Breath is essential and central to human existence for each breath is the celebration of life itself. With our first breath, our life begins and with the last one, it will come to an end. Here is an interesting fact for all of you- normal lungs can hold up to 5 to 6 litres of air but how much do we really use? Only 10% of our full lung capacity. If a mere 10% is responsible for our stamina, immunity and endurance, it goes without saying that breathing longer and deeper is a necessity to rejuvenate the human body and aid it to perform better.
“The greatest luxury of life is peaceful breathing because it repairs the wounds of the cosmic soul.” – Amit Ray
The situation becomes even more dangerous when we realize that on top of our shallow breathing, the quality of air we breathe in is deteriorating day by day as well. In the modern world we inhabit today, what we breathe is a deadly mixture, loaded with dust, fumes and chemicals along with a disproportionate amount of nitrogen and carbon dioxide, which is detrimental to our health.
As per WHO’s data, 9 out of 10 people breathe air that exceeds WHO guideline limits. We must also keep in mind that out of 10 most polluted cities in the world, a majority belong to India. The combined effects of ambient (outdoor) and household air pollution causes about 7 million premature deaths every year, and result in large-scale heart diseases, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and acute respiratory infections.
But how can we as individuals protect ourselves from respiratory ailments caused by polluted air? We can’t stay indoors the entire time. Hence it is crucial that the next time we give ourselves the time to breathe, we must do it the right way.
Yoga takes a very holistic view on this aspect. The classical yogic practices of Pranayama have been known in India for over 4000 years and continue to hold relevance in our lives today. It is a process through which the internal pranic dimension is expanded, increased and held. The medium of pranayama is breath. The practices entail guiding respiration beyond its normal limits, stretching it, speeding it up, and slowing it down, in order to experience the full range of respiration on both the gross and subtle level. Even if one can increase the lung’s capacity to half of its potential, it should be recognized as a great achievement.
Through the yogic techniques of Pranayama, one can learn how to regulate the breath, increase one’s lung capacity and master the four components of breath, which are inhalation, exhalation, internal retention and external retention.
The act of breathing is vital to human existence as it is an affirmation of life. Unfortunately, the unrestrained rise in pollution has clogged up one’s possibilities as well as airways for breathing.
A couple of recommended practices in this regard are:
1. Yogic breathing: Lie down on your back in Shavasana and allow your body and mind to relax. Bring your awareness to your breath and inhale slowly, allow your abdomen to expand completely. Once you feel that the breath has reached to the bottom of the lungs, start to expand the chest as well. By the time the ribs are fully expanded, continue to inhale a bit further to feel expansion in the upper portion of the lungs around the base of the neck. That should complete the half practice that is inhalation.
Now for exhalation, first relax the base of the neck and chest with the breath moving out. Allow the chest to contract and then continue to exhale further to squeeze your abdomen, close to the spine. The whole practice should be done in a relaxed, rhythmic manner without any strain.
2. Nadi Shodhan Pranayama: Sit comfortably in a cross-legged meditative posture, with your spine and neck upright and head straight, gently close your eyes and internalize your awareness. Visualize your breath mentally and follow the rhythm of your breath for some time. Then bring your right hand in front of your face and make Nasagra Mudra (your right hand’s thumb at your right nostril, second finger at your eyebrow centre and your ring finger on your left nostril). Gently close your right nostril with your thumb and breathe long and deep through the left nostril. Once done with long and deep inhalation preferably up to seven seconds or beyond, gently close the left nostril and open the right nostril to breathe out. Reverse the flow, i.e. inhale long and deep through the right side and exhale through the left. Inhalation from left and exhalation through right combined with inhalation through right and exhalation through left, maintaining long and deep flow of breath should be considered one complete round. A minimum of 10 such rounds on an empty stomach is advised.
3. Kapal Bhati Pranayama: Sit in a comfortable meditative posture with your spine and neck upright, head straight, and hands resting on your knees ideally in chin or gyan mudra. Keep your eyes close and internalize your awareness. Visualize your breath and follow the rhythm of your breath in and out of your body for some time. Inhale deeply through both the nostrils expanding the abdomen and exhale with a forceful contraction of the abdominal muscles through the nostrils. This practice involves active exhalation and passive inhalation. Before the next powerful exhalation outwards, allow the abdomen to expand with passive inhalation and then do the same active exhalation through both the nostrils. 10 such respirations should be practiced and then a small break should be taken to assess the impact of the practice. 2 or 3 such sets of active exhalations should be practiced, being aware of one’s own limitations. People with high blood pressure, temper issues, heart problems, acidity, ulcers, hyperthyroidism and post-surgery patients should avoid this practice.
A word of caution for people practicing pranayamas- it should be practiced on an empty stomach, preferably in the morning, in a quiet, clean and pleasant set up, after practicing asanas and prior to Pratyahara or meditation. One should learn these practices well from some experienced teacher before incorporating them into their daily lifestyle.