All I need is the air that I breathe, and to love you—pop song
I’m a breather. I was born to love breathing I think, because I’m a singer and a swimmer. Once I heard Frank Sinatra talking about his singing technique. He said the reason he had such exquisite vocal control, and could sing long beautiful phrases without breathing, was because he used to practice holding his breath in the swimming pool in Vegas. He would take a deep breath, and swim the entire length of the pool without coming up for air. In a way, he was practicing pranayama, which loosely translated means breath (prana) control (yama).
Actually, prana is more than breath. It literally means the life force of the universe, akin to chi, in the Asian traditions, or ki. Hawaiians call it nama, and the Egyptians call it ka. In Star Wars, Yoda called it the force. It is the vital energy which causes any kind of motion, down to the smallest atom. We imbibe this life force in the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, and sun that shines down on us. As we breathe, the oxygen enters our lungs, and its energy gets infused into the bloodstream. But the prana goes into every cell of your body, charging you up with new vitality. I’ve even read that the prana goes inbetween each cell. The yoga practices train you to perceive this energy, and begin to have control over it. Once we control the prana in our own body and mind, we can control not only the prana that functions within us, but also the universal prana as well. Master Sivananda, the great sage of Rishikesh, maintained that pranayama is the means to realize in the body the whole cosmic nature, and that the yogi uses pranayama to attempt to attain perfection by attaining all the powers of the universe.
There are three major elements to pranayama:
- Exhalation: Rechaka
- Inhalation: Puraka
- Retention: Kumbhaka
Another element is suspension of the breath, where you do nothing. When the breath stops automatically, without effort, it is called kevala kumbhaka. Then you will experience the beautiful stillness of the prana mentally, physically, and energetically. This state builds up subtle power, and enables the body to burn up impurities in the system.
Patanjali wrote in the Yoga Sutras, approximately 5000 years ago, that by engaging in the practice of pranayama, “the veil over the inner light is destroyed.” This supreme Light, which is in each of us and is a common theme in all major religions, is covered by a veil of mental darkness. Because the movement of prana makes the mind move, as well as the body, the mind comes into stillness by the regulation and restraint of the prana.
The yogis believe if we can control the breath, we can control the mind. Try to remember the last time you were working on something that required your full concentration. After some time, without being aware of it, your breath probably almost stopped! Then, unconsciously, you took a little gasp of air, to get the breath going again. When the mind becomes one-pointed, the breath slows way down. Conversely, when we consciously slow the breath down, the mind becomes quiet and focused.
There are several different breathing techniques in yoga, beginning with the intentional breath, or diaphragmatic breathing. It begins with making the belly soft, and keeping it relaxed throughout the breathing exercise. We are so conditioned to “hold your stomach in!”, that many new students are reverse breathers. Instead of expanding the belly on the inhalation, they hold the belly in. This attempt to hold the stomach in prevents the lungs from expanding, and sacrifices a wellspring of energy that could be available in every breath.
Pranayama purifies the nervous system, and makes the body light, the mind alert, promotes a good appetite and aids digestion. In spring and fall, when allergens abound, a regular pranayama practice can alleviate allergies and asthma. In winter, it can prevent colds and flu, by strengthening the immune system. In summer, there are even practices which can cool the body.
I grew up back in the day when smoking was cool. Both my parents smoked, and as soon as I went to college I started smoking, thinking it made me appear sophisticated. Ick! It’s hard to imagine that now. I remember the first time I tried to smoke, it made me sick to my stomach, and I had to go lie down, it made me so dizzy. But I wasn’t getting the message my body was trying to tell me. At least now people know better than to smoke, even if they get suckered into doing it anyway.
The way I quit smoking was through the use of pranayama. I had been studying yoga seriously for about a year. My band was going on the road, so we bought a juicer and brought it along. We had heard of the benefits of detoxing with the use of fresh juices, so we started fooling around with the juicer. When we got to Chicago for the gig, it was the dead of winter, and freezing out! What a great time to go on a fast! Not to mention, we were working in a smoky bar. I think the detoxing must have gone to my head, because I remember taking long walks in the freezing cold. Naturally, I got sick, with some respiratory disaster, coughing and hacking. Smoking gave ME up! I just couldn’t do it while I was so sick, and with the yoga and deep breathing I was doing, plus the fresh juices, all the nicotine was purged out of my body. When I was over the cold, I found I didn’t have any desire to smoke! What a gift! A year or two later, I was at a pretty wild party. I had been drinking along with the crowd and when somebody offered me a cigarette, I took it. I actually tried to smoke it, but it was so disgusting, I really couldn’t do it. This time I listened to what my body was trying to tell me, and never smoked again.
If you would like to learn more about the ancient art of Pranayama, you can join my new online course for free! It has a 3 pronged approach to taking a deep breath, based on my new book, TAKE A DEEP BREATH. Here’s the link