Pranayama – Scientific & Spiritual

Pranayama is another yoga limb of the 8 limbs of Ashtanga Yoga.  

Pranayama means expansion or control depending on who you ask … In my opinion it is both; it is controlling our breath to expand our prana 🙂  Ayama = extension or expansion OR Yama = control, yama is officially translated as meaning to bridle, or rein, restraint of our life force which is prana.  

When we are full of prana we feel vitality, when pranayama is done correctly you feel freshness, energetic, and lightness in both body and mind.  Pranayama is breathing exercises that increase absorption of prana and improve the distribution of it throughout our body.

Prana is that magical force in our body that shines our eyes and grows our hair.  But we do have some science to put behind it — I used to think negative ions in the atmosphere are akin to Prana.  The negative ions are very active mobile ions — in the atmosphere they work to keep our air clean.  In our body negative ions take part in all vital functions and are the catalysts for oxygenating our blood.

However I have some to anew realization ~ Biophotons are akin Prana and chi, this has been theorized by Swami Vivekananda and other yoga science researchers as well as TCM doctors.  As we learned — biophotons are quantum particles; photons that emit light that do a lot of good in our body — specifically they help our body communicate efficiently.

Just like prana, the more bio photons we have the more vitality we have. And also just like prana as long as we are alive we have prana… when prana or light via biophotons leaves our body death is imminent. 

Biophotons act as communicators in our body (and possibly outside of our body!).  They are connected to vitality as biophotons helps our cells and organs communicate wirelessly and very fast — kinda like wifi.  As I mentioned before; normally information and nutrients get in a cell only in a lock and key method — the receptors act as a lock and certain nutrient’s molecular form acts as a key that allow only that molecular form to enter a cell.  Biophotons bypass this and directly and faster communicate information and nutrients into the cell!  We want biophotons in our body.

Prana literally translates as “moving always” — and biophotons are always moving messages or information in our body.  Biophotons = movement of information, prana = moving always — we need this energetic energy to move always throughout our entire body — where it is blocked disease forms.

Good communication between all the cells and systems of our body is important for health.

Most yoga teachers associate prana with our breath — but since have prana in utero (before we have breath) prana is more than breath, it is an energy in our body. 

Biophotons are stored in our DNA and can leak.  Interestingly damaged DNA can not hold onto biophotons, and leaks about 20% of their biophotons resulting in higher oxidation and free radicals.  Yoga, Pranayama, and meditation have been found to reduce the leaking of the damaged DNA — and even help the DNA repair itself and reduce free radicals and the loss of biophotons.  Yay for our yoga practices.

Pranayama may even help to increase our biophoton emissions — giving us vitality.  

Pranayama both is Scientific and Spiritual

The recent science behind the long time pranayama practices of the yogis is exciting, however I don’t want the science to interrupt with the psycho-spiritual nature of breathing practices. I started practicing pranayama long before learning of all the recent science documenting its benefits. I could feel intuitively the benefits in my body, which I commented on in my classes many times over the years. I could not explain it, but I knew it was good for me on many different levels.

Behind our physical body that is made from food, there is a subtle body and a spiritual body that drives our physical body. Prana or our energy is part of our subtle body, vitality is what prana gives us. Prana is absorbed through sun, water, food, the air we breathe, and by grounding with the earth. It is taken up by our nervous system, and absorbed into our body. We expend prana through conscious thinking, talking, moving, working, writing, and living. Certain lifestyles will burn up prana more than others.

As I dive into the science, I don’t want to lose the awe and magic of just you and your breath sitting quietly.

Pranayama breath holding actually causes a surge of oxygen from our blood to our tissues, this helps our body to balance our body to a more alkaline state — too much oxygen in our blood instead of in our tissues causes the blood to become acidic.  When we hold our breath we increase CO2, CO2 in the tissues acts as a natural buffer.  This can even help our body remove lactic acid from our muscles more efficiently.  

This is why Pranayama breathing exercises on a scientific level helps our body better “digest” the air we breathe.  Many of us do not pay much attention to our breath, resulting in shallow breathing. Shallow breathing causes over breathing, actually too much oxygen in the blood and your body gets lazy extracting it. When we reduce the amount of oxygen coming in through breath holding it forces the body to extract more oxygen from the blood.  Shallow breathing does not oxygenate our tissues enough — depriving us of oxygen and leaving us feeling drained of energy.  Shallow and erratic breathing also disrupt the mind.

  • Our breath rate can be on auto pilot or can be controlled. We can not at will give orders to our liver, spleen or stomach but it is possible to regulate breathing at any moment.   When our breath is left to subconscious control it is easily influenced by our emotions and what is happening around us, this could potentially set off a chain reaction of stress events in our body.

By consciously controlling our breath and keeping it deep and slower we set off a chain reaction which calms our heart and slows our pulses, helping the organs of the body operate efficiently. 

Pranayama techniques improve our breathing and breath awareness 24 hours per day, you breathe deeply not just when practicing asana or pranayama, but all day long.  Pranayama establishes regular breathing patterns.

Pranayama Benefits – The latest research

Who would have thought holding your breath can induce your body to increase nitric oxide, reduce blood sugar levels, and regenerate stem cells?  

I first researched and wrote this blog in 2012, now 8 years later I reviewed the research — and WOW! there has been a lot of added research since 2012!  Pranayama is a time tested tool that has been used by yogis over the millennia for improving physical health, and now we have more reason as to why.  How did the ancient yogis know this??

