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The body has two opposing nervous systems that act to either speed up or slow down various functions of the body.
How you breathe determines which nervous system is activated.
Startled by a bear, you would likely take an open mouthed, gasping breath. When under stress, we cry, scream, gasp, and run to save our life. This gasping rush of air through the mouth fills the upper lobes of the lungs where there is a predominance of fight-or-flight emergency stress receptors that activate the sympathetic nervous system.
Think of a baby nursing. Their mouths are closed and they gently breathe through their nose. Nose breathing drives inspired air through the turbinates in the nose that drive the air deeper and more slowly into the lower lobes of the lungs, where there is a predominance of calming and restorative parasympathetic receptors.
Nose breathing calms us down, and mouth breathing stimulates us. This ancient wisdom was found to be true in a study we published on nose versus mouth breathing in The International Journal of Neuroscience.
In our study, nose breathing during exercise was found to boost brain wave coherence, meditative brain alpha waves, slower breath and heart rates, lower blood pressure, decreased sympathetic tone, increased parasympathetic tone, better endurance, and significantly less discomfort during exercise. (Learn more about the science behind nose breathing here.)
Transcending the neurological benefits of breathing mentioned above, pranayama techniques were geared more toward moving the body’s subtle energy.
The Koshas: the Five Layers of the Supreme Self.
The body’s subtle energy is divided up into sheaths called koshas.
The Vijnanamaya kosha, also known as the wisdom sheath, supports discernment to help us filter out the good and bad energy, mindsets, and emotions.
This next sheath, as we move outward and less subtle, is the mental sheath or the Manomaya kosha. Here, the mind controls our thoughts and emotions.
This sheath is followed by the Pranamaya kosha or the breath sheath, which regulates breathing patterns and is in charge of moving prana or the body’s life force.
Next, and the least subtle of the body sheaths, is the Annamaya kosha which governs all of the bodily functions.
Notice that the breathing sheath (Pranamaya kosha) is between the mental sheath (Manomaya kosha) and the body sheath (Annamaya kosha). The breath, as described in my study mentioned above, controls the state of mind—as seen with the production of alpha waves during nose breathing and dramatic changes in bodily functions like heart rate and blood pressure. (Learn more about the koshas and subtle body here.)
From the yogic and Ayurvedic perspective, when we breathe, the prana (life force carried through the breath) moves both into the body sheath and the mind sheath, as the prana breath sheath sits between the two. Breathing is, therefore, the mind-body connector on a gross level, but it also functions at a more subtle level.
The movement of the prana activates an energy system in the body called the nadis, which are perhaps most akin to the energy meridians of acupuncture. While science recognizes the existence of meridians and subtle energy, it has yet to be able to measure them.
According to Ayurveda, if we do not move the prana, we will not activate the nadi system. It is the subtle activation of the nadi system that will restore health and balance of the body in the body sheath, and free the mind of limiting and negative thoughts and behavioral patterns in the mental sheath. (Learn more about the subtle movement of the nadi system here.)
Activating the Nadi System.
One of the main ways to help direct the prana (breath) through the density of the body and activate the nadi system is through individually prescribed yoga postures coordinated with deep and slow nasal breathing.
Specific breathing practices are said to bring a heightened level of mental awareness to the mind in order to elicit mental, emotional, and spiritual change or transformation.
By specifically moving the breath, the physical body restores balance, and the mind becomes less cluttered and more aware, allowing the bliss in the Anandamaya kosha to permeate all the outer koshas.
The following 10 breathing (pranayama) techniques are designed to specifically move the breath, either to balance aspects of the body or deliver heightened awareness to the mind.
The goal is to release the conscious awareness (love and truth) into every kosha or aspect of the body, from the most subtle to the most gross.
10 Breathing Exercises to Restore Mind-Body Balance.
Read through these pranayama exercises and practice the ones that most suit your needs and are the most comfortable to practice.
These can be done any time of the day best for you, but were traditionally practiced in the morning and early evening before meditation or yoga.
Always start slowly, and build up intensity and time only if the practice is comfortable.
- Nadi Shodana.
Directions: Inhale right nostril, exhale left nostril, inhale left nostril, exhale right nostril. Continue to alternate nostril breathing 10 breaths, up to 10 minutes.
Benefits: Coordinates brain hemispheres and wave coherence. Heightens awareness of the mind.
Directions: The cooling breath. Fold tongue lengthwise and inhale deeply through the folded tongue. Exhale through the nose or using ujjayi (see below). Ten breaths minimum, 10 minutes maximum.
Benefits: Reduces pitta or heat from the head, neck, and upper digestion.
Directions: The hissing breath. Same basic effect as sheetali. Clench teeth, expose teeth, and take a deep hissing inhale through the teeth. Exhale as in sheetali.
Benefits: Reduces pitta, purifies the senses, and cools the head.
Directions: The humming breath. Inhale with ujjayi (see below), and during the exhale, hum like a bee. The hum should create a resonating vibration in the head and heart. Take 10 deep breaths in this way. Take another 10 deep Brahmari breaths and plug both ears only during the exhale. This will notably enhance the resonance effect and benefits.
Benefits: Balances vata as well as increases subtle mental and emotional awareness.
Directions: The bellows breath. This exercise should be supervised. Close the right nostril. Take 20 fast bellows-like breaths through the left nostril. Close left nostril. Take 20 more bellows breaths through the right nostril. Then take 20 bellows breaths through both nostrils.
Benefits: Drives prana both into the body and mind to clear out physical, mental, and emotional blocks.
Directions: The frontal brain bellows. Similar to Bhastrika only the inhale is quicker and less emphasized. The exhale is longer, more forceful, faster, and deeper. Perform as with Bhastrika.
Benefits: Increases digestive fire and raises spiritual energy.
- Surya Bhedna.
Directions: The solar breath. Inhale through the right nostril and exhale through the left. Perform for 10 breaths minimum and up to 10 minutes maximum.
Benefits: Heating and warming breath to balance vata.
- Chandra Bhedna.
Directions: The lunar breath. Inhale through the left nostril and exhale through the right. Perform for 10 breaths minimum and up to 10 minutes maximum.
Benefits: Cooling breath to reduce pitta.
Directions: The “Darth Vader” breath. Inhale and exhale through the nose making a slight snoring sound with a light constricting of the upper throat and soft palate. Perform for 10 breaths for a maximum of 10 minutes.
Benefits: A subtle breath to gently move prana and activate the nadi system.
- Active Nose Breathing.
Directions: Take long, slow, deep breaths in and out through the nose as you walk. Try to lengthen the inhale and exhale as you walk. Count the steps you take for each full inhale and exhale. Aim to take 10 steps or more for each inhale and 10 steps for each exhale. Try to keep the inhale the same length as the exhale.
Benefits: This breath teaches you how to take the calming effect of nose breathing into your active life. (Learn more about nose breathing here.)