Breathing and Bandhas on and off your mat
Breathing Habits on and off your mat! By being aware of our breath throughout our days we control the stress in our lives and even reduce our risk of heart disease–just by conscious breathing!
Empowered Breathing (Ideally)
- when our inhales and exhales are deep into the lungs and smooth
- Our breath calms our mind while energizing our body
- we naturally maintain good posture as the breath supports this while feeling at ease in our body
- both inhale and exhale are shallow and tentative
- abnormal tension in upper body, face, head, and neck
- breath tends to be shallow and only in upper chest
- overstimulates the nervous system and keeps our body in a state of fight or flight, the receptors for the fight or flight response in our body are located in the upper chest–shallow breathing stimulates the nervous system to raise our HR and BP and prepare to fight or flight . . .
People who breath this way habitually need to sigh or yawn frequently to get more air. Constricted breathers tend to be short of breath, air stays in the upper lungs (while standing or sitting upright the lower portions of the lungs gets the best blood flow), so the air they are breathing is lacking in O2.
And then there is Paradoxical Breathing
Have you ever stepped in the shower expecting hot water and got cold? The breath you took in was most likely paradoxical or backward–meaning your abdomen went in on the inhale instead of out. Many people breathe this way habitually! This is very stressful on your body:
- paradoxical breathing gives your body a jolt of adrenaline–if you don’t fight or flight those hormones stay in your bloodstream and carry a higher risk of heart disease and stress.
The antidote for constricted or paradoxical breathing is belly breathing–like in rest pose. Learning to relax with the breathing process and let the diaphragm extend downward on the inhale pushing the belly outward, then exhaling and letting the belly fall inward will invoke the parasympathetic nervous system–the part of our nervous system that lowers our HR and BP and reduces the stress hormones in our body (the receptors for the parasympathetic nervous system are located in the lower lobes of our lungs, so pulling your breath deeper into your lungs signals your nervous system to lower your HR and BP). If you are in a stressful time you might have a difficult time getting to this breath; it might be easier done by first focusing on the exhale–use your abdominals to actively assist the diaphragm and take a deep cleansing exhale, then relaxing on the inhale to let your belly expand.
Active Empowered breathing . . .
The belly breath is best to use to de-stress or relax, however if we stay with our belly breath all day it will leave you lethargic or over relaxed.
Empowered breathing is the perfect compromise, it balances you between lethargy and anxiety–it leaves you feeling energetic.
- It brings your attention to your torso (bandhas), with the awareness you have more control over your movements and posture.
- It gears you up mentally and physically for activity.
- with the air going deeper into the lungs, the air is in your lungs longer where there is more time for the gas exchanges (O2 and CO2) so you get more O2 in your blood.
Empowered breathing is like our yoga breathing (without the Darth Vader sound!), breathing with the support of the bandhas to fill our entire lungs with the air we breathe allowing the air to come into contact with the O2 in the lower lobes of our lungs and get more O2 circulating in our bodies. As you breathe throughout your days, pay attention to feel your breath expand into your back ribs; if you can feel this rib expansion you are most likely breathing deep enough to get the air to the lower lobes of your lungs where there is more O2 and also where you invoke the nervous system to relax.
Good breathing is mind medicine 🙂 The breath is the tool we have–that we we can consciously control, it is our bridge between our body, mind, and nervous system–as it works on all three.
Pattabhi Jois says there are three types of disease; body disease, mind disease, and nervous system disease. Of these three, mind disease is the worst! When the mind is diseased the entire body is diseased! So first you give medicine to your mind–mind medicine is breathing and yoga. Mind medicine is yoga practice with the correct breathing system–thats it!
Pattabhi Jois also says “For many years you must practice asana and pranayama. The scriptures say ‘Practicing a long time with respect and without interruption brings perfection.’ One year, two years, ten years . . . your entire life long, you practice!” Then you have a yogic face. A yogic face is always smiling. You see clearly and the body is free from disease.
Your mind controls your body; with using your breathing as mind medicine, your mind gets a bit stronger and calmer . . . with a stronger mind you are better able to pay attention to what you are doing; a weak mind will wonder and worry about situations that will never happen–when your mind is busy with these pre-occupations you are not paying attention to what you are doing–this gives you a higher risk of injury and a lower chance that you will do your best! With mind medicine you learn how to pay attention to what you are doing and be the best you can be.
We take approx. 26,000 breaths per day–so you have 26,000 chances to use your breath for mind medicine!
Good breathing is Mind Medicine, both on and off your mat. And remember the nice thing about your breath . . . you can take it with you wherever you go!
Bandhas on and off your mat
Bandhas are not just for your yoga practice. Our human energy powerhouse is all in our torso, being conscious of this energy and making the mental effort to stay connected with it throughout most our day will have amazing benefits to your health.
The muscular effort of our bandhas gives tone to all our organs, this support helps keep the organs functioning at their peak as the additional pressure from the muscular contraction helps fluids keep moving through the organs and actually helps to keep fat from collecting around the abdomen (practicing your bandhas all day long will do more for your waistline than any diet!).
