The benefits of breathing and yoga are many, but you have to experience them for yourself before you begin to understand how yoga can have a profound effect on your life. It will improve your performance in many areas, including your professional and social lives, your emotional wellbeing, health, and sense of peace.
One of the things you will notice as you get further into practicing yoga is that you start paying attention to these other areas more closely. Yoga works best in harmony with other healthy practices, as part of a holistic approach to overall wellness. It works synergistically to bring the mind and body together as a working whole with coherence.
Coherence is something neuroscientist and performance expert Alan Watkins talks about extensively in his book, Coherence: The Secret Science of Brilliant Leadership. What coherence means is that the functions of the body and mind are working rhythmically and harmoniously, instead of fluctuating chaotically between different states.
When your physiology—for example, your heart rate—becomes chaotic, the frontal lobe of your brain shuts down. The frontal lobe is responsible for higher-order thinking, logic, and decision-making. Anything that requires concentration and problem-solving draws on the brainpower of the frontal lobe.
And to be effective in navigating the twists and turns of our lives and jobs, we need that brainpower at our disposal. That’s why it’s critical to bring the chaotic fluctuations of body and mind down to a minimum and increase coherence as much as possible.
Table of Contents
I. Breathing and Our Brain’s Toolkit
Our brain’s toolkit for dealing with the many problems of life was put together to deal with pretty primitive situations when our ancestors lived on the savanna and were mostly concerned with basic concerns like food, shelter, and avoiding dangerous predators. So in many ways, we’re poorly equipped to deal with the challenges of life.
Fortunately, however, there are some performance hacks we can use to make our creaky, ancient system work better for the demands of modern life. When mind and body are working together optimally, it’s truly amazing how much more effective you can become.
One of the best ways to establish coherence or stability of body and mind is through working with the breath.
According to Watkins, there are twelve aspects of the breath that we can train ourselves to control, but he believes only the first three of them are essential for improving coherence. Still, I’ll mention all twelve of them here, because some of them are important for pranayama, the branch of yoga that deals with breath control.
II. Breathing and The Twelve Aspects of the Breath:
- Rhythm – a steady ratio of in-breath to out-breath
- Smoothness – the evenness of the breath
- Location of attention – where on your body is your mind focused as you control your breath?
- Pattern – a specific ratio of in-breath to out-breath
- Volume – how much air you take in with one breath
- Depth – how deeply the air enters the lungs
- Entrainment – synchronization of systems in the body, mostly unconscious
- Resistance – any obstruction or constriction of airflow, for example, by constricting the nostrils
- Mechanics – use of muscles such as the diaphragm
- Flow patterns – of air through the body
- Special techniques – such as meditation techniques
The idea of rhythmic breathing is to work with the first three aspects. So you can breathe in for a count of 4, breathe out for a count of 6, and hold your breath for a count of 2. Or you can do 5:5, or 3:6, or any variation that feels more comfortable to you.
For this breathing practice, the precise number is not nearly as important as the consistency of the rhythm. The rhythm itself brings your body’s rhythms into coherence, which in turn stabilizes your feelings, emotions, and thoughts.
When you’re breathing, make sure your breaths are smooth from beginning to end. Taking rough, jagged, or uneven breaths is going to increase variance and decrease coherence. That’s the second aspect of the exercise.
Finally, you want to focus your attention on the central area of your chest, near the heart or heart chakra. That will bring your awareness deeper into the body, making you feel more centered. Because this area is also connected to positive emotion, it will encourage an overall feeling of psychological wellbeing. Just feel the rise and fall of your chest, and focus on the feeling of the breath passing through this central area.
This kind of breathing is also good practice for performing the asanas of yoga. When you are doing asanas, your breath should be rhythmic and smooth, and your awareness should be on different areas of your body.
III. Breathing and Pranayama
As already mentioned, the tradition of yoga has its own body of practices for working with the breath. These are part of the science of pranayama.
Here I’ll just give a basic introduction to the idea so you can get your feet wet.