The USSR did some research on hypoxia — or lack of breathing and breath retention and they discovered it produces a molecule called hypoxia inducing factor 1 (HIF-1), which has been likened to superhuman effects. Hyperbaric oxygen chambers also stimulate this HIF-1 — actually when you step outside of the hyperbaric oxygen chamber after a session is when the stimulation happens. When you come out of a session in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber you suddenly have less oxygen — like being at 16000′ elevation — this lack of oxygen stimulates the angiogenesis process (which is what recruits stem cells!) just like a pranayama session with breath holding.

Here are some of the more recent discoveries of the benefits of developing a pranayama practice:

  • Increases hemoglobin levels 
    • Each hemoglobin protein can carry four molecules of oxygen, which are delivered throughout the body by red blood cells. Every one of the body’s billions of cells needs oxygen to repair and maintain itself.
  • Boosts stem cell production – In utero we are in a hypoxic environment … this environment is important for the multiplication and growth of stem cells during fetal development.  After birth we continue to make some stem cells only in some restricted areas such as bone marrow. When holding our breath in a pranayama practice we induce this slightly hypoxic environment therefore supporting stem cell production. 
  • Holding our breath makes our body form new blood vessels known as angiogenesis.  This can be helpful for heart patients, as their body forms new blood vessels around blocked arteries. Angiogenesis is also necessary for healing, after the initial injury and the pro inflammatory cytokines have done their job, anti-inflammatory cytokines show up to mop up the mess and continue the healing by stimulating angiogenesis to get more blood flow to the injury to heal the tissues. This process also stimulates stem cells to be made.
  • Brief breath holding has been found to enhance neuroplasticity — the rewiring of our brain as we learn information.  This has also been helpful in changing unconscious reactions and releasing old emotional patterns and baggage — and helping us learn new skills and learn and remember better.
  • Breath holding has been shown to increase resistance of our bodily tissue to to radiation!  Some have also said it slows the aging process.
  • Pranayama and breath holding increase nitric oxide.  Nitric oxide is a vasodilator — dilates our arteries for better blood flow and reduces oxidative stress.  Beets can help with this too 🙂
  • Breath holding can protect and repair damaged DNA helping us hold on to our biophotons better!
  • Studies have shown breath holding exercises done both without exercise and with exercise improve glucose tolerance in the four hours following after practice. This means pranayama lowers blood sugar, and increases insulin sensitivity by helping your muscles take up and use glucose; by increasing mitochondrial enzymatic active and glycolysis (breakdown of sugar).  Mild breath holding improves glycemic control in people with type 2 diabetes.  This is a very big benefit due to the blood sugar issues rampant in society today.
    • Breath holding causes the body to break down sugar to form O2 to compensate for the interruption from O2 from the outside.  
  • Pranayama with breath holding benefits breast health as well due to the impact of breath on lymph movement.  As I have mentioned many times, lymph is not pumped by the heart but has to circulate just like blood and make it back to the heart; where the cleaned lymph fluid is literally poured back into the heart where it mixes with blood only to be “leaked” out of the capillaries as it circulates with your blood and picked up by lymphatic vessels and taken to where it can do its job.  
    Once in the lymphatic vessels the only way the lymph gets moved is with muscular movement, gravity (one more reason to invert!), and pressure differentials from our breathing processes.

    • Deep breathing helps to move lymph specifically around the breasts — we have many lymph nodes around the breast — deep breathing helps move lymph fluid through these lymph nodes moving out the toxins the lymph picked up instead of letting it hang around the breasts.  Next time you get tender breasts — massage them with a little sesame oil which will move the lymph.
  • Even more recently, June 29, 2021 a study came out done by Colorado University showing breathing with resistance known as IMST, which stands for Inspiratory Muscle Strength Training, basically strength training for your breathing muscles done only 5 minutes / day with a device improves cardiovascular function more so than exercise or medication — and not only that, even testing at 6 weeks after stopping IMST maintained it! I write about this more fully in this pranayama which does the same thing without a device.

Other benefits of pranayama … This is what we used to know about pranayama before all the recent studies.

Pranayama and breath holding affect our subtle body. In yoga philosophy we have 3 bodies, a physical body, a subtle body, and a spiritual body. Your subtle body can leave your body, and many living people have experienced that without dying. 

  • For example near death experiences where people witness being outside of their body looking down on themselves
  • During some altered states of consciousness this can happen too.
  • However when you do die your subtle body leaves completely

Pranayama is exercise for your subtle body, your subtle body is what shines your eyes and grows your hair, and flows the blood through your veins and arteries. When all your nadis or channels in the body are open and flowing and not blocked by knots known as granthis in yoga philosophy you have more vitality. Pranayama gives you vitality.

Imagination, sound, and breathing all effect your subtle body and pranayama uses all these tools through visualizations, chanting, and breathing consciously.

While breathing exercises may not be as exciting as asana exercises, as we age it becomes even more important. As we modify our asana practice we need ways to maintain our fitness and move energy in our body, pranayama can do this — pranayama maintains and improves fitness without stress your joints:

  • Increases lung capacity – improving our VO2 max.
  • Removes toxins, the slower breath rate allows more time for CO2 to be expelled
  • Induces a meditative state
    • Mental activity correlates with our breathing pattern, more thoughts = more breaths and erratic breaths.  By reducing the number of breaths we take in a given period it makes concentration and meditation easier
      • Pranayama is a tool for living in a meditative state where ease and happiness is easier.
  • Increases our Life Span
    • The sages observed animals and noticed that animals with a slow breath rate such as elephants, tortoises, and pythons have a longer life span than animals with shallow breaths such as rabbits, birds, and dogs.  From this observation they realized the importance of slow breathing for increasing our life span.  Our respiration and heart are directly related, a slow breathing rate keeps our heart beat slower and stronger.

