Five Minutes of Bliss: Complete Breath, Three Part Breathing

There are an infinite number of possible beneficial breathing exercises. I have picked one to share about today that is very special.  It is called Complete Breath or Three Part Breathing and it has many, many benefits, but the truth is whenever you make your exhalations longer than your inhalations for more than two minutes you are going to trigger the relaxation responses of the parasympathetic nervous system. You are human and that his how our bodies work. It is that simple.


Stripped bare all pranayama comes down to this. So why all the hoo ha? The mystical shroud about the power of breath and the many varied and sometimes quite complicated systems of counts, hand gestures and soundings are all so much gilt on a very plain, though quite lovely lily. It is all to entice us to do it. To lure our wandering minds and get them to settle. To keep us interested while we set about doing the boring task of deep breathing with long exhalations.

Well, ok, there might be a bit more to it than that. Some practices are geared to induce a certain mental frame, helping you to settle your mind on the rhythm of the breath or healing or success or becoming a better person or some other beneficial goal. Plus, some practices have been done for thousands of years, or have been developed by advanced masters for special purposes.  These things all mean something but the truth remains that they are all rooted in the simple bio-mechanical fact that our bodies relax when we elongate our exhalations. Every meditative tradition has a breathwork component as a lead in. That is why.

I consider myself a raja yogi. Raja means prince or chief and raja yoga is the royal road. The destination is samadhi, meaning liberation or bliss. The understanding of raja yogis is that all the other forms of yoga have value and are to be used to make progress on the path toward enlightenment. Swami Vishnu Devananda said, "Ways are many but god is one." Raja yogis pick the practices that work for them and are encouraged to explore to find them.

Perhaps this is why I know so darn many relaxation practices. Over a period of more than 40 years trying these things I've found one or two each year that really resonate with me. What is more, while I have learned most of them in class or workshop settings, it is the at home practice of them that has convinced me of their power and value. I'm planning to share a different relaxation practice here each week for the next year or more. What I hope is that at least one will resonate with you and you will find it useful on your own royal road to Nirvana.

To follow this lengthy explanation, I've chosen an auspicious practice.  One that is very traditional and practiced as universally as lotus or tree pose because of it's many benefits.  I've done it in Iyengar and Sivananda classes and been taught it by teachers like Dharma Mittra and Richard Hittleman and many others. Each teacher and tradition tends to put their own spin on things and I hope I will do the practice of Three Part Breathing justice.

The way I generally teach it now is fairly simple.  Sit on the floor or a chair in a comfortable seated position, back straight, head erect, shoulders back and down.  Inhale, through the nose, filling the stomach, then the chest, then the top third of the lungs for 6 counts each.  Squeeze in as much air as possible then hold at the top for 6 counts.  Release in reverse order exhaling nasally from the clavicle area, the chest then the stomach each for a count of six and repeat.

The benefits of this practice are many.  For beginners it is a great way to establish breath  awareness.  It deeply emphasizes the difference between a complete breath and the more limited breathing we normally do.  To underline this, putting our hands on the stomach, chest and clavicle area in turn helps to come into contact with the lung expansion and contraction.  This is also a good time to mention that yoga is perhaps the only exercise regime which focuses on expanding lung capacity by stretching the interstatial muscles between the ribs.  Studies have shown that even conditioned athletes can increase the volume of air they can process in each breath through yoga practice and this is why.

While the experience of focusing on this exaggerated expansion and contraction of the lungs is a good introduction to breath awareness it is also a wonderful set up for watching the flow of breath in the relaxed breathing of meditation. Doing Complete Breath as a warmup and observation of the breath during a cool down are effective and instructive bookends for a yoga class.

Three Part Breathing is also a gentle way to feel the difference between exertion and relaxation.  Doing this exercise before class, or before entering ones day or even as a little break in the middle of the day is a great way to let go of all our cares and worries and come into contact with ourselves.  In 2-3 minutes, around 6 rounds, you can easily shake off the tension of the day and begin to relax.  How nice is that?

Here are three variations I find very useful. One is shrugging the shoulders up to the ears on the top third inhalation, creating more lung capacity while also emphasizing the most subtle of the 3 areas of breath.  Release the shoulders on the top third exhalation.  The second variation is for more advanced practitioners.  It involves pulling the stomach in toward the spine on the bottom third exhalation in uddiyana bandha fashion.  You can also fold forward on this exhalation perhaps touching the forehead to the floor, hold for 6 and come back up on the inhalation.  This is less relaxing for most practioners and more of a yoga class warm up.  The third variation is for complete beginners and for classes closely focused on breathing.  Lie on your back on the floor or your mat.  As you do the complete breath put your hands on the stomach, chest and clavicle area in turn and notice also the pressure of the back against the floor and the way the sides expand.  Lying on the floor helps to exaggerate the side expansion and make it more noticeable.

    Anