What is the Complete Yoga Breath?
The Complete Yoga Breath is deep focused breathing, in and out through the nose and with the mouth closed. Gregor Maehle writes that ‘according to Indian tradition, if the mouth is kept open demons will enter’ (Ashtanga Yoga Practice and Philosophy, p. 11). While the image might be a little dramatic, it can be of help to remember how to do the Complete Yoga Breath, as I have observed people exhale through the mouth. The journey of this breath can be broken up into three felt areas of the body: upper or clavicular breathing (placing the fingers on the collarbones and feeling them expand), middle or thoracic breathing (placing the hands on the sides of the ribs, just under the armpits, by the chest and feeling the ribs expand sideways) and diaphragmatic breathing (placing a hand on the front body, just below the ribs and feeling the stomach expand outwards). The Complete Yoga Breath goes through these three areas in turn, inhaling in the diaphragm–thorax–collarbone sequence and exhaling also in the diaphragm–thorax–collarbone sequence (Yoga, Mind and Body, p. 112). All three areas are engaged in the same way, without favouring one, which Maehle suggests can lead to postural imbalance and muscle weakness (p. 10). In addition, the inhalation and exhalation should be equal in length, intensity and quality (John Scott, Ashtanga Yoga, p. 21), which is easier said than done. This is focused and deep breathing, using Ujjai or victorious breath, softly engaging the back of the throat (the glottis) and breathing with a sound similar to that made by those shells that contain the ocean within them.
Chapters 2 and 4 of Science of Breath explain how the Complete Yoga Breath works. This book also alludes to the fact that ‘breathing is the only physiological process that can be either voluntary or involuntary’ (p. 15). The Complete Yoga Breath is a form of optimum, full breathing. But, as highlighted in Yoga, Mind and Body, ‘bad mental and physical breathing habits mean that many of us use only a fraction of our potential respiratory capacity’ (p. 108). This translates, of course, in a reduced physical, mental and energetic capacity. Eastern thought places the breath as a gateway to the pranic or subtle body, what links mind and the physical body. This places the Complete Yoga Breath in a great position as a subject of self-study. Furthermore, I would argue that the complete yoga breath is a simple, basic form of pranayama, or breath control technique, as the inhalations and exhalations are equalised and conscious. Without the Complete Yoga Breath, how would we do pranayama? There are many benefits to the Complete Yoga Breath (highlighted below in bold), and they can be categorised as physical (noted as P below), mental (M) and pranic (Pr), although many of these apply to more than one body, for these are connected.
At a simple, common sense level, the Complete Yoga Breath nourishes the body (P), it is ‘a vitalising and regenerating force’ (Yoga, Mind and Body, p. 110). It enables for oxygen to come into the body, into our organs and tissues, enhancing our metabolic processes. As it is deep breathing, The Complete Yoga Breath increases the amount of oxygen supplied to the body. Without breath, we would not be able to sustain ourselves for very long. In particular, the Complete Yoga Breath brings oxygen to the lower parts of the lungs (the diaphragmatic area), allowing for a better transfer of oxygen into the blood system, as this area is richer in capillaries. Additionally, it compensates the blood/oxygen ratio in the lungs (P) as explained in chapter 2 of Science of Breath. It also helps the body to get rid of noxious gasses, such as carbon dioxide, produced through metabolic processes (Yoga, Mind and Body, p. 109) and other toxins, which for Gregor Maehle can be of a mental, emotional, physical and environmental nature (p. 10). A direct benefit of this compensation is an improved circulation of abdominal organs (P, Science of Breath p. 37) by massaging them (Ashtanga Yoga Practice and Philosophy, p. 10), enhancing digestion and functioning, and maintaining the organs healthy. In addition to the respiratory and abdominal (digestive) organs, Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati also lists benefits to the cardiac, endocrine, and nervous body systems (pp. 129–133). These processes are involuntary but, through the Complete Yoga Breath, small measures can be taken to improve them.
This exchange of blood and oxygen allows for energy to release into the body (P, Chapter 2 in Science of Breath) and although this is a physical process and, perhaps one could argue pranic (for the subtle body is an energetic body) its benefits can also be felt mentally. When I have more energy, I am able to function better, as I have more to give to my practice, to work and to my social life. In addition, working with the Ujjai breath facilitates heat production (P), a benefit one should not disregard in Glasgow in Winter. I have found myself breathing in this way simply when walking on the street, trying to get somewhere.
Through nourishment, this form of breathing facilitates movement, physical control and coordination (P, Yoga, Mind and Body, p. 109), as well as tell us about our attitude to that movement (M, Maehle, p. 9). It is clear to anyone who has done physical exercise that the first rule of any movement is to breathe deeply. Personally, I come across this every day, on my mat. I still remember Jambo Truong helping me into the one legged urdhva dhanurasana, which I found impossible to do and all the instruction he gave me was to breathe. I did lift my leg, only a little, and not for very long, but I found more movement through breathing.
In practicing and mastering the Complete Yoga Breath, the practitioner gains awareness and self-knowledge (M, P, Yoga, Mind and Body, p. 110). With a deep breath, slow on the inhale and the exhale, I can often tell where my knots are, where are the blockages I have physically and mentally. Through the quality and quantity of air I take in, I can become attuned to what goes on, like as if I was scanning myself. The breath is circular, comes and goes, returns and, when observed, it is rarely the same, at least to me. This teaches me about the fact that everything passes, good and bad, about the transitory nature of experience, and about the need to let go. This deep breath is a great diagnostic tool (M, P) and not only for the self, but also for teachers to see what is going on with their students (Science of Breath, p. 8). This self-knowledge allows for more control of situations (M, P). How many times something that seemed disturbing or overwhelming has become less so by taking a beep breath? How many times has something unpleasant turned into something funny through the breath?