Its all in our abdomen! Krishnamacharya, the yoga teacher of the yoga teachers, made some films in his 50’s of him doing some yoga poses and abdominal kriyas (these are on youtube, just youtube krishnamacharya, here is a link http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cd_eTupTCbI&feature=fvw. The poses he does all work around the torso–shoulderstand poses with twisting involved, uddiyana kriya (where you suck up the abdomen under your rib cage) and nauli (the abdominal churning).
Krishnamacharya has practiced and taught thousands of yoga asanas, the fact that he chose these to demonstrate on his video leads me to believe they are some of the most important movements in the yoga system. This is also why much of primary series is forward bending with your heel in your gut–wringing our the internal organs to remove toxins and not let disease collect in the abdominal organs.
Then to tie into this what I have learned through Ayurveda. Ayurveda pays more attention to the lymph system than traditional medicine (well traditional medicine will look at the lymph system after cancer has already developed!) . . . Ayurveda pays attention to the lymph system before cancer develops! The lymph system is basically our immune system, the lymph system is like the drains of our body, it is responsible for removing waste from our cells and organs where it can be eliminated from the body. The lymph travels with our nerves, arteries and veins but the lymph system does not have a heart to pump the fluid as the cardiovascular system does therefore our body relies on our movements to help keep lymph moving through our body doing its job. So a big part of our lymph system is in the gut (GALT stands for gut associated lymphatic tissue). Our bandhas (and asanas) keep the lymph in the gut mobile not allowing it to get congested.
Other tips for your lymph system; sip warm water all day long–this helps keep the lymph system hydrated, and eat beets! Beets are at the top of the winter lymph movers and we should be eating lots of beets right now (well through the end of April anyway)–beets are good for our lymph system and thin the bile (bile is also a big part of our immune system–it regulates our stool, digests food, and gets rid of bad fat). This is especially important at the end of winter when we need to clean out from winter eating.
So do your bandhas and eat your beets . . . well except after 9pm then you can relax the bandhas and just let it all hang out for a while . . .
So many ways to stay connected
I am going to share some of the ways I stay connected to my breathing and bandhas on and off my mat.
Off my mat
Walking and Breathing (from Indra Devi’s book)
This is a nice walking and breathing exercise you can do anytime you have to walk somewhere; whether it be on the seashore, in the woods, or just walking to your car in a parking lot somewhere. Tune into your breathing, take four steps while inhaling, hold the breath for two steps, take four steps while exhaling, hold your breath out for two steps. And repeat. Keep the walking and breathing rhythmical. If you feel that four steps is too long for you, count three steps and hold one, or on the contrary if you want a longer breath take six or eight steps and hold your breath a count of three or four respectively. You should take an even number of steps while breathing in and out, and the retention is done in half the time taken for your inhalation or exhalation.
And you can take this a step further, when you find yourself rushing around quickly doing something —check your breath, if you are not holding it, it is probably pretty shallow! To deepen and connect with your breath make little vinyasas out of your chores, for example when I am cooking I catch myself sometimes rushed, I stop connect with my breath and cook in vinyasas; inhale reach for the plate, exhale the plate to the counter, inhale pick up the spoon, exhale stir, etc . . . This is especially beneficial when you find yourself rushed or stressed, it will help you relax and do what you need to do effectively without being stressed.
Little reminders for mula bandha
I used to have this practice of lifting mula bandha every time I came to a red light . . . then it just became a habit every time I am in my car. I also have the habit of lifting mula bandha every time I sit down to my computer, and when teaching.
So set up some little reminders for yourself in areas where you spend a lot of time (desk, car, etc.) and start the habit of connecting with your inner energies throughout your days. (The physical contraction of perineum has beneficial effects of maintaining hormonal balance (the pressure of mula bandha presses against the nerves to our pineal and pituitary glands) and stimulating and regulating the nerves that innervate the lower pelvic region. Mula bandha is a tool in the treatment of digestive ailments and sexual disorders. This is one of the reasons why mula bandha has been called “the destroyer of decay”.)
Through the practice of mula bandha combined with other yogic disciplines we learn to channel nervous energy at will so we can act in a more graceful, flowing way.
On my mat
I focus first and foremost on my breath, when you breathe correctly the bandhas do automatically come.
During standing poses I focus first on my breath, second on my uddiyana bandha
During seated poses I focus first on my breath, second on the mula bandha.
In using my breath to connect with my bandhas; I first use the exhale to help me with the inward upward lift of uddiyana bandha, then while holding that inward upward lift inhale from your mula bandha up to your heart area. Feel your inhale draw your mula bandha upward, feel your exhale connect with the inward upward lift if uddiyana bandha, as you inhale again imagine the mula bandha/apana/breath moving upward in your spine, as you exhale and feel the lift of your uddiyana bandha/prana/diaphragm imagine your breath moving down your spine uniting the inhale and the exhales within your spine. This is a brining together of prana and apana, the inhale (feminine) and the exhale (male), shiva and shakti . . . This connection fills your body with prana.
Fill your body with prana, prana is your energy–kind of like a yogic energy that helps you feel awake and alive and energetic. Prana becomes intelligence, which is called buddhi in Sanskrit, which comes from the root “bud,” which means to wake up, and so it is the energy of waking up.