Breath of Yoga

This article was written by Srivatsa Ramaswami and is published here with his kind permission.

One innocuous looking but important feature of the Vinyasa krama way
of asana practice is the deliberate use of breathing while practicing
asanas. Unlike other forms of yogasana practice and other
popular aerobic exercises, Vinyasakrama requires the practice to be
breath oriented and breath controlled. If one practices vinyasakrama
asana practice for about an hour followed by 15 to 30 minutes of
Pranayama practice, it would mean having a complete voluntary control
over one’s breathing for about 1 ½ hrs which otherwise is usually
involuntary. My Guru, Sri Krishnamacahrya, is credited with the
ability to alter the heart rate and even stop it. He has mentioned
that it was primarily due to deep Pranayama practice. A German doctor
who conducted studies on this feat of my Guru attributed it to deep
uddiyana Bandha which helps squeeze and arrest the heart so that it
stops beating during the period the bandha is done. And deep bandha
requires an exceptionally deep Rechaka or exhalation which again is
part of pranayama. My Guru used to say, as I have written earlier too,
that a lot of Siddhis in Hata Yoga are due to Pranayama especially
rechaka, exhalation. According to Brahmananda, the commentator of
Hathayogapradeepika, Hata Yoga means union of Prana (ha) and apana
(ta) or Pranayama.

As we all know, the respiratory function is under both voluntary and
involuntary control. Breathing goes on involuntarily changing with the
physiological requirements without conscious effort. However it can
also be brought under voluntary control. There are several
other bodily functions that are somewhat of a similar nature—
urination, defecation, sex functions, etc. Normally our breathing is
shallow and involuntary. In Pranayama and Vinyasa krama asana
practice, a deliberate attempt is made to bring it under voluntary
control. The Yogis try to bring the breathing function under absolute
control by introducing several parameters like the place of control of
the breath, varying duration of inhalation exhalation, and breath
holding in and out, using the bandhas at the appropriate stages of
breathing. Then Pranayama is done with mantras and imaging or bhavana.
All these make up a formidable number of pranayama methods by which
the Yogi brings about a tremendous voluntary control over the
breathing function. We may add in passing that in cardio-
function,speech or vocal training one learns to discipline one’s
breathing consciously in the initial stages but later subconsciously
for purposes other than the  objective of life support. Human speech
also is dependent on continuous breath control.

This method of bringing the breathing under greater control of
the central nervous system or the cortex it is believed helps the Yogi
to bring several other physiological functions under the Yogi’s will.
It leads to some extraordinary Siddhis like stopping the heart for a
considerable period of time, control of hunger and thirst
(kshudpipapasa) etc.

According to a well known neuro surgeon of yesteryears in India
(himself a fan of Sri Krishnamacharya), neurophysiologically speaking,
it appears that the basic factor of Yoga is the control of
respiration. Respiratory function can be more easily controlled than
any other vital function and the Yogi uses it as the first step in her/
his control of the nervous system. When cortical higher brain control
is achieved over one basic function, it is possible to bring about
control over other basic functions such as vasomotor, etc. It is
therefore possible to dilate bronchial tubes in an asthmatic, reduce
blood pressure or increase it, reduce the rate of heart beat, all with
the help of Pranayama. Neurological brain disorders like epilepsy,
skin allergies like eczema also respond to pranic control.

A number of functions classified as autonomic are not so for an adept
Yogi. She/He is able to control by will many functions that are
controlled in ordinary human beings by subcortical areas—which is
beyond one’s voluntary control. The mechanism involved could be
neurological or chemical. Once a steady regular control of respiration
is achieved, there is perhaps a reciprocal biochemical stability which
helps in the maintenance of such control.

When a yogi wishes to establish full control over this lower vital and
emotional function by the exercise of the cortex (will) he/she has to
do it by the reciprocal connections among the cortex, the reticular
system and the various concerned centers of the brain. Autonomic
functions such as gastrointestinal peristalsis, glandular secretion,
sex, and urinary bladder are controlled by the reticular formation of
the medulla, pons, and mid-brain. The respiratory system, the
cardiovascular system, swallowing, mastication, and vomiting reflexes
are all equally controlled by the reticular formation at the level of
the medulla oblongata. It is said that more than a couple of dozen of
such functions are controlled by reticular formation. The reticular
formation consists of more than 100 small neural networks with varied
functions. It produces rhythmic signals to the muscles of breathing.
The reticular system also filters incoming stimuli to discriminate
irrelevant background stimuli/noise.  Constant Yogic practice of both
pranayama and subsequent meditation quite likely leads to an
enlargement of the scope of the function of the reticular system and
the cortex. It is quite possible that in a real yogi the reticular
system and the cortex are both functionally altered and structurally

Patanjali also emphasizes that such a transformation of the brain
cells is possible. The chitta Parinama or the scope of altered
arrangement of the brain cells is inherent in every individual and
only the appropriate practice is the cause of such a transformation.
Like a farmer (kshetrika) who merely diverts the flow of water in a
field, the yogi has only to channelize his neurological energies along
certain paths and systems. There is no external cause to bring about
such neurological and cortical changes. It is an activity of the
brain  by the brain on the brain for the brain.

And the key appears to be Pranayama or breath control.

Sri Krishnamacharya’s classes never allowed student’s puffing and
breathing heavily, like aerobic exercise or aerobic like yoga
workouts. Whether doing asanas as per vinyasakrama, or Pranayama, the
student would exercise voluntary control over breathing during the
entire duration of yoga practice. If one breathes heavily, a
considerate Krishnamacharya would urge the student to lie down in
Savasana for a short period of time to get the breath back before
resuming the practice. The breath of yoga is conscious, controlled
breathing practice; an unhurried conscious controlled  breathing is a
sine qua non for Krishnamacharya’s yogasana practice.

Here is a translation of a verse from Tirumular’s Tirumandiram on

The breath within moves
And wanders randomly
CONTROL it and purify it from within;
Your limbs will glow with red luster,then
Your hair will turn dark
And God (Siva) within will never leave you.

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