For me, this is essential when it comes to control of emotions and emotional equilibrium (M, Yoga, Mind and Body, p. 109), in particular fear. When I used to do parkour, sometimes we went out on fear training. We vaulted at heights of jumped onto the ledge of the Clyde river to work on accuracy. Even sometimes something like jumping on two feet up the stairs would bring about that familiar scrunch in the pit of my stomach. Muscles would harden and I would only hear the word ‘no’. This also used to happen to me on the headstand (the first time I did it I had a panic attack) and, these days, on unassisted dropbacks. I cannot move if I don’t breathe deeply and in a controlled way. In the Ashtanga method, this is prescribed and to dropback I breathe in as I go up and out as I move backwards. Remembering this pattern and doing it with the Complete Yoga Breath gives me the focus (M) I need to complete the movement with both my mind and my body. It also stops the adrenaline rush I used to feel in parkour—which is great, but has physical consequences and usually there is a down to its up.
Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati goes further regarding the issue of control through the breath. He writes: ‘the moment one starts to breathe consciously, the frontal brain registers the breath, allowing control of the different hemispheres of the brain’ (p.156). The control of emotions through the Complete Yoga Breath means it can also be used for stilling the mind (Gregor Maehle, p. 10), to bring about calm, relaxation (M, P), as Alan Hymes explains in Science of Breath (p. 32). Swami Rama further expands on these benefits:
If the practice of rhythmic diaphragmatic breathing is done ten times a day for at least two months, with gradual and equal prolongation of the inhalation and the exhalation, the body will experience a sense of deep relaxation and rest—more restful even than the deepest sleep. One will remain free from the stress and strain which is the source of many physical and psychosomatic illnesses. The nerves will be calm, and the voice and face will manifest this serenity. The voice will grow sweeter, and the harsh lines of the face will be replaced by a soft glow.
(p.91 of Science of Breath)
Last December, I mustered courage to book an appointment at the dentist after far too long putting it off. Feeling out of control and at the mercy of needles and unpleasant sensations sometimes has the potential to set off panic within me. I got through two days of treatment by breathing deeply in the chair and I remember the focus on the air flow relaxed me and took other physical sensations away from my awareness. I felt so proud of myself!
The Complete Yoga Breath also has the potential to be the starting point for meditation (M, P, Gregor Maehle, Ashtanga Yoga Practice and Philosophy, p. 9). In fact, it is a common practice to meditate on the breath, whatever the breath is that day, but I have also concentrated on the deep yogic breath, tracing its journey in and out of my body. This breath also helps me to sit still, the bear the discomforts of the posture, to be steady in stillness. If practiced with awareness, the Complete Yoga Breath allows for the cultivation of equanimity and balance, equalising the in and out breaths, and the Ida and Pingala nadis (M, P, Pr).
Through a sustained practice of the Complete Yoga Breath, a potential to change the body, its function and appearance is made apparent (M, P), as stated on p.10 of Science of Breath. This is applicable to everyone, in any circumstance of life. Sometimes, I have found myself taking time to breathe and changing my mind about something, or even relaxing a tense or contracted area, which results in a clear difference in how I hold myself. The Complete Yoga Breath has an even deeper impact as a support in managing certain diseases (M, P), be these physical or mental (see Science of Breath, p. 43 and Chapter 2). Even though the breath occurs in the respiratory organs, the sensation of the breath can be directed and often I have used this to visualise the breath in areas of injury such as the hips, the knees and the neck. I also have used the breath when suffering episodes of depression. The breath, of course, has not cured me of sadness, but it has helped to bring time, perspective, to ground me within my body and to stop what I perceived as the demands and noise from the outside world, through pratyahara, sense withdrawal. This is highlighted by Gregor Maehle as one of the benefits of listening to Ujjai breath (p.9).
The section on ‘Mental and Physical Aspects of Breathing’ in Yoga, Mind and Body (pp. 108–109) lists some additional mental benefits to proper breathing (their wording for the Complete Yoga Breath): improved concentration and clarity of thought (M), and increased ability to deal with complex situations without stress (M). All of these benefits focus on the ultimate one: the Complete Yoga Breath unifies the mind-body connection (M, P, Pr) and, as such, it is a clear agent of change—or perhaps of letting go, because more than change, I sometimes feel that through breathing I revert to a more primary and truthful self.
Since starting my yoga journey, I have been fascinated by the breath, and by its potential and this starts with the Complete Yoga Breath. When I began my pranayama training, I was warned to be very aware and careful because it is a very powerful practice. Since focusing on the breath, I have felt slow, steady benefits, many of which I have listed above. I have also read a lot on the subject and sometimes, I have encountered mysterious benefits I have not experienced or understand, but which I consider within the realm of the possible, given my own practical study of the Complete Yoga Breath: for example, the experience of a higher consciousness (Pr), changes in the relationship with gravity (M, P, Pr) which are admittedly attained through full pranayama but start with the Complete Yoga Breath, and karmic purging (Pr, see Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati, pp. 133–136). I look forward to these!
Lastly, I want to close with something lovely and very tangible. I use John Scott’s ‘Focused 12 breaths’ (12 Complete Yoga Breaths, counted in Sanskrit in a particular pattern) to go to sleep (M, P), especially if I feel worried or I have woken up in the middle of my rest. It tends to work wonderfully and I am always grateful to have such power of self-control within me with the Complete Yoga Breath.
Gregor Maehle, Ashtanga Yoga Practice and Philosophy, 2007
John Scott, Ashtanga Yoga, 2000
Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centre, Yoga Mind and Body, 2008
Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati, Prana and Pranayama, 2009
Swami Rama, Rudolph Ballentine and Alan Hymes, Science of Breath, 1999