Pranayama can be as easy as slowing down your breath rate and breathing deeply and evenly as we do in our ashtanga practice.  This is safe pranayama for anyone.  

  • Ideal breath rate for our normal day is about 6 breaths per minute — this is a 5 second inhale and 5 second exhale. Not difficult to do …. This breath rate gives more time for each cell in our body to expel CO2 and take in O2.  Slower breathing also allows more time for prana absorption.
    • Reciting mantra or prayers also slows down breath rate to about 6 breaths per minute.  

Advanced pranayama techniques are actually a lack of breathing!  Breath holding (khumbaka) includes holding our breath after inhaling (puraka), or after exhaling (rechaka), or after both.  

The yogi masters say pranayama with breath holding can make you crazy if done incorrectly . . . therefore the advanced pranayamas that include breath holding need to be learned from an experienced teacher who has been learning and practicing safe pranayama techniques.  It is important to have a yoga-asana practice to prepare our body for pranayama.

  • As long as we live we are prana conductors.  However our wires can get bent, blocked, or broken reducing our prana flow.
    • We do Asana to unclog the channels – In the asthanga method outlined by Patanjali asanas precede pranayama — asana comes before pranayama. Asanas quicken the circulation of blood throughout the body, open up capillaries and enable prana to be distributed throughout our body without “short circuits” — pranayama may cause energy disturbances in a body that is not limbered by asana (these disturbances have no long term consequences — everything goes back to normal when you stop the pranayama).  Imagine a river that floods and causes damage, this can happen to you if you have not opened up all those tubes in your body that “things” need to flow through — asana helps open up all the tubes in our body.

Although if you have been practicing yoga consistently for a number of years, hopefully your nadis are not blocked by granthis meaning the tubes in your body are all open and flowing. In this case you have more flexibility as to what order you practice in.

Pranayama is a nice way to start or end your yoga practice — which is a question I get frequently — what order to practice? Yoga philosophy states after asana, however it can be individual.

My answer, what makes you feel most prepared for your day — practice that first, or if you are practicing in the evening, which makes you most relaxed and destressed? Practice that first.

If you are younger or practicing earlier in the day you may want asana first to limber the body and improve circulation — and you may even want a little more time in asana. Most yogis recommend asana first, and when you are younger you have a lot of energy to burn up.

If you are older or practicing in the evening pranayama might be better first as we tend to give more time and energy to what we practice first. As we get older we have less energy to expend and have to be more considerate of our joints, older yogis need more pranayama. Thanks to the science we now know that pranayama keeps older yogis fit just like running or more intense yoga practice makes younger yogis fit. Pranayama is exercise that does not strain your joints 🙂

Rest Pose breathing exercise to help you connect with your breath:

Thinking about our physiology improves its functionality, here is a breathing process that can help put you in touch with all your breathing apparatuses from your nose to your navel. Being aware of this process and consciously working with each area of your body that is involved with breathing will help you absorb and digest more oxygen from the air you breathe, and make your breathing more efficient in the process. 

  • Observe your natural and spontaneous breathing process
  • Develop awareness of the rhythmic flow of your breath
  • Feel your breath flowing in and out of your nose
  • Notice your breath is cool as it enters your nose and warm as it leaves
  • Bring your awareness to the region of your throat
  • Feel your breath flowing in and out of the back of your throat, notice the difference in temperatures of your in breath and out breath 
  • Feel your breath go over the threshold of your larynx and into your trachea (windpipe)
  • Feel your breath go from your trachea and split or divide into your bronchial tubes
  • Feel expansion of your bronchial tubes as you inhale allowing more room for the passage of air
  • Bring your awareness to the region of your chest
  • Feel your breath flowing into your lungs
  • Be aware of your lungs expanding and pressing into your rib cage and in turn expanding that too, then relaxing
  • Shift your attention to your rib cage and enjoy the expansion and relaxation of this area – enjoy the flexibility of your rib cage allowing you to breathe deep. 
  • Bring your awareness down to your abdomen
  • Feel your abdomen expand on the inhale and fall in on the exhale
  • Feel the entire breathing process from your nostrils to your abdomen
  • Feel your body absorb prana, biophotons, and energy from the inhaled air
  • Feel your body expel toxins from your body and mind as you exhale
  • Return to this state often.

Nasal Breathing and Bandhas

Nasal  Breathing

  • Inhaling and exhaling through your nostrils instead of your mouth filters and humidifies the air your breathe.  
  • Breathing through your nose also turbinates the air you breathe taking it down deeper into lungs — the capillaries in the lower lobes of the lungs have more O2 in them.
  • The receptors for the Parasympathetic Nervous Systems are in the lower lungs, nasal breathing stimulates this part of your nervous system which is why deep breathing slows down your heart rate and reduces blood pressure.  
    • Whereas breathing through your mouth keeps your breath shallow in the upper lobes of the lungs where the receptors to the sympathetic nervous system (stress response) are located.  Shallow breathing stimulates this part of your nervous system preparing you to fight or flight releasing cortisol and adrenaline into your blood stream.

