The Complete Breath (Your Brain on Yoga series)
If I trace back my yogic journey into the depths of the mind and body, I can immediately recall certain events and encounters that made a powerful impact on the larger unfolding of the Path. The simplest of these was learning how to breathe properly. By this point I had already made substantial headway in the physical domain of exertion, strength, flexibility and control in yoga. All of these undoubtedly helped to form a solid foundation for further progress; however, it was unlocking the potential of the breath that opened new doors. It cultivated an experiential link between gross physical awareness and the more subtle perceptions of the body and mind. It actually empowered the physical movements by building vitality, endurance and steadiness of mind.
When most of us breathe, we employ shallow chest breathing. This looks like holding the belly relatively still while the sternum lifts, and it feels like only the upper lungs exchange air. If you place one hand on your chest and one on the belly, see which one moves first. If the upper hand moves first, that is shallow chest breathing. Conversely, the Complete Breath makes use of the full capacity we have to breathe. The mechanism of the Complete Breath has four components: pelvic, abdominal, thoracic and clavicular. To start, relax your abdomen like you're holding a basketball inside it. Feel that it is expanding forwards, sideways and even backwards into the kidneys and adrenal glands. Then gently let the belly open downwards and relax the pelvic floor, almost as if you are releasing the bladder to urinate. When you inhale, the breath should similarly relax the pelvic floor downwards and the abdominal area in all directions. Once the belly fills on inhalation, let the rib cage, chest and shoulder blades expand passively as the breath fills that area, feeling as if there is another basketball there. Once the thoracic (chest) area fills, allow the clavicles (collar bones) and shoulders to naturally lift and feel as if they are expanding outwards. All of the above – pelvic, abdominal, thoracic and clavicular expansion – filling up in order upon inhalation and emptying in reverse order upon exhalation, all with smooth even breaths, together comprise the physical mechanism of the Complete Breath.
When consciously breathing in this way, we affect control over physiological mechanisms that directly correlate with physical, mental and emotional health. The vagus nerve, which runs from the brain down through the viscera/organs, is intimately modulated by the breath. This nerve regulates autonomic physiological functions such as heart rate, respiration, digestion and immune response. The responsiveness of heart rate to changes in respiration, termed respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), is directly linked with the vagus nerve, and 'vagal tone' is often used as an index of the whole state of the parasympathetic nervous system, for the readiness with which we can calm the body's stress responses. On the micro level, inhalation increases heart rate and decreases vagal tone, and exhalation decreases heart rate and increases vagal tone. Therefore, performing a 1:2 breath ratio (exhaling twice as long as the inhalation) can result in a greater sense of relaxation. On a macro physiological level, greater vagal tone is associated with vasodilation, decreased inflammatory responses, and decreased circulation of stress hormones. Moreover, studies have demonstrated a direct correlation between loving-kindness meditation, superior emotional regulation, positive social behavior, and a decrease in headaches, chest pains, congestion and weakness.
Learning and practicing the Complete Breath helped me to progressively feel more relaxed, open and aware, and it increased conscious performance in many areas and activities. It also served as the basic training to control physiological responses and provided experiential proof that conscious attention can alter bodily processes. Experiencing this principle along with feeling the scientifically demonstrated biological effects served as the jumping board for more advanced practices that improve bone health, neuroendocrine functionality, cognitive stability and strength, sexual vitality, intuitive ability, and much more.
In addition to the physical benefits above, as well as massaging the internal organs, breathing in this way – when applied to any activity, physical or otherwise – also increases the awareness of subtleties that the mind may otherwise not notice due to habitually higher immune and stress defenses. Both of these are correlated with the lower vagal tone experienced most of the time by the majority of people, in which the mind's scope is dialed into a more gross/solid physical state of awareness. After learning the physical mechanism of the breath, being able to perform it automatically and joining the components so that it occurs in a fluid manner, the next step is to open up the nervous system to greater subtle awareness. By increasing and sustaining the resolution (fineness) of attention, the nerves increase their connective strength, capacitance and sensitivity. Feel the interconnection between the air outside of the body and the air inside of it. Become aware of the larger system of respiratory exchange within you and in all of nature. Feel the ionic charge of the air around you and that electricity continuing in through your body. Play with carrying this conscious, smooth full breathing into daily activities such as eating, showering, thinking and exercising. Play with combining it with these four-dimensional breathing exercises. It can also be coupled with sound and mantra by inhaling and exhaling the subtle sensations of sound. Observe the differences in sensation and experience over time, and continue playing.
Without the Complete Breath, I would probably still be struggling to find a sense of inner calm and steadiness of mind, two invaluable factors for a healthy body, mind and spirit – and certainly necessary for further progress on any serious path that cultivates higher human potential. It is a prime example of how yogic tools are designed as technologies for improved health and wellness. The breath is a gateway that can, with conscious attention and intention, unite the physical with the subtle, the outer world with the inner world, the physiological with the psychological, movement with stillness and the mundane with the spiritual.