Can You Breathe?
Of course you can breathe … or can you? Maybe well enough to get by without collapsing, but are you using your breath optimally? Probably not. Most people don’t breathe as fully or deeply as they could, because it takes practice and concentration. Once you’ve learned the fine art of breath control, however, you’ll certainly feel the difference.
An integral part of Hatha Yoga and other forms of yoga is pranayama, or breath control. In fact, the manipulation of breath to control the physical manifestation of prana in the body is Hatha Yoga’s realm. People in all cultures have learned to manipulate prana, either consciously or unconsciously. Faith healers, hypnotists, prophets, shamans, and spiritualists may use prana, although they may use another name for it.
Yogis learn to use prana purposefully to push the mind to a higher state of consciousness. Speech can be charged with prana, which is why some people captivate us when they talk.
Prana, the Universal Life Force
“Walking Yoga’s Eightfold Path,” we described prana as the life force or energy that exists everywhere and is manifested in each of us through the breath, but prana isn’t exactly the same thing as breath or oxygen. Prana exists in all living things. It doesn’t have consciousness—it’s pure energy. Every cell in your body is controlled by prana. Prana animates all matter. Prana can be a difficult concept to comprehend; it may become clearer if you understand what it isn’t.
Once a body completely dies, administering oxygen won’t bring it back to life, so obviously, oxygen doesn’t equal life. Life is animated by more than oxygen—it’s animated by prana. Prana is also not the matter it animates, nor the spirit it propels.
Prana is universal energy that’s in the air, in all matter, and is used by the spirit. You breathe in prana along with air, and prana regulates your body, from your nervous foot tapping the floor to your thoughts about your weekend plans.
We’re now going to turn a little bit of attention to biology—biology according to yoga, that is. But don’t get scared off; the concepts are easy to follow. Trust us.
Prana moves through the body along two energy pathways on either side of the spine. Pingala is on the right side and represents the sun. Ida is on the left side and represents the moon. In the middle is a passageway called sushumna, which runs through the spinal cord. Just picture a subway. The energy that keeps it running smoothly is ida and pingala.
The kundalini is the train sitting at the bottom of this subway waiting to be energized. The yoga interpretation of the body has a basis in Western anatomy, too. According to physiology, both afferent and sensory nerves exist in the body:
➤ Afferent nerves carry messages to the brain and correspond to pingala.
➤ Sensory nerves carry messages from the brain to the rest of the body and correspond to ida.
The spinal cord or center of these two currents (afferent/pingala and sensory/ida), sushumna, also controls the currents that move through the body’s nervous system. In yoga, there are 10 currents, called nadis.
Pingala, ida, and sushumna are the major three.
Picturing the physiology (Western-style!) of your thoracic cavity (the cavity containing your lungs and heart) may help you visualize what’s happening as you breathe during pranayama. When you inhale, your 24 ribs and two lungs expand. Your diaphragm, a large, flat muscle at the base of your thoracic cavity, moves downward to make room for air rushing in. Imagine that it looks a little like an upside-down plunger, helping to pull air in. Deep breathing means filling your lungs from the bottom up. You have a lot of room in there for air!
When you exhale, your ribs and lungs contract. Your diaphragm rises, pushing the air back out, again like a plunger. When you breathe, imagine the breath is flowing deep into your abdomen, then slowly filling up the abdominal cavity, lower thoracic cavity, and last of all, the chest. On the exhalation, imagine the air flowing out from the chest, the lungs, past the diaphragm, and out of the deepest regions of the abdomen. This is deep breathing!
Try not to move your chest or shoulders when you breathe. All movement should be in your abdomen or lower rib area. Put your hand on your abdomen and try to expand and contract from there. And keep those shoulders still! Rising and falling shoulders are usually an indication of shallow breathing.
The diaphragm muscle moves downward on inhalation and upward on exhalation. Take a deep breath and feel the muscle in motion!
Pingala (pronounced pin-GAHlah) is a channel on the right side of the spine through which prana moves. Ida (EE-dah) is a channel on the left side of the spine through which prana moves. Sushumna (soo-SHOOM-nah) is a hollow passageway between pingala and ida that runs through the spinal cord, through which kundalini can travel once it’s awakened. Nadis (NAH-deez) are psychospiritual energy pathways.