In looking at how to deepen (rather than broaden) our personal practice choosing to focus on exploring the breath can be a key to unlocking the mystery of the relationship between body, breath, mind and beyond.
Here we can think of the deepening into our practice arising through progressively slowing the patterning of our breathing. To do this we have to reconsider our practice, not in terms of what we do with our body but what we do with the breath within our body.
This means firstly knowing what is our basic practice breath rate per minute and then progressively slowing that rate as we progress from Āsana, through to Mudrā and then to Prāṇāyāma.
For example when working with Āsana we can start with four breaths per minute, then with Mudrā slow it to three breaths per minute and finally with Prāṇāyāma, slow it again to two breaths per minute.
An accomplished practitioner may be working with three breaths a minute in Āsana, two breaths a minute in Mudrā and one breath a minute with Prāṇāyāma.
Whereas a less experienced practitioner may be working on five breaths a minute in Āsana, four breaths a minute in Mudrā and three breaths a minute in Prāṇāyāma.
The starting point does not matter and is something that is appropriate to the history, health and training of the student. What is more important is that no matter where we start from, the journey into the mystery of the breath and its relationship to the slowing of psychic activity, is through the progressive slowing of our breathing patterns.
1. “Sitting up very straight is no longer advised as treatment for or prevention of back pain, according to a new international study involving researchers at the University of Limerick (UL).”
2. “For those who do suffer from back pain however, Dr O’Sullivan said that it’s reasonable to see if changing your posture helps your pain. “Don’t assume that the solution is always sitting up straight. Some people benefit from sitting up straight but slightly more people benefit from slouching.”
3. “According to Dr O’Sullivan, psychological factors such as worries and mood and lifestyle factors such as sleep and fitness are bigger influencers of back pain than posture.”
4. “The study builds on other recent research at UL which found that physiotherapists and members of the public have an unnecessarily negative view of “slouched” sitting posture and also that physiotherapists and manual handling instructors often promote very stiff straight ways of bending and lifting, even though they are not shown to prevent or ease back pain.“
5. “The best advice on back pain is to move and relax, get fit and strong and not worry about the angle of your back when sitting,” said Dr O’Sullivan.”
“One irony from this pursuit is that any experience
will not be exactly the same next time we reach for it,
once we have been through that ‘first time taste’.
This is the nature of Avidyā and its illusory mimicry,
as lived through its child Rāga.”
“The irony of seeking well being,
is that our being is always well”
“In reality Yoga is about looking inwards at what we fear most,
rather than just looking outwards at what we desire most,
in terms of seeking yet another socially addictive pursuit,
albeit under the guise of bliss, happiness, feeling good, etc.”
“The target of Yoga is ‘Svatantra’ which means to
discover our own technique.
‘Sva’ means self and ‘Tantra’ means technique.
The techniques are in oneself and we must discover them;
if not we will depend on others.
This is ‘Svatantra’.”
– TKV Desikachar
“The viniyoga of Yoga is the application of the principles that link together to offer possibilities to enhance your relationship with yourself through your practice. This opens the possibility that a deepening of your practice comes not from adding more difficult postures, but from refining your relationship with what you already have.
Life is already full of pressures to go for the newest model, to bring more in from the outside rather than concentrating on bringing more out from the inside. So we need to take care that we do not become an avid consumer of a new posture or new technique purely for the sake of it.
Yoga is a relationship within which you commit yourself to depth of involvement rather than breadth of involvement. In that sense, Yoga is no different from how any relationship with someone or something we care for and wish to spend time with should be.
From this relationship we can eventually start to experience the fruits that arise from the time, care, effort and attention. Perhaps keeping the following words of a teacher from long ago in our mind as we adapt Yoga to suit our particular needs:
“Only through Yoga Yoga is known,
Only through Yoga Yoga changes.
One who is patient at Yoga,
Enjoys the fruits over a long time”
Yoga as a View, Practice and Tool
Part 3 – Yoga as a Tool
“Yoga as a tool is more likely to be the starting point for most students these days in that we often choose a style or approach to Yoga as a starting point in our Yoga experience.
There are many, many choices these days, although the common denominator now appears to be based around Yoga teachers rather than Yoga teachings.
For example we have Anusāra, Aṣṭāṅga, Bikram, Dru, Gītānada, Integral, Iyengar, Jīvamukti, Kripālu, Kuṇḍalinī, Sahaja, Scaravelli, Śivananda, Satyānanda, Viniyoga, etc.
Which is fine in itself. However the question that arises is how much do the various ‘types’ actually apply the Haṭha energetic principles of Practice in order to realize the View of Yoga? My own field of expertise lies within the teachings often referred to as Viniyoga, so I can only speak with experience from this perspective.
The primary principle here is that the Practices of Yoga must be adapted to the starting point, potential and needs of the student. Within this premise is a further question how, or even how much, the tools of Yoga utilize the Practice principles of Haṭha, in order to realise the View of Yoga as presented in what is seen as the primary teaching on the goal of Yoga, the Yoga Sūtra.”
Yoga as a View, Practice and Tool
Part 2 – Yoga as a Practice
“A further irony in the emerging role and identity of Yoga in the West today is with regard to the term Haṭha Yoga. The term is mainly used generically these days to identify and group ‘physically’ based Yoga practices.
As a teacher I am often asked in connection with the question what kind of Yoga do you teach, is it Haṭha Yoga?
The irony is that when we look at what Haṭha Yoga really is we find that the physical elements are relatively limited with very few Āsana discussed.
Furthermore within the few discussed, the largest group are concerned with sitting, in preparation for practice elements other than Āsana.
Primarily to facilitate a quality of being able to sit still and as if move beyond the physical body.
Here the primary concern and field of activity for Haṭha Yoga practitioners is with regard to the energetic or ‘Prāṇa’ body and its role in helping to facilitate a quality of energetic ‘clarity’ and energetic ‘stillness’ ultimately as a ladder to support the practitioners exploration of meditational states of being in terms of Raja Yoga or the Yoga of Samādhi.
The role of Haṭhais to help take the student towards the View and to help refine the View.
What is important also is that we understand the various influences that exist in the West today in terms of ‘Yoga’.
What seems to be in danger of being lost in all of this are the ‘energetic principles’ that underpin Haṭha Yoga because people have become very focused on the physicality, or even gymnastic type influences.
It seems that modern Yoga practice is dominated by Āsana and the words Āsana and Yoga appears to have become sadly synonymous.”
Yoga as a View, Practice and Tool
Part 1 – Yoga as a View
“It is interesting these days that as a Yoga teacher the question I am more likely to be asked is ‘What kind of Yoga do you do?’ rather than ‘What is Yoga?’. It’s either that we think we already know what Yoga is or, more likely, that the view is becoming lost within the myriad of ways in which Yoga is offered.
These days there seems to be little apparent clarity around what Yoga is, or if there is a view, it is not very apparent.”
“If the teacher does not have a ‘view’ to inspire and guide them whilst accommodating the many vagaries of Yoga classes today then we are more likely to be looking at the view dissolving into the many nuances of postural performance.
A Yoga view would be that a group class moves from the starting point of physicality towards some point of stillness, giving students an experience of ‘sitting’ and experiencing the potential of stillness at some point along the way.
The priority in terms of what we are trying to teach is ‘stillness’ or an experience of ‘Cit’. Can I be present within the activities of the mind? The longer I can be present, the more awareness that can emerge.
When people touch that stillness something happens – a wanting to move away from the dominance of the activities of the Citta.
The more that we go back in time with Yoga the more we see the goal was the achievement of the ability to sit and experience stillness. The more forward we move in time with Yoga the more we see the movement towards increased physicality.”
“When less Āsana time than you would like,
better to reduce the number of Āsana,
or the number of repetitions,
or the length of the stays,
rather than, reducing the length of the breath.
Or….. even considering lengthening the breath,
thus even fewer Āsana, all with a longer breath than usual.
Here the Bhāvana could be to observe the effect
of a more spacious than usual Āsana breathing
on a more cramped than usual daily mindset.”
– Paul Harvey
“It has long been claimed by Yogis and Buddhists that meditation and ancient breath-focused practices, such as prānāyamā, strengthen our ability to focus on tasks. A new study by researchers at Trinity College Dublin explains for the first time the neurophysiological link between breathing and attention.
