Archive for the ‘Breathing’ Category


The relaxation response triggered by yoga and meditation counters the stress response. When the mind-body has repeated experiences of stress, the stress response triggers faster as a survival mechanism and the stress hormones, over time, cause health problems. Stress may contribute to, or exacerbate, some of these familiar health problems:

anxiety * arthritis * constipation * depression * diabetes * headaches * heart problems * heartburn * infectious diseases such as colds and herpes * insomnia * irritable bowel syndrome * backaches, joint aches, abdominal pain * PMS * ulcers

This is now widely accepted knowledge as I am learning in the Mind-Body Medicine: The New Science of Optimal Health by Professor Jason M. Satterfield Ph.D (Great Courses from The Teaching Company).  The stress response is well-explained in the following excerpt from:

Now and Zen: How mindfulness can change your brain and improve your health Longwood Seminars, March 8, 2016 Content provided by Harvard Health Publications health.

Collectively, the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands make up the HPA axis, which plays a pivotal role in triggering the stress response. The hypothalamus sends a chemical messenger (corticotropinreleasing factor, or CRF) to the nearby pituitary gland, which then releases its own chemical messenger (adrenocorticotropic hormone, or ACTH) into the bloodstream. ACTH travels to the adrenal glands, which respond by releasing a number of stress hormones into the bloodstream. At the same time, the sympathetic nervous system releases stress hormones, too. The combined effects of these hormones are widespread…Senses become sharper, muscles tighten, the heart beats faster, blood pressure rises, and breathing quickens. All of this prepares you to fight or flee in the face of danger. Simultaneously, the hypothalamus fires up the autonomic nervous system.

Yoga and meditation activate the relaxation response through the parasympathetic nervous system which counteracts the overactive sympathetic nervous system. (This has finally become mainstream and is no longer “fringe medicine”!) Stress hormones such as cortisol are reduced. Blood pressure may drop, heart beat slows down, breathing is slower, the muscles relax.

Along with life style changes, cultivating positive behaviors, and improved diets, yoga and meditation offer very cost-effective ways to significantly improve health outcomes. Cognitive Behavior Therapy is also found to be effective, but it can be very expensive.

For a study at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital (see the link above), two groups were studied: long-term practitioners of yoga, meditation, and repetitive prayers and a group with no prior experience of these techniques. The novice group was taught a 20-minutes sequence with diaphragmatic breathing, body scan, mantra repetition, and mindfulness. Blood samples were taken from both groups to examine gene activity–specifically on how the body deals with free radicals.

The long-term practitioners had the most significant positive change and the novice group saw some positive change after eight weeks of practice. However, this effect is not long-term, suggesting that like physical exercise, the relaxation response needs to be triggered regularly. Yoga, meditation, prayers, need to be part of a regular routine.

I have two links to free audio tracks (diaphragmatic breathing and body scan) for readers of this blog who may want to start a regular practice.



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Once the foundation is laid and the body prepared with the practices listed in the previous two posts, the next step is balanced breathing where the breath is comfortably paced. This breath is also called equal inhalation and exhalation and samavritti pranayama. It calms the mind, making it quiet. The breath will gradually become deeper and longer.

The exercise begins by relaxing the body and making it still. Then the attention is drawn to the belly. The breath is observed as an inhalation and exhalation. The inhalation and exhalation are measured by counting 1, 2, 3, etc. from the start to end of inhalation and then the exhalation. Or if it is easier, count how long it takes for the belly to softly rise with the inhaled breath and fall with the exhaled breath. The two are then made even or equal–for instance it could be three seconds to inhale and three seconds to exhale. So there is a gentle and active control. (Kapalbhati and bhastrika are intentionally not given here as I do think that people need direct guidance from an experienced teacher to determine if it is suitable for them, and if so at what pace and rate. A teacher must also observe these two breaths to make sure the breathing is done correctly, that there is no hyperventilation and elevated blood pressure.)

All these steps help make the mind still and focused to prepare it for meditation.

Here is a free audio track for balanced, paced breathing (requires no iTunes or MP3) from Mahasri Yoga that anyone with Internet service can easily access:

Samavritti Pranayama

Samavritti means equal or uniform movement. In this breathing the flows of inhaled and exhaled breaths are of equal duration and intensity. The breathing is paced, but it is paced to your own comfort and not to a given count–usually four to six seconds. As the breath is observed with uninterrupted awareness over an extended period of time, the inhalation and exhalation spontaneously become equal. The breathing pattern becomes more rhythmic and this has a calming effect on the body and mind. This is an important step in pranayamaSamavritti pranayama is soothing and creates a feeling of equanimity. As you get more comfortable with it, you can add one more second to each inhalation and exhalation to slowly make the breath longer and deeper, gently increasing the lung capacity. Never go beyond your comfort level–there should be no shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, any discomfort. Notice the changes in your body and the mind as they change with the rhythmic, balanced breathing. Breath retention should be done under expert guidance after the initial stages are completed and is not included here.

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To safely learn to control the breath, stretch it and make it deeper, here are the basic foundations to pranayama. The audio links are to tracks on Mahasri Yoga.

Whole Body Breathing

Conscious breathing requires some effort initially but after some practice it becomes a natural part of you. Another deeply relaxing practice, whole body breath is simple and effective. There is a gentle expansion and contraction of the body.

Belly Breath

A deeply relaxing practice, the belly breath is one of the first breaths taught in yoga. Also known as abdominal breath, it is a simple and effective way to slow down the breath and mental activity. Awareness is shifted from the mind to the belly. The belly is a space of stillness, a vast ocean of peace. Anxiety brought down to the belly dissolves in this ocean of tranquility. The belly breath is the most relaxed and efficient breath (once you get used to it, particularly if you are a chest breather). It is much more difficult and strenuous to deepen a chest breath than it is to deepen the belly breath. The body gets the most oxygen with the least exertion. It is an effective way to increase lung capacity.

Full Yogic Breath

An energizing and soothing practice, full yogic breath is a basic core breath. It flushes out the entire respiratory system. The breath becomes deeper, more relaxed, and more efficient. The muscles of the belly, midriff, and chest are gently engaged. The breath is experienced in different parts of the torso. A gentle expansion of the body helps stretch and elongate the breath. The stretch and expansion are predominantly vertical as opposed to horizontal. A vertical stretch engages the diaphgram so it actively moves the lower parts of the lungs. This movement helps flush out the lower lobes, areas that normally get little movement.

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This post, following up on the previous post, offers specific suggestions and a process for safe breathing for pranayama and increasing lung capacity.

Asana: Some gentle movements can definitely help loosen muscles and help tone the diaphragm and lungs for better breathing. Refer to the movements of the Upper Body on Mahasri Yoga.

A few other movements are palm tree pose (tadasana), swaying palm tree pose (tiryaka tadasana), waist rotating pose (kati chakrasana) cat/cow (marjariasana), cobra (bhujangasana), fish (matsyasana), bow (dhanurasana), shoulder pose (kandharasana), bridge (setu). This blog uses asana names from the Satyananda Yoga style.

Body Relaxation: After doing 15-20 minutes of simple physical movements or asanas of your choice, we suggest the following audio tracks that are free downloads (like podcasts) from Mahasri Yoga–you can hear everything directly from your computer speakers. Try one track for a week or two (practicing five days a week). This will take four to eight weeks. It is our belief that it is important for those new to this to go slowly and establish a firm foundation for most gain.

  • Base Position:
    A proper physical posture can be important for practicing pranayama and meditation. Three different positions are described here to accommodate varying needs: sitting on a chair, sitting on the floor, and lying down. They can be tried out to determine which one is the most comfortable for your body.
  • Body Stillness:
    The first step to having an effective pranayama practice or meditation practice is learning to use the breath to still and calm the body. As long as the body is restless or tense, the mind is drawn to the body and distracted by it. Making any progress in pranayama is difficult in the agitated or distracted state.
  • Deepening Body Awareness:
    After establishing a base position and learning to still the body, we deepen body awareness. The process of witnessing the body as a spectator deepens the process of relaxation, and that in turn facilitates more efficient rhythmic breathing.
Observing the breath: Before any attempt is made to control the breath, there must a strong awareness of the breath–how it moves in the body, how it feels. The following audio track may be of help.
  • Breath Awareness:
    With this practice we continue the process of deepening awareness of the breath by becoming more sensitive and observant. This can help curb the constant vortex of thoughts that spin around and around. We observe more deeply when the mind is becoming inert and sleepy or going off in tangents. Then through the will power of the witnessing awareness, the mind is trained to stay anchored and focused on the breath. It learns to rest on the breath.

The next post will provide links to audio tracks that begin controlling the breath gently at an individual pace, not a given count.

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Here are the problems with being told to count to 4, 5, 6 while breathing in and doing the same breathing out by various sources (newsletter from our medical provider, yoga books, stress management advice, etc.):

Average rate of breathing: I have been watching the number of breaths per minute, called eupnea, in the age range of 14 to 87 years. It is about 15 breaths per minute. It is in the range of the figures cited by a Bihar School of Yoga book on prana. Going online, Wikipedia confirms that the observation falls roughly in the middle of the range. So assuming 15 breaths per minute, each breath is 4 seconds or a count of 4–2 in and 2 out. It is also counted by counting the number of times the chest rises in one minute.

Stretching the breath: So if people are asked to double or triple the duration of their breath, they are likely to strain their lungs, have discomfort in the chest, and feel light-headed. Longer breath is more calming but there is a method to it. Before beginning a breath control exercise, observe the length of your own natural breath.

Those of us who for years have trained ourselves to breathe from the belly may not have a significant rise in the chest and that may affect the counting based on chest rises.

Chest breathing versus belly breathing: Most people are chest breathers. Try breathing through the chest and lengthening the breath (I did for this blog post) and see what happens. The breath creates tightness and discomfort in the chest. After a few of these breaths, people may experience gasping and shortness of breath. A short breath seems to feel fine in the chest but not a long one. The chest fills up quickly and it is a more stressful breath. It is good when you need quick bursts of oxygen in times of stress. However, if you learn to breathe from the belly (also called abdominal breath) it is much easier to lengthen and deepen the breath. There is no tightness, no discomfort as long as you don’t overdo it. The back must be straight and the chest very slightly raised, otherwise the breath is constricted, strangled, and short. This breath is relaxed and soothing.

