The Science of Breath

Life is actually a series of breaths, that starts with birth and ends with death. To live is to breathe. The correct form of breathing not only leads to good physical health but it also increases one’s mental power, happiness, self control, clarity in thinking and even one’s spiritual growth. Hence it is very important to understand how breath works.

A person who is able to control his breath, will be able to control his body and mind. The yogis of ancient times were able through breathing practices, to store prana in their body and send it to any organ or part, thus strengthening and invigorating that part.

Oxygen, is needed by every cell in our body in order to live. The air that we breathe contains oxygen.  In the lungs, the oxygen moves into the bloodstream and this purified and oxygenated blood is carried to the heart and to different parts of the body through arteries and capillaries. At each cell in the body, the oxygen cells are exchanged for waste gas called carbon dioxide. The bloodstream then carries this waste gas back to the lungs where the waste gas is removed from the blood and then exhaled from the body.

It follows that unless fresh air in sufficient quantities reaches the lungs, the impure stream of venous blood cannot be purified. Thus, not only is the body robbed of its nourishment but the waste products which should have been destroyed are returned to the circulatory system thus poisoning it, instead of invigorating and strengthening it.

The normal human being invariably breathes in a shallow way, in which, only a portion of lung is used and a large portion of the lung capacity is lost, as a result of which, the blood does not get completely purified. Once we understand that ‘prana’ (life force energy) comes from the air we breathe, it makes sense to learn the correct way of breathing, so that we live a life full of vitality.

What is Prana?

‘Prana’ is absolute energy which exists everywhere. It is considered to be the essence of all forms of life – from the highest to the lowest. Fresh air is the greatest source of prana. The easiest way of getting prana is by inhaling it along with air. This is where breath and the way we breathe plays an important role in  nourishing both mind and body. With the correct form of breathing, we can control and regulate breathing. We will be able to extract a greater supply of prana, which is stored in the brain and nervous system, to be used when necessary.

What is the correct form of breathing?

The correct form of breathing according to Yogi Ramacharaka, is also called the complete breath. First of all, always breathe through the nose, and not through the mouth. The mouth is not equipped to cleanse the air and change the temperature of the air you are breathing in. The nostrils filter the air we breathe and also warm it, so that it can do no damage to the delicate respiratory organs.

The best method of breathing according to Yogi Ramacharaka is one where the entire respiratory apparatus, – every part of the lung, every cell, every respiratory muscle is brought into play. In the Yogi complete breathing method, “the respiratory muscles are fully called into play…… The muscles controlling the ribs are used in such a way that, it increases the space in which the lungs can expand.”

The maximum benefit is derived with minimum energy expended. In such a breathing, the chest cavity is expanded to its normal limits in all directions and every part works and performs the functions it is supposed to.

It has been said that all organisms are but subsystems of the One. Our individual selves are only part of the universal self. Each organism contains all the elements present throughout the cosmos. That is why all the spiritual gurus tell us to know ourselves, in order to know and understand the cosmos.

We have been gifted with certain mechanisms that help us experience life in this world. The most important of these mechanisms are the two nostrils. You breathe from the moment you are born till the moment you die. Breath keeps a man in continuous contact with the energy in the world. It is an important part of staying healthy.

Under normal conditions, electrical activity in the brain, i.e brainwaves are concentrated more in one hemisphere than the other. What are brain waves? The brain is made of billions of brain cells called neurons, which use electricity to communicate with each other. These charges are measured in frequencies. There are 4 kinds of brainwaves, namely, Beta (13 – 40Hz), Alpha (7 – 13Hz), Theta (4 – 7Hz) and Delta  (0 – 4Hz). There is also a Gamma (>40Hz).

It is believed that at the alpha level, the brain waves of those of the right hemisphere and that of the left hemisphere are synchronised. When this happens, man is able to consciously tap the tremendous powers of knowledge hidden in the subconscious mind. So then it follows that, one should be able to cultivate a theta brain wave or to diminish the brain rhythm to alpha, when needed. How do we do this?

Research has shown that each hemisphere of the brain has certain forms of behaviour and that those forms of behaviour are present only when electrical activity centers in that hemisphere. When energy concentrates in the left hemisphere, one becomes more active, verbal, intelligent, extroverted and creative. It is also considered to be a channel of solar energy.

The right hemisphere is characterised by passivity, orientation to sights and sounds, emotional responses, introspection and is a channel of lunar energy. As a result of the movement of energy from one hemisphere of the brain to another, the nature of our responses also change. Perception, actions and even involuntary bodily responses vary according to the dominance of one hemisphere over the other.

The movement of energy from one hemisphere to the other occurs simultaneously with the change of breath from one nostril to the other. The nostrils, are connected with the neuromotor responses, and hence with the autonomic nervous system. These neuromotor responses influence the hemispheres and activity of the brain.

When we observe our breath, we notice that the breath does not come out through both nostrils in equal volume, except for very brief periods. Normally one breathes through one nostril at a time. Breath alternates between the two nostrils, according to a regular pattern. When there is airflow in the right nostril, left hemisphere of the brain dominates and viceversa. When both operate, both the hemispheres operate in unison. This happens only at certain times, for a short time. This usually happens when the transition from one nostril to the other takes place and also at dawn and dusk.

By simply changing the breath from one nostril to the other, we can change brain hemisphere dominance, thus altering chemical reaction taking place throughout the organism. Therefore control of the pattern of breath enables conscious control of body chemistry, such as pH of the blood leading to both short term and long term effects on physical and mental functioning. Most diseases are the product of body chemistry and thus can be prevented by controlling the breath.

Knowledge of the play of breath in the nostrils forms the basis of the ancient discipline of ‘Swar Yoga’ which means unification through breath, which is a topic for another day.