When you are outside or practicing yoga or pranayama how you breathe can increase your prana absorption. Animals do this very well, have you ever noticed a rabbit breathing? Animals nostrils are very mobile and flexible and expand with each inhale — and so are the nostrils of humans that still live in nature such as tribes in Africa.

When we normally breathe our nostrils barely move — and sometimes they even pinch shut a little as the suction from inhaling tends to draw them inward. 

So instead try to TAKE THE AIR, expand your nostrils as you inhale — notice how the air enters more easily, in greater volume, and in better balance between both nostrils.

Flare your nostrils as you inhale – Greater volume of air that is easier to inhale

  • Breathing this was directs more prana over the ol factory nerve endings in our nose which take in prana from the atmosphere.
    • Opening the nostrils during inhalation directs more of the air toward the area in our nose with the most sensitive nerve endings. The air current that enters our nose goes is divided into three streams — 2 of the directions are in and down, the third stream goes upward, bringing the air across our olfactory region at the top of our nasal cavity. This olfactory region — where our sense of smell is — is also the region of our nose that absorbs prana (the olfactory region is our prana accumulator). 
    • A purposely slowed breath, or when smelling something, or a rapid increase in the breath rate as we do for uth pluthi, or in the pranayama practices of bhastrika or kapalabhati all increase the flow of air to the olfactory region giving us the opportunity to absorb more prana 

By flaring your nostrils slightly as you inhale you pull more air across this region of your nasal passages.  You will notice that by taking in the air in this way makes breathing easier, harmonious, and well balanced. It is not too optimistic to say that breathing this way increases the amount of inhaled air by 10%.

What to do if your nose is stuffy?  

  • Neti pot – Neti is another yoga practice — a shat karma which are yogic cleansing and detoxifying practices.  Neti pot is pouring saline water in one nostril and letting it flow out the other.  I practice neti regularly 1-2x per week or daily during cold and flu season or if I am exposed to someone with symptoms.  Neti is also recommended during covid times — and the saline solution may even help kill unwanted viral or bacterial microbes that get into our nasal passages.  If you want to learn neti, please contact me for a session to learn it.

There are 5 options you can try to clear the nostrils  At the beginning the air current need not be the same on both sides — only a severe blocking can prevent you practicing pranayama

  • First, if your left nostril is clogged lie down on your right side and relax for 1-3 minutes — and vice versa.
  • Second, Find a spot on the back of your neck near the base of your skull and press on it with your thumbs — use a gentle but firm pressure, with both thumbs somewhere on either side of your spinal column.
  • Third, Find a similar spot under your arm, place your armpit firmly on the back of a chair. If your right side is blocked place your left arm over the chair and vice versa.  This spot will be easy to find as it is tender.
    • There is a yoga pose called Padadhirasana – which means breath balancing pose.  You sit in vajrasana aka virasana, cross your arms in front of your chest placing your hands with firm pressure under the
      opposite armpits.  You can do it with a flat hand or make a fist for even more pressure.  The pressure under both the armpits helps to open the nostrils to facilitate better breathing for a pranayama practice.
  • The last is my favorite 🙂  Use the power of your mind to open the nostril.  Sit and breathe for a moment, which side is dominant?  Put your attention on the other side for a good 5-8 breaths and see it opening in your mind’ eye.  Now flare your  nostrils and breathe taking in the air, feel the 3 streams of air coming in, 2 going down your throat, and one little one going up to your brain.

BANDHAS are important for pranayama.  They improve your breath and help to move energy.

  • Mula and Uddiyana throughout
    • The physical contraction mula bandha has beneficial effects on our nervous system — keeping us in our calming side of our nervous system, by toning the nerves that innervate the lower pelvic region we can remain “parasympatheic dominant” this will also help in maintaining hormonal balance.
    • Uddiyana bandha stimulates our vagus nerve also keeping us parasympathetic dominant.  It also helps to keep our lymph moving in our gut–since the lymph does not have a heart to pump it, moving lymph is important to our immune system.
  • Bandhas while deep breathing puts a slight pressure on the tissues just below our diaphragm where venuous blood is collected.  This pressure helps to support the movement of the venuous blood upward toward our heart where it is circulated and refreshed with O2 and nutrients.

Jalandhara bandha is our “Pranayama Bandha”  — The 3rd bandha that is rarely talked about (and many other smaller bandhas, for example our hands and feet are said have bandhas too).  Jalandhara bandha is using your chin to create a “seal” at your throat.  It is most important on breath holding — on inhale holds and longer holds.

Jalandhara Bandha–jalandhara; jalan means net or network or trellis referring to the network of nerves in our neck) and dhara means stream or flow or pulling upwards.  Most people refer to this bandha as chin lock–the full bandha is only used during pranayama when holding your breath in.  The bandha is a combination of lifting your sternum and dropping your chin to the crook in your chest. In yogic lore when this is done during a pranayama breath hold combined with the lift of mula bandha–it pressures both ends of the spine keeping our energy moving in the spine — and to keep our nectar of life from flowing downward from our crown chakra and getting consumed in agni–our digestive fire.  

This bandha is also said to purify the throat chakra improving how we express ourselves.  And it is interesting the vagus nerve connects to the larynx in this area as well, the larynx controls the expression of emotions in our voice.  This does put some science to how the pressure of Jalandhara bandha on our neck purifies our 5th chakra as it has an actual neurological effect on how we express ourselves.