Gradual lengthening: The breath cannot be doubled or tripled at once. The lungs cannot be stretched that much without strain. It must be done gradually, slowly. This is a step-by-step, systematic process: relax the body and mind, become aware of the body, and become familiar with the breath. Then breathe with the whole body flushing out the respiratory system and gently stretching it with comfort. This brings awareness of the breath in all parts of the respiratory system. Then teach the body how to breathe from the belly and retrain it. The body is then ready to pace the breath to a comfortable count and adding one second at a time till the breath settles to the new pace–just like in exercise, repetitions and sets are gradually added. Adding sound is an effective way to stretch the breath.

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Mahasri Yoga is now on You Tube. Certain breathing practices help significantly with hypertension. It is hoped that the following two audio tracks in English and Gujarati recently uploaded on You Tube will be helpful and enjoyable:

Mahasri Yoga: Pranayama-Body Stillness (English)

Mahasri Yoga: Pranayama-Body Stillness (Gujarati)

Dealing with hypertension in its early stages, using yoga and breath awareness, is much easier than when it progresses extensively. Prevention is better than cure. These are simple, effective, basic practices used before starting the more familiar pranayamas.

As stated on www.mahasriyoga.com/pranayama:

“The first step to having an effective pranayama practice or meditation practice is learning to use the breath to still and calm the body. As long as the body is restless or tense, the mind is drawn to the body and distracted by it. Making any progress in pranayama is difficult in the agitated or distracted state.

Conscious breathing, used to become aware of the physical body, will allow you to stop running ragged with the mind and emotions. It gives you a way to slow down, to stop. When you breathe in, know that you breathe in. When you breathe out, know that you breathe out. Without your attention, your awareness, the emotions run out of energy and slow down. With the awareness focused on the breath and body instead of on thoughts, the mind becomes still, the body calm.

A still body, not a sleeping body, tends to increase attention span and pacify a restless mind. A restless body can be a reflection of a scattered and unfocused mind. This practice will help the body become still and quiet, the mind more focused. It is also effective in releasing stress and pain.”

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Several studies have indicated the positive effects of alternate nostril breathing (ANB)/anuloma viloma on heart rates, blood pressure, and hypertension. The study cited below provides some of the specific research papers. However, this study in the International Journal of Yoga, Ghiya S, Lee CM. Influence of alternate nostril breathing on heart rate variability in non-practitioners of yogic breathing. Int J Yoga 2012;5:66-9,  compares the effect of ANB to the practice of paced breathing (PB)/samavritti pranayama. Why is this important?

The breathing in both is paced at the same rate, but in one it alternates between nostrils and in the other it is through both nostrils.

The aim of the study was to compare the effects of the two types of yogic breathing in people who had no experience of either practice. Here is the description of the breathing practices used in the study along with the rate of breathing and the time spent on it. It works as a yogic breathing prescription for stage 1 hypertension.

“Alternate nostril breathing : While sitting in a crossed leg position, participants inhaled through the left nostril, held the breath for a moment while keeping both nostrils closed, then exhaled from the right nostril keeping the left nostril closed. This was followed by inhalation through the right nostril and exhalation through left nostril in the same manner. The participants repeated this cycle at a breathing rate of 5 breaths/min-1 for 30 min. Paced Breathing: The participants were instructed to breathe normally while maintaining a breathing rate of 5 breaths/min-1 for 30 min. An investigator provided verbal cues to ensure that the appropriate breathing rate was maintained.”

It is known that ANB may increase parasympathetic activity (ida nadi) for reduced basal heart rate, lower blood pressure and improved autonomic nervous system function over the long-term.

The study states that, “On the other hand, there is less information on autonomic nervous system function in the time period immediately following a session of yogic breathing.” So we still do not know the immediate effect conclusively according to the authors.

They concluded that their research suggests that both ANB and PB were equally effective in their sample.

Now this is of great interest and important to me as two of the seniors I work with have Parkinson’s. They both find ANB helpful in calming anxiety and a reduction in tremors for short durations of time. However, they can only practice 10 breaths with comfort (about one or two minutes). After that they feel light- headed. The arm gets tired (for most people) as the right hand is used to manipulate the nostrils. What if PB, which does not require the arm to be held up, has the same effect? Is it possible to practice PB for longer periods of time than ANB and have the same effect? Does the light-headed feeling lessen or disappear with PB? It is something we shall try out. These are questions for a vast range of people, not just seniors or those who suffer from Parkinson’s.


Ghiya S, Lee CM. Influence of alternate nostril breathing on heart rate variability in non-practitioners of yogic breathing. Int J Yoga [serial online] 2012 [cited 2012 May 26];5:66-9. Available from: http://www.ijoy.org.in/text.asp?2012/5/1/66/91717

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