According to pranayama, the breath is connected with prana, subtle energy that animates the body and the world. Or, if you prefer, you could think of it as an energy that runs through your subjective experience of your own body and the world. It doesn’t matter. The point is that the practices working with prana can enhance your body and mind greatly.
In your own subtle body, prana courses through a system of energy channels. There are many such channels, but the main ones are three and run from your root chakra near the anus up to the crown chakra of your head:
- Ida is on the left side of the body and has a feminine, passive quality.
- Pingala is on the right side of the body, and its quality is masculine and active.
- Sushumna runs through the center and is neither masculine nor feminine, passive nor active—its energy is nondual.
The ultimate goal of pranayama is to cause the subtle energies to enter the central Sushumna channel and rise to the crown of the head. But be warned: this can be extremely dangerous without preparation and the guidance of a qualified spiritual master.
The subtle body is like a map of all the aspects and levels of your being. As human beings, we are animals, but we are also something more than our biology. We are also capable of achieving great intellectual and spiritual heights. So the chakras are arranged from the lowest level, which has to do with the simplest biological functions, to the crown chakra, which is the level of highest spiritual attainment and knowledge of absolute consciousness.
None of us is just a physical being or just a spiritual being. The lesson of Indian spirituality is that we are rooted in the material, biological level of life as well as the higher divine plane. We always have to keep our feet on the ground, to touch the basic solidity of existence. There is no escaping it: if we try to soar up and away from our earthly life, like Icarus, we will come plummeting back down to the earth.
At the same time, earthiness is not the totality of our being. We are composed even more of the sky. Modern physics tells us that, despite the appearance of solidity, the atoms of our body are quite spread out. It’s very roomy in here. We are 99.9999999999996% space.
So heaven and earth meet together in one being: the human. Yoga develops the physical aspect of our being as a basis for working with the spiritual aspect. If we focus on the one and neglect the other, we are like a bird trying to fly with only one wing.
Sushumna is like a cosmic axis that connects earth and sky. It allows communication to take place between matter and spirit. But before that can happen, the body has to be developed so that it’s not blown away by the raw power of our innermost spiritual being.
IV. Nadi shodhana / Alternate Nostril Breathing
As suggested by ida and pingala, yoga teaches that our being has both masculine and feminine sides to it. That’s not some sexist ideology: each of us has both within us, and we tend to prefer one mode over the other.
These also have to do with the left and right brains. The left brain controls the right half of the body, which is the domain of pingala, the masculine. The right brain controls the left half of the body, which contains ida, the left or feminine channel.
Men tend to prefer masculine energy—but not all men. Women likewise tend to prefer feminine energy, but of course, many women are exceptional. And no woman relies on feminine energy all the time. We are complex beings with many sides.
Relying too much on either energy can be a problem. Too much masculine energy can make you over-aggressive, over-analytic, and left-brained. As the saying goes, when your only tool is a hammer, everything is a nail. You just try to bulldoze your way through life—a crude and apish approach.
Too much feminine energy and you become too meek and passive, too emotional and right-brained. Then it’s easy for others to take advantage of you.
Yoga always seeks balance between opposing forces. That’s why all the asanas above require equal time for both left and right sides of the body. The fact is that we have both masculine and feminine energy at our disposal, so why not make the best use of what we have? That way we have balance in our lives and can always find an appropriate way to do things. It’s much better than being lopsided all the time.
Nadi shodhana, or alternate nostril breathing, balances the masculine and feminine aspects of our being by controlling the way prana flows through ida and pingala. Through this practice, you give equal time to ida and pingala and find the happy center.
- For this practice, choose one of the seated meditation postures such as the lotus position, or the pose of the masters. The lotus position is best, because of the way the feet press against the subtle channels in the legs. But choose whichever position is comfortable. Don’t strain yourself!
- Spend a few minutes just relaxing and performing the rhythmic breathing described earlier. This brings your physiological rhythms into coherence and calms the mind.
- Leave your left hand resting on your knee, and press your right index and middle fingers between your eyebrows, at the third-eye chakra. This stimulates insight and awareness.