During pranayama this bandha is very important and has many benefits:

  • Compression on the throat — pressing of chin into the hollow in the collarbones:
    • prevents air moving upward and causing pressure above the glottis, this is important as pressure in the Eustachian tubes is not good.
    • puts pressure on the carotid artery which helps to keep our heart rate lower — when you hold your breath your body sends distress signals to your brain increasing blood pressure and speeding up heart rate.  
    • Pressure on the larynx would also put some pressure on the vagus nerve since the vagus nerve innervates the larynx, this would also help to calm your voice and calm your body.
    • Also in the area of the carotid artery are receptors that monitor oxygen supply to our brains, which is why the yogis want to put pressure there, the signals that our body sends to our brain about less oxygen coming to the brain will be blocked by this pressure allowing us to hold our breaths comfortably just a little longer.
  • The stretching of the cervical vertebrae at the nape of the neck pulls on the spinal cord relieving pressure on the cranial nerves and acting on the nervous system — particularly the parasympathetic nervous system — the part of our nervous system that de-stresses us.
  • Compression on the thyroid, helping to balance the action of the thyroid.

Practicing sarvanganasana and halasana will help prepare one for jalandhara bandha, this is why years of asana must precede pranayama and breath retentions.

HOW TO PERFORM JALANDHARA BANDHA (if you have an overactive thyroid you should not practice pranayam breath holding.)

  • Inhale, hold your breath, swallow your saliva, lengthen the back of your neck upward while moving your head back into “head retraction”, lift your sternum and drop your chin in and down into the notch in your collar bone.  
    • This is easier on inhale holds because the chest is lifted and expanded.  On exhale holds do not force the bandha as it could strain your neck.

Tri-Bandha – When all three bandhas are performed together they support the movement of energy in nerves housed in our spine — another way of saying this is that it helps move kundalini upward and out of our spine.

Jalandhara bandha is only fully used during an inhale retension, however we can use the posture for it to help improve our daily posture by keeping our hearts lifted — just do not tuck your chin down. 

Good posture for breathing deep, healthy spines, and attitude is to level our pelvis or very slightly tilt our tailbone upward, while lifting our heart and broadening our collarbones. 

Breath & Tri-Bandhas

  • Sit in your meditation posture – settle in with your breath,
  • Take your breath a little slower and deeper — 5 second inhale and 5 second exhale
  • Add uddiyana bandha to your exhale – follow your exhale with your abdominals, pulling inward and upward under your ribs at the end of each exhale.  This slightly “pings” or taps your vagus nerve stimulating the relaxing side of your nervous system — aka vagal nerve stimulation 😉
  • Keeping with your uddiyana bandha on exhale; add mula bandha to your inhale connecting your breaths to your bandha – on each inhale add a lift and gentle squeeze of your external anal sphincter.
  • Now lets add a short hold with Jalandhar bandha and work this into the box breath aka 4 square breathing :
    • Inhale with mula bandha 4 seconds
    • Hold your breath in with Jalandhara bandha 4 seconds
    • Exhale with uddiyana bandha 4 seconds
    • Hold your breath out with a slight Jalandhar bandha 4 seconds

Pre-Pranayama breathing exercises — The Four Purifications from Ashtanga Yoga Primer by Baba Hari Dass.  The link explains these in detail — this is “required” in my opinion to proceed onto learning pranayama with breath holding.  These breathing exercises strengthen your breath, and help you connect to your bandhas.

WHEN TO START PRANAYAMA — at least the more advanced pranayamas that include breath holding:

In the old ashtanga days, Pattabhi Jois would sit in front of you, you would sit in lotus and breathe with bandhas, he put his thumbs in your lower abdomen (bandhas) to check to see if you were ready for pranayama . . .

In lieu of that . . .

Start Pranayama — these guidelines are for the ashtanga pranayamas as they are quite advanced pranayamas. The four purification’s and other pranayamas are suitable for some earlier in their practices:

  • Only if you have a consistent practice for at least a couple years
  • After you have learned 2nd series and are practicing both first and second consistently.
    • In the old days you would usually not learn pranayama until after you learned 3rd series, now in the new way ashtanga is taught since you are held back so long they have been starting you on pranayama after you learn 2nd.

There are Four parts to pranayama:

  1. Inhale (puraka)
  2. Exhale (rechaka)
  3. Breath retention on inhale (antah kumbhaka)
  4. Breath retention on exhale (bahih kumbhaka)

(There is also Kevala Kubhaka which is a spontaneous breath retention during meditation.)

KUMBHAKA – Holding your breath

Breath retention = better distribution of prana throughout the entire body — which means you get more oxygen from your blood to the tissues where it gets into your cells.  Just oxygenating your blood does not mean the O2 is getting from your blood to you cells, holding your breath briefly helps drive the O2 from the blood into your tissues and cells — this is wheat is meant by pranayama helps you better digest the air you breathe.

As we get used to kumbhaka we can Direct prana where we need it at will in our bodies with our minds intention. 

  • Kumbhaka between 3-20 seconds
    • Accessible for everyone – to better utilize and digest inhaled air — meaning get the O2 to our tissues.  We only use a small percentage of our inhaled oxygen. Tis is why we can save someones life with mouth to mouth resuscitation . . . 
    • By holding the air in our lungs we increase the time the air is in contact with our pulmonary membranes increasing O2 absorption and makes CO2 evacuation more complete. 
  • Kumbhaka between 20-90 seconds will pronounce the above reactions even more. 
  • Kumbhaka beyond 90 seconds will put you in a pre-comatose state.  Only to be done in the presence of a qualified teacher:
    • Placing your body in an unfavorable but non-fatal condition stimulates the creation of biostimulins — biostimulins are what keep an organ alive when it is removed from one person and re-implanted into another human body.  This process actually stimulates the organism to regenerate in order to survive. Some people think of this effect as a “fountain of youth”.
      • another example would be my daughters pinky finger which recently got partially amputated by a hockey stick — the tip regenerated and grew back thanks to these biostimulants.
    • Prolonged kumbhaka is physiological acrobatics and is not without danger.   This is where pranayama is dangerous and can make you crazy or kill you … For safety’s sake I don’t recommend holding your breath beyond 60 seconds.

