Close your eyes. Remember being airborne on a swing. As you flew through the air, you felt the climb and the subsequent collapse of the pendulum. You pulled to climb higher so that you could fall farther, with each new beginning full of possibility.
Which part of the ride did you like the best? The rise or the fall? Or perhaps it was “the pause” -- the point where you’re no longer going up and you haven’t yet started to drop. The force of the up and the pull of the down meet in the middle, and for a moment, you are weightless.
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 the water'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, or 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 energy blockages, they must be removed before new prana -- energy -- can flow.
Breathwork deals with subtle energy and requires fine tuning of 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; pain where you stubbed your little toe on the table leg. Wherever they are found, when you experience these sensations, you know that the energy and its flow are very real. And when it's blocked, it hurts! Fortunately, moments in which we feel love, beauty, hope and contentment, 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 and stimulates blood circulation in the tissues, muscles and our brain. It slows the heart rate, which, in turn, decreases blood pressure and quiets the nervous system.
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. Our brain function increases and our problem solving skills are enhanced. Our emotions are less volatile and we experience stability and serenity.
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 affects 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 and equilibrium.
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.
Photo by Tony Frantz