- Breathe out completely. Then press your right thumb against the right side of your nose. Inhale through your left nostril to a fixed count of 5 seconds.
(You can vary this number according to your comfort level, but keep it consistent throughout the practice!)
Open your right nostril, then close the left nostril by pressing your ring and pinky fingers against the side of your nose. Breathe out through the right nostril, again for 5 seconds.
(If you prefer a different length of time, make sure the length of in-breath and out-breath is equal.)
- Again breathe in through the right nostril as before. Repeat this ten times.
- Perform the alternate nostril breathing again, this time inhaling through your right nostril and exhaling through your left nostril. Just as before, but with the opposite nostrils. Repeat ten times.
As you breathe in and out, let your mind follow the breath. Just let your awareness melt into the breath, becoming one with it. You can perform this cycle as many times as you like. It’s good to do it in the early morning or early evening.
You can also do it any time you feel stressed or overwhelmed and just need to find your center again. It immediately introduces balance by equalizing the energy between the masculine and feminine polarities of your body and mind.
Afterward, you may prefer to just sit in quiet meditation for any length of time. Nadi shodhana is an excellent way to calm and prepare the mind for less complex forms of meditation, and you may find that it allows you to go deeper into relaxed but alert concentration.
V. Jala Neti and Breathing
By now you’ve probably figured out that breathing is very important in yoga, especially breathing connected with the nose and the nostrils. So it’s important to keep the nasal passages very clean. Mucus can always build up because of illness or allergies, too much pollution, and so on.
Jala neti cleans it all up and allows air to flow easily through the nose. The practice might seem kind of weird at first, but I guarantee you it makes you feel 100% better. So don’t let it freak you out. Especially if you’re having difficulty breathing or suffering from any congestion, performing Jala neti will wash out all the mucus and pollution from your nasal passages. This allows you to perform yoga and pranayama much more comfortably.
Jala neti involves pouring a saline solution through one nostril so that it flows out of the other nostril, taking built-up mucus, dust, and toxic pollution with it. That sounds awful, but it’s not. It’s perfectly comfortable and is probably the most effective treatment for congestion from colds, allergies, and sinusitis. So give it a try. It’s probably the least bizarre of the six shatkarmas or purifying practices—believe it or not.
How to do it?
- To do Jala neti, you need a special kind of pot called a neti pot. It’s open at the top and has a long spout with a tip that will fit comfortably inside your nostril. A pot that contains about 500 ml of water does best. You can easily order a neti pot online. Your local drug store might also carry them.
- Mix warm water, approximate body temperature, and salt. Don’t use iodized salt or salt with additives such as anti-caking agents. Pure sea salt or kosher salt do very nicely.
- Their mix should be one teaspoon of salt for every 500 ml of water. Stir well, so the salt is completely dissolved.
- Then pour a small amount of water from the spout. This removes any water from the spout that didn’t get the proper mix of salt to the water.
- Then, leaning over a sink and tilting your head slightly, put the tip of the spout in your left nostril and tilt the pot. Pour the solution into your left nostril until the water comes out of the right. Keep pouring until the pot is empty. While you’re doing this, continue to breathe through your mouth.
- The water should come straight out of your nostril and not run down your chin, so adjust your position accordingly.
- When the pot is empty, blow your nose gently over the sink to expel any mucus or extra water that remains inside. Then refill the pot and repeat with the other side.
- Afterward, you can lean forward in a bathtub or shower, with your hands on your knees. Move your head to the left and the right, allowing excess water to drain from your eyes. Breathe vigorously through your nose to dry it out.
- A more advanced technique involves sucking the solution through the nostril and spitting it out from the mouth. But I would recommend mastering the first technique before you try the advanced version.
Jala neti is useful for clearing up congestion. But it also removes obstructions to airflow in the left and right nostrils. This makes it easier to practice pranayama. It also balances the prana in the left and right channels, which balances activity between the two hemispheres of the brain as well as the energy in the body. It stabilizes your mind, calms your mood, and alleviates stress.