The most useful kumbhaka is between 30-60 seconds. 

  • Remember as mentioned earlier, While in kumbbhaka, breath holding causes the body to break down sugar to form O2 to compensate for the interruption from O2 from the outside.  CO2 rises since we are not exhaling which makes our tissues more alkaline and helps remove lactic acid.
  • Pranayama breath holding makes you sweat . . . Exhaling also releases heat from the process of cells taking in O2 and releasing CO2 — intracellular combustion. When we are holding our breath we are not releasing this heat on our exhales.  With the pulmonary radiator “disconnected” the body responds by asking for greater activity on the part of the skin—making us sweat, which is why we get warm and sweat during pranayama.  This explains why the yogi can stay warm in the colds of the Himalayas with breath control. Yogis can manufacture their own heat when they need it …. Sweat should be rubbed in and not wiped off.  It is full of Ojas (electrical energy) and good chemicals such as dermicidin which the skin naturally products to kill unwanted bacteria and microbes.

Remember there are 4 parts to Pranayama:

  1. Inhale (puraka)
  2. Exhale (rechaka)
  3. Breath retention on inhale (antah kumbhaka)
  4. Breath retention on exhale (bahih kumbhaka)

(There is also Kevala Kubhaka which is a spontaneous breath retention during meditation.)

Our body needs a balance between Oxygen (O2) and Carbon Dioxide (CO2).  Unconscious breathing leaves most people over-oxygenated!  Breathing includes as much exhale of carbon dioxide as it does inhaling oxygen. 

When we hold our breath in or out or make the inhale or exhale longer it effects our physiology: 

Inhale holds and long inhales are stimulating – increasing O2 in our tissues = O2/CO2 is oxygen dominate 

  • This is a nervous system stimulant
  • This will boost energy and mood
  • good to reduce lethargy

Exhale holds and long slow exhales are calming to the nervous system and body – increasing CO2 in our tissues

  • Sedative and calming to the nervous system
  • good for overactive, stressed, anxious, worried times
  • Can help quiet and still the mind and increase self awareness and maybe even spirituality.

CO2 is a natural nervous system tranquilizer — or sedative.  Holding your breath out raises your CO2 calming you down, which is why many pranayamas start with an exhale hold — which is harder than an inhale hold.

It is when our CO2 in our body rises that pushes the O2 from the blood into out tissues and cells — pranayama with breath holding is what raises our CO2 which in turn pushes the O2 into the cells.

When someone mouth breaths, it tends to be shallow inhales followed by shallow exhales which causes over breathing and an imbalance between O2 and CO2 (too much O2). This is what happens when someone hyperventilates, and why breathing into a bag and rebreathing carbon dioxide calms one down.  The O2 literally gets stuck in the hemoglobin and does not get the chance to oxygenate our cells.

When CO2 levels fall and O2 rises we get stimulated, O2 is stimulating to our nervous system giving us energy.  This is not bad all the time; however most people who are unaware of their breathing patterns will tend to over breathe shallowly all day long leaving them chronically over-stimulated and “stressed out”.  As you learn to pay attention and adjust this, CO2 will rise freeing O2 into the tissues which also improves O2 to the brain, and your nervous system will relax.

As in all things we need a balance between O2 and CO2 in our bodies, pranayama — and knowing how to use your pranayama can help with this.  Pranayama breath holding will make you a better breather all day long.

Some pranayamas will increase O2 such as kapalabhati and bhastrika, while others like the first ashtanga pranayama and nadi shodhana done with kumbhaka will increase CO2.

It seems many people today are over stimulated, so learning the exhale holds and getting comfortable with them could be just what society in general needs a little more of.  However if you find yourself lethargic and unmotivated, then work with the inhale holds.  In our ashtanga pranayamas we have a little of both.

If you habitually over breathe you may at first find it difficult to slow down or even hold your breath — you actually need to build your tolerance to CO2 so you don’t find yourself “air hungry”.  If you struggle with holding your breath — start easy on yourself!  Keep your holds comfortable, over time they will naturally increase in time as your body gets used to finding its correct balance between O2 / CO2.

 Here is a little test to find out your CO2 tolerance: 

  • Take 5 normal breaths, after the 5th exhale
  • Hold your breath and Record your time — Hold your breath out until you feel the first sense of breathing discomfort.

Being able to hold your breath out for 25-30 seconds comfortable indicates you have a good balance in breathing.  If you can not hold your breath out for 15 seconds comfortably it is a sign you have a low CO2 tolerance and may tend toward shallow breathing.

Easy ways to build your CO2 tolerance:

  • Pranayama with breath holding
  • Slowing your breath down all day — aim for 6-12 breaths per minute as your normal breathing rate
  • Practice yoga and other exercises exclusively with nasal breathing and try to breathe through your nose all day long.
  • Set yourself the habit of breathing through your nose at night.  I set up my pillows to gently keep my “chin up” and mouth closed as I fall asleep.

Which do you need?  You can use your pranayama to help balance your day just like your asana.

Dos and Don’s of HOLDING your BREATH

Breath retention stimulates cellular breathing — getting O2 from our blood into cells —  increasing our prana.  Here are some guidelines to hold your breath safely and effectively. 

  1. The most common error by beginners is to fill up the lungs too much thinking that will help them hold their breath.  In actuality it is the O2 carried in the blood (not the lungs) that allows us to hold our breath comfortably — whose saturation depends upon the previous breaths. This is why we take 5 complete ujjayi breaths between the pranayamas.   This is also one of the reasons it is better to do pranayama after practice — you’ve just had an hour and a half of deep breathing and oxygenating your blood
  2. Pranayama needs to be performed on an empty stomach, if your pranayama precedes asana then your stomach is already empty. If pranayama is performed at a different time of day then the time lapse between your last meal and pranayama session will depend greatly on what you have eaten and how well you digest it — this could take anywhere from 1-1/2 hours to 5 hours!
    1. I taught pranayama one day shortly after I had eaten — I got so nauseous I had to fake it and just cue the student through it.
  3. SPINE – As spoken about above — your spine should be kept straight during pranayama to allow the lungs to expand more fully and operate efficiently.  Also pranic currents in our nerves/spinal cord  run through the marrow of our spine, keeping it straight makes the passage of energy and neurons smoother.  
  4. BANDHAs – As mentioned above as well, bandhas are important during pranayama, especially during kumbhaka.  Our bandhas calm our nervous system helping us to remain calm while holding our breath.
  5. NEVER FORCE a hold.  It should feel comfortable and easy. Slowly progressing is important. Getting trapped in your ego of how long you can hold your breath will put you in a stress response which would make your pranayama not beneficial — in fact it would do harm by putting your body in stress.  Once you set off the stress response in your body during pranayama you will lose any benefit from it.
    1. When you release a hold, your breath should be slow and continuous, smooth and controlled.  If you gasp you held too long — this will result in a loss of prana. 
  1. Listen to your heartbeat.  Our best rhythm to hold is to our heartbeat. RHYTHM is more important than how long you hold your breath!  Our heart likes rhythm.
    • The introduction of rhythm into work regulates it and reduces muscular and intellectual fatigue.  This is why we love music 🙂  If we have a good beat going we can work very efficiently.
    • The duration of each breath has limited importance, rhythm is the decisive element.  We tend to think of duration as the objective, but this mindset will make you crazy . . .
    • Long holds are inappropriate and can cause death or brain damage.
  1. Exhale and Inhale slowly — this allows more time for gas/prana exchanges in the lungs and nose.  If you gasp when you release your hold and take your next breath you held your breath too long.  
  2. Pranayama and bhavana- set your intentions for your pranayama practice. While in Kumbhaka focus your intension — yoga recommends to focus on Anja chakra — your third eye center and on the increase and distribution of prana in your thorax.  See your body’s cells absorbing the prana and oxygen in your minds eye.

Other guidelines for pranayama:

  • NO Pranayama when SICK
  • No pranayama when menstruating 
  • Pranayama is not for people with: 
    • Heart conditions
    • Uncontrolled high blood pressure (if you are on blood pressure meds please check with your doctor on breathing with breath retention exercises)
    • People with low blood pressure should also double check with their doctor on breath retention exercises.

As our pranayama session progresses and it gets a little longer you may notice that breath holding gets easier.

Breath retention is easier after the second round or cycle.  When you hold your breath it stimulates your spleen to contract — expelling large quantities of oxygen rich red blood cells into your bloodstream.  Remember it is not the amount of O2 in your lungs that helps you hold your breath — it is the amount of O2 in your bloodstream that allows you to hold your breath easier, thus after one or two rounds of breath holding it gets easier.  (The spleen is an amazing organ — it is the purifier of our blood and stores a lot of blood, it is connected to our lymph system and is a key organ in removing toxins and microbes from our system.  When our body is under duress — such as hemorrhaging or not breathing — our spleen contracts and sends extra O2 into our bloodstream to help oxygenate the cells during the “emergency”.)

CELLULAR HEALTH = Preventative Medicine!

After I got done explaining all this . . . someone asked “and what does getting our body better oxygenated really do for us?”

Filling your body with O2 and getting more O2 to your cells and tissues is preventative medicine at a CELLULAR level.  Healing at the root of what could grow into a health problem.

Cellular Health depends up 2 processes — getting nutrients into a cell and toxins out.

  • Oxygen plays a vital role in every metabolic process in our body.  Health depends on how efficiently nutrients can be absorbed and utilized at a cellular level.  Oxygen is what breaks down food in the cell turning sugar into energy, remember the Krebs cycle?  I love how we are one with the universe 🙂  Photosynthesis and Respiration are the same in reverse . . . Photosynthesis is a plant turning the Suns energy into Sugar, Respiration is the process of turning that sugar back into energy 🙂
  • Healthy cells are aerobic — meaning they have adequate levels of O2.  When cells are deprived of O2 decay sets in and cells can mutate or die.  One or two mutated cells our body can handle, but if too many cells mutate and do not die then disease sets in.
    • The primary cause of cancer is directly related to cells deprived of O2.  Cancer cells are anaerobic and thrive in an oxygen-deficient environment.

And the other side of breathing – the release of CO2.  Health is also dependent on how effectively toxins and waste can be removed from the body.

  • Cellular waste is removed  from the body in several ways:
    • some is dissolved in water and transported to the kidneys or to the liver where it can be excreted in our urine or bowels.
    • Some of the most toxic poisons in the body can only be “burnt up” and neutralized through oxidation.  This is the job of O2 rich blood cells.  Have a good Pranayama session and “POOF” toxins gone 😉
      • This is why we do the strong breathing in Uth Pluthi — the last lotus flower in our 3 finishing lotus flowers.  Getting toxins out is even more important in the toxic environment we have to live and breathe in today. 

Guess what the primary organ of fat removal is????  Are you ready for this . . . our LUNGS!

  • A study published in January 2015 in the British Medical Journal determined that the primary organ of fat removal in the body is the lungs. (1) In fact, according to the study, when 10kg of fat in the form of triglycerides is lost, 8.4kg of that fat is exhaled through the lungs.

Triglycerides are the fats stored on our body and carried in our blood.  Triglycerides are made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen.  When we burn fat the hydrogen and oxygen combine to form water (which we excrete through sweat, urine, and feces) and the remaining carbon is breathed out of the lungs as CO2 . .  

  • The carbon from the broken down fat is exchanged in tiny sacs in the lung tissue called aveoli, and breathed out of the body as CO2.

And interestingly over 80% of the fat is metabolized down to carbon dioxide and less the 20% is broken down to water . . .

This means over 80% of the fat we metabolize is excreted through our lungs!  And it is even better excreted through nasal breathing than mouth breathing.

This could also be why the ancient yogic texts say pranayama makes you light . . .

Another reason to breathe deep:  The issues are in the tissues and they can be released through deep breathing.

I’ve mentioned several times and in different topics how through research in the 70s, Dr. Pert discovered the role certain neuropeptides play in carrying emotional chemicals to receptor sites found in cells throughout the body. Old traumatic emotions can block these receptors, blocking the flow of hormones to their receptors and communications in our body.

While emotional peptide receptors are found all over the body, they are concentrated in certain areas — the respiratory tract is one of them, there are receptors for every type of peptide found in the body.

According to the research done by the late Dr. Pert, changes in the rate or depth of breathing can trigger a release of positive emotion-carrying peptides from the brain stem. Through the process of deep breathing it releases these peptides quickly diffusing them throughout the cerebral spinal fluid, where they release old emotions.  

Pranayama does change the rate and depth at which you breathe helping to release our pent up molecules of emotions. 

Many of these peptides are natural endorphins or opiates, they are capable not only of freeing up old emotional pain, they can relive physical pain as well.  

Deep breathing and other breath work can reduce the feeling of pain in our body due to the rise in opiate peptides. 

Science once again is supporting what the yogis have always said  deep breathing can give us access to control of hormonal, immune, psychological, and nervous system functioning — it’s somewhat autonomic … but we do have more control than we realize.

Breathing is a key tool in the balancing of body, mind, emotions and spirit.

And going off track a little . . . The body is amazing, it has a strong will to survive and prosper.  We need to learn to trust the body and its processes — and give it a healthy environment to do what it needs to do.

Alternative medicine does this, it strengthens the body and gives it the tools it needs to heal itself — which further strengthens our immune system and our ability to heal.  

Breathe deep and Oxygenate your cells while you burn up toxins and old emotions that no longer serve you 🙂

Introduction to Holding Your Breath

Assuming your meditation position, sit tall with your ribs far away from your hips, chin parallel to the floor, tongue on the roof of your mouth, lips closed, back teeth gently touching, smiling, eyes softly out of focus gazing downward.

Let’s start with simple breath holding within a breathing practice. Sitting comfortably, preferably on the floor on a cushion, but in a chair with good posture sitting up straight is ok too.

We begin breath holding by taking several deep slow breaths. How long we can hold our breath comfortably is not determined by the amount of air in our lungs, it is determined by the amount of oxygen in our bloodstream. Begin by taking 1-2 minutes to sit and breathe deeply and slowly saturating your blood with oxygen. If you breathe at a 5 second inhale and a 7 second exhale, 5 breaths is 1 minutes. 

  • Take your breath slow and deep, about a 5 second inhale and 7 second exhale.
  • Inhale expand from your abdomen to your chest as your diaphragm draws in the air
  • Exhale from your chest down to your abdomen, following your diaphragm with your mind and your abs.

Breathe this way for 5-10 breaths (1-2 minutes)

Now let’s start with a natural brief hold after both the inhale and exhale this is known as Four Square Breathing:

  • Inhale slowly, hold briefly — maybe 4 or 5 seconds
  • Exhale even slower, hold briefly again. You will find it harder to hold your breath after the exhale than the inhale. This is normal.

Practice this for 5-10 rounds

Let’s practice holding the inhale longer, as you release to the exhale save enough air that you can exhale slowly and steadily. The air should not gush out at the beginning of the exhale, if the air has to gush out-you held your breath too long:

  • Inhale slowly and fill your lungs to the tippy top
  • HOLD your breath for about 30 seconds (bandhas optional for now)
  • Exhale very slowly — take about 7 seconds to exhale.

Practice this for 5-10 rounds

You can repeat this holding your breath for 45 seconds if you like.

Here is the link to my Meditations and Pranayama section to learn more about each pranayama in depth, including Nadi Shodhana, Kapalabhati, Bhastrika, the Ashtanga Pranayamas, and more.

Pranayama is about your prana — learn other ways to accumulate prana “Prana, Ways We Use, Lose it, and better yet Accumulate it“.

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