Breath-focused meditation and yogic breathing practices have numerous known cognitive benefits, including increased ability to focus, decreased mind wandering, improved arousal levels, more positive emotions, decreased emotional reactivity, along with many others. To date, however, no direct neurophysiological link between respiration and cognition has been suggested.
The research shows for the first time that breathing—a key element of meditation and mindfulness practices—directly affects the levels of a natural chemical messenger in the brain called noradrenaline. This chemical messenger is released when we are challenged, curious, exercised, focused or emotionally aroused, and, if produced at the right levels, helps the brain grow new connections, like a brain fertiliser. The way we breathe, in other words, directly affects the chemistry of our brains in a way that can enhance our attention and improve our brain health.
The study, carried out by researchers at Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience and the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity, found that participants who focused well while undertaking a task that demanded a lot of attention had greater synchronisation between their breathing patterns and their attention, than those who had poor focus. The authors believe that it may be possible to use breath-control practices to stabilise attention and boost brain health.
Michael Melnychuk, Ph.D. candidate at the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, Trinity, and lead author of the study, explained: “Practitioners of yoga have claimed for some 2,500 years, that respiration influences the mind. In our study we looked for a neurophysiological link that could help explain these claims by measuring breathing, reaction time, and brain activity in a small area in the brainstem called the locus coeruleus, where noradrenaline is made. Noradrenaline is an all-purpose action system in the brain. When we are stressed we produce too much noradrenaline and we can’t focus. When we feel sluggish, we produce too little and again, we can’t focus. There is a sweet spot of noradrenaline in which our emotions, thinking and memory are much clearer.”
“This study has shown that as you breathe in locus coeruleus activity is increasing slightly, and as you breathe out it decreases. Put simply this means that our attention is influenced by our breath and that it rises and falls with the cycle of respiration. It is possible that by focusing on and regulating your breathing you can optimise your attention level and likewise, by focusing on your attention level, your breathing becomes more synchronised.”
The research provides deeper scientific understanding of the neurophysiological mechanisms which underlie ancient meditation practices. The findings were recently published in a paper entitled ‘Coupling of respiration and attention via the locus coeruleus: Effects of meditation and pranayama’ in the journal Psychophysiology. Further research could help with the development of non-pharmacological therapies for people with attention compromised conditions such as ADHD and traumatic brain injury and in supporting cognition in older people.
There are traditionally two types of breath-focused practices—those that emphasise focus on breathing (mindfulness), and those that require breathing to be controlled (deep breathing practices such as pranayama). In cases when a person’s attention is compromised, practices which emphasise concentration and focus, such as mindfulness, where the individual focuses on feeling the sensations of respiration but make no effort to control them, could possibly be most beneficial. In cases where a person’s level of arousal is the cause of poor attention, for example drowsiness while driving, a pounding heart during an exam, or during a panic attack, it should be possible to alter the level of arousal in the body by controlling breathing. Both of these techniques have been shown to be effective in both the short and the long term.
Ian Robertson, Co-Director of the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity and Principal Investigator of the study added: “Yogis and Buddhist practitioners have long considered the breath an especially suitable object for meditation. It is believed that by observing the breath, and regulating it in precise ways—a practice known as pranayama—changes in arousal, attention, and emotional control that can be of great benefit to the meditator are realised. Our research finds that there is evidence to support the view that there is a strong connection between breath-centred practices and a steadiness of mind.”
“Our findings could have particular implications for research into brain ageing. Brains typically lose mass as they age, but less so in the brains of long term meditators. More ‘youthful’ brains have a reduced risk of dementia and mindfulness meditation techniques actually strengthen brain networks. Our research offers one possible reason for this—using our breath to control one of the brain’s natural chemical messengers, noradrenaline, which in the right ‘dose’ helps the brain grow new connections between cells. This study provides one more reason for everyone to boost the health of their brain using a whole range of activities ranging from aerobic exercise to mindfulness meditation.”
“Yoga is more about exploring
the movement of the mind, whilst Āsana is more about exploring
the movement of the body.
The vehicle common to exploring both
is the movement of the breath.
The yoking of all three is towards the goal of
experiencing the source of all movement.” – Paul Harvey