Complementary and Conventional Therapies.
“When you bring air down into the lower portion of the lungs, where oxygen exchange is most efficient, everything changes. Heart rate slows, blood pressure decreases, muscles relax, anxiety ceases and the mind calms.” Deep breathing is for every body.
Obviously, everyone alive knows how to breathe. But Gordon and other experts in the field of mind-body medicine (psycho-neuro-immunology) say that few people in Western industrialized society know how to breathe correctly. We were taught to suck in our guts and puff out our chests. At the same time, we're bombarded with constant stress, which causes our muscles to tense and our respiration rate to increase. As a result, we have become a world full of shallow “chest breathers,” primarily using the middle and upper portions of our lungs. Few Westerners other than musicians, singers and some athletes, are even aware that the abdomen should expand during inhalation.
Breathe like a baby. Watch a baby breathe and you'll see the belly go up and down, deep and slow, as they naturally practice Pranayama. With age, most people shift from this healthy abdominal breathing to shallow, unhealthy chest breathing. This ruins the lungs, which must move faster to ensure adequate oxygen flow, and taxes the heart, as it is forced to speed up to provide enough blood for oxygen transport. The result is a vicious cycle, where stress prompts shallow breathing, which in turn generates additional stress. I teach breath work and I have seen breath awareness alone achieve remarkable results: lowering blood pressure, improving longstanding patterns of poor digestion, decreasing anxiety and allowing people to get off addictive anxiety drugs, and improving sleep and energy cycles.
Unlike any other bodily function, breathing is the only one you can do either completely consciously or unconsciously. It's controlled by two different sets of nerves and muscles: voluntary and involuntary. And it's the only function through which the conscious, voluntary mind can influence the involuntary, or autonomic, nervous system, which is responsible for revving-up the body in times of crisis. This so-called “fight-or-flight” response kept our ancestors alive, but it has turned into the modern reaction of “stew-and-chew.” If no physical response occurs after stress revs the body up, chronically elevated levels of stress hormones can stimulate appetite and encourage fat cells deep inside the abdomen to store what is called “toxic weight.”
Pranayama, the Yogic Art of breathing, leads to a control of the emotions, which in turn brings stability, concentration, and mental poise – qualities sadly lacking in our lives today. It deals with subtle functioning of the breath, various techniques of inhalation, retention, and exhalation, and with the filtration of the crimson colored fluid – the Life Force – through the network of channels (nadis) and the subtle centers (chakras) with unchecked flow. Pranayama involves exercises that affect not only our physical, physiological and neural energies but also cerebral activities such as memory training and creativity.
The health-giving and invigorating effects of Pranayama – also called voluntary respiration – are beyond words. Pranayama helps to keep the autonomous control system of the human body in a balanced state of health and perfection. It prevents atmospheric damage to the cardiac system, as it washes away accumulated toxins in the blood. Its most important effect is the flushing of free radicals, which can damage the heart. Practicing Asanas and Pranayama induces cellular quieting, thus promoting a state of hibernation. Breathe in through the nose, making the stomach expand, and breathe out through the nose, flattening the stomach. This process makes your heart operate like an inflatable balloon, constantly expanding and contracting, rather than pounding – not especially good for circulation of blood through the body.
We tend to forget that peace is the norm. Psychiatrists and sociologists take it as a given that the modern human being is deeply divided in their psyche. The rise of stress-related disorders, depression, anxiety, chronic fatigue, and the disease of being in a hurry are signs of the times. The hectic pace of work – and life in general – has accustomed us to turmoil. By now, people are thoroughly indoctrinated by the idea that a certain degree of internal conflict is normal. But peace is the exclusive domain of the mind and heart, and peace is the gift of Pranayama.
The effect of Pranayama is precisely accurate in feeding the nerves with plenty of oxidized energy. Pranayama is a very refined art, which makes the respiratory organs move and expand deliberately and intentionally, with perfect rhythm and balance. When we are willing to explore the unseen levels of our bodies, we can tap into the immense creative power that lives at our source. There is no more beautiful experience than when the world expands beyond its accustomed limits. These are the moments when reality takes on splendor. The Vedas – the oldest Sanskrit literature – calls such an experience Ananda, or bliss; it is said to be another quality inherent in the human mind but covered over by layers of dulled awareness. There is reality, where time really is timeless and what stands out unmistakably in this experience is its sense of revelation.
Image by shawnzrossi, courtesy of Creative Commons license.
From Reality Sandwich @ http://www.realitysandwich.com/pranayama_medicine_health
The Complete Yoga Breath —The Diaphragm
…Breathing with the diaphragm (often called abdominal breathing), is not difficult if you already allow your stomach to expand freely when you breathe. If not, you will need to practice this step until it becomes natural to you. This step massages all the lower organs in the body and relaxes the muscles at the same time. It expands the lower part of the lungs.
By using the diaphragm consciously to breathe slowly, it becomes more elastic and powerful with practice. You can do this standing, sitting or lying on your back. Beginners usually find this easier lying down and relaxing a little before beginning. Women with children will recall the breathing techniques at childbirth and automatically understand the concept of what deep and full means.
The diaphragm is like a flexible disc in the center of your body. If you feel your ribcage and follow the area directly under it, you will be where this muscle functions. Look at this simple illustration (below) of the largest muscle in your body, the diaphragm (it is the large shaded area):
The diaphragm “is the great partition muscle that separates the chest and its contents from the abdomen and its contents. When at rest it presents a concave surface to the abdomen. The diaphragm as viewed from the abdomen would seem like the sky as viewed from the earth—the interior of an arched surface. Consequently, the side of the diaphragm toward the chest organs is like a protruding rounded surface—like a hill. When the diaphragm is brought into use the hill formation is lowered and the diaphragm presses upon the abdominal organs and forces out the abdomen.”
— Yogi Ramacharaka
If you are a scientist, think about that statement just quoted here. Read into it from a scientific standpoint. You might discover something about how the earth also functions.
Learning how to breathe using the diaphragm muscle is one of the most important lessons in all of these Breath series. If you at least know how to use this miraculous part of your body, everything else will be much easier for you. To be powerful, speakers and singers must know how to use this muscle.
HOW to USE the DIAPHRAGM MUSCLE
- Lie on your back with your legs slightly apart, or sit in a chair with the soles of your feet on the floor, or sit on the floor with your legs crossed or as Eugenia does in the image below (sitting on her heels). The important thing is to be relaxed and comfortable. If you are lying down, lift your head and look down at your feet to see that your head is centered between your feet and in a straight line with the rest of your body, then rest your head. It is just as important to have the spine straight even when you are sitting in a chair as it is when you are lying on the floor.
- Relax your body and place the palms of your hands on the abdomen/stomach area with your fingers pointed toward your navel and solar plexus. Place your stretched out fingers, relaxed, on either side of your abdomen with the middle fingers at the navel. (After you have read through all of these pages, you can visualize one of the many suggestions given in this Breath series. Choose one that is easy. Most students seem to enjoy the big balloon image.)
(Note: The solar plexus is like the solar light. Here is where the lunar realm is left to enter the fuller understanding of spiritual truths. This is a powerful area in the body that brings healing just from being aware of it.
- Inhale through the larynx and allow your breath to move directly into your abdomen, then feel this part of your body expand from the air filling it. Do not push your abdominal or stomach muscles out. Your abdomen expands only from the breath that is filling it (like a balloon). The slower you inhale now, the easier it will be to continue with the following steps.
- When you are ready to exhale, simply repeat the movement in your mind. Your abdomen and stomach, just like a balloon, will deflate from the air being expelled. Gently pull your abdomen in a little as you exhale. It can be helpful to use your fingers to follow your abdomen in and press slightly until you can feel your lungs are empty.
- Count how many seconds your inhalation takes, then count the same number of seconds for your exhalation. This will help you to do rhythmic breathing properly, and to watch your progress as you add more seconds to your breathing with practice.
- Tip: To see how your breath is working, place a couple of heavy books on your abdomen and then watch them rise and fall steadily as you inhale and exhale.
- Remember, you are only concentrating on the diaphragm-abdomen-stomach area of your body at this time. You have already mastered the larynx technique. Your shoulders and chest are completely relaxed and motionless at this step and do not move up or down. Do not lift your shoulders when you inhale with this technique.
- Practice this until you feel your abdomen expanding without any tension. When you can do this without thinking about it, continue to the next step of breathing with the ribcage (link below).
ABDOMINAL BREATH VISUALIZATIONS
- Imagine that your abdomen/stomach area is a large cup being filled with water.
- Imagine that your abdomen/stomach area is a balloon being filled with air, expanding slowly.
- Concentrate on your navel and imagine that your abdomen is being filled with energy that circulates from your groin to your hipbones and finally to your navel.
Once you have mastered this step, you will feel the difference in your breathing. In the future, I will refer to this as abdominal breathing when giving instructions about specific Yoga postures (exercises, in Sanskrit = asanas) that are given throughout this site. When you have learned this breathing technique and do it correctly, you will get the feeling that you are breathing all the way into your tailbone and down through your feet.
Click images below for detailed instructions.
From All Good Things @ http://www.allgoodthings.com/yoga/breath/breath_diaphragm.html
For more information about prana see http://nexusilluminati.blogspot.com/search/label/prana
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