Last week’s blog touted the power yoga has to slow the aging process, starting with the asanas, the yogic poses. The asanas as physical exercises make up the popular notion of yoga in the West today. They strengthen and the body and keep it supple and relaxed. A relaxed body leads to a relaxed mind.
Yet the asanas of hatha yoga are only one part of the 8-part Yoga system. This week we dive into another part of that system: pranayama, a yogic practice for energy, calmness and youth. It’s one of the most important tools in the yogic toolbox.
Pranayama refers to conscious breathing, or breathing with a purpose. As breath exercises, pranayamas, like alternate nostril breathing, easily combine with the asanas to deepen relaxation or to increase energy.
Normally the breath doesn’t get much of our attention. It’s on auto-pilot, often quite shallow, and sometimes even dysfunctional. That’s the case with hyperventilation, a fine example of how the mood can control the breathing pattern. Anxiety rapidly leads to hyperventilation — a rapid, shallow and extremely inefficient way of breathing.
However, the reverse is also true: the breath can also control the mood. That knowledge came in handy in the Emergency Room. During my twenty-five years in the ER I saw panic attacks almost daily — stressed-out people whose mood was reflected in their breath: hyperventilation.
The “anxious walking wounded” would present to the triage nurse with rapid shallow breathing, tachycardia (fast heart rate) and intense anxiety, often feeling like they were having a “heart attack” or dying.
The fastest ER antidote for hyperventilation is not a pill. It’s is long deep breathing (LDB), sometimes aided by breathing in and out of a paper bag. The paper bag boosts carbon dioxide in the bloodstream and triggers a reflex slow down of the rate of breathing. In Yoga, LDB corresponds to “the yogic breath.”
In the ER I was often asked how I could remain so calm in the midst of the chaos: car accidents, cardiac arrests, open fractures, stab wounds to the heart. Answer: I would constantly center myself with the yogic breath, though in the early days I didn’t know it was yoga. Conscious breathing, combined with the poses, gives us a powerful tool for calming the body-mind and connecting with Spirit.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
Experience a calming pranayama right now with this guided meditation:
New to Yoga?
Are you a newbie to yoga? The best place to start is a beginner hatha yoga class. Find an instructor that you like (or a DVD). She or he will get you started with the easier poses and the yogic breath. Amazon Prime now has a Yoga for Beginners video by Kanta Barrios that I highly recommend.
Calming the mind starts with asana, pranayama and mantra. Then, in time, you will be ready for the more advanced practices of dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (deepest meditation or “absorption”).
Seated meditation is almost impossible without calming the mind first with mantra.
More on meditation and mantra? Books/Courses/Free Blogs: