Have you ever ridden the Big Buckaneer Ship at a carnival? Remember the pirate boat that swings from side to side, creating a pendulum of either sea sickness or adventure. Which do you like better? The rise or the fall? This is like our breath. But if you’ve ever braved a seat at the very top, you might be familiar with “the pause”. The point where you’re no longer going up, and you haven’t started to fall. The force of the up and the down meet in the middle, and for a moment, you are neither.
You can also feel this pause as you dig your toes into the sand of a receding tide. The strength of the outward pull is powerful, and even with small waves, you bend your knees in attempt to anchor against it’s force. And then, for a moment, that energy is neutral. The push and pull are at peace.
Our breath is punctuated with this pause, which is called Kumbhaka in Sanskrit. The Kumbhaka is a moment of stillness and potential, a harmony between light and dark. The light will come with the inhale, called Puraka, and will bring warmth, openness, forward motion and light. The exhale, Rechaka, is the cooling and grounding shadow of release.
We can learn to extend this pause with pranayama (breath control). Lengthening the kumbhaka has the physical benefits of increasing the amount of oxygen our bodies can absorb as well as the amount of carbon dioxide we can tolerate. And it has the emotional benefits of teaching us to put more space between our thoughts and subsequent actions.
The breath is a circle, a cycle, a rhythm. As such, it may seem that there is no beginning and no end. But this is not true. When practicing pranayama, the first and most important point of focus is the exhalation. If you cannot breath out slowly and quietly, you should not attempt to deepen the inhale. The exhale eliminates impurities and creates space. The exhale makes room for the inhale. If there are energetic blockages, they must be removed before new prana (energy) can flow.
Breath work deals with subtle energy, which requires fine-tuning your awareness. Stress, anxiety, fear and pain are all negative energies that you most certainly can feel in the physical body. Stress may be felt in tense neck muscles, anxiety in a tight lower back, fear in the pit of your stomach, and pain where you stubbed your little toe on the table leg. Wherever they are found, when you experience these sensations, you know that energy and it’s flow are very real, and when it’s blocked, it hurts! Fortunately, the opposite is also true, such as when we feel love, beauty, hope and contentment. In these moments, our hearts fill up and our prana flows free.
During normal inhalation, the average person takes in about 500 cubic centimeters of air. During deep inhalation, intake can be as great as six times that. The same is true of deep exhalation, which eliminates more toxins than sweating, urinating and defecating combined. Deepening our breath increases lung capacity, optimizes ventilation, and stimulates blood circulation in the tissues, muscles and the brain, maximizing cellular functions and efficiencies. It slows the heart rate, which in turn decreases blood pressure, quiets the nervous system, increases relaxation and reduces wear and tear on the internal organs.
Proper breathing also improves immune function, decreases joint pain and discomfort, relieves congestion of the bowels, the kidneys, the liver, and corrects hormone functions and imbalances. Brain function increases, problem solving skills are enhanced and our emotions are less volatile.
Pranayama also keeps the nadis in healthy condition. Nadis are tubular organs in our subtle bodies through which energy flows. The flow of prana directly effects our mental attitude and ability to handle stress. So proper respiration keeps our muscles relaxed, which directly decreases the tension in our brain. When we are less tense, we experience better concentration, equilibrium and serenity.
There are a variety of breathing techniques that will do everything from relax to invigorate us. Some are simple and instinctual. Others take effort and experience. Like any form of exercise, repetition makes us stronger and more efficient. And like music, the silent pauses are just as important as the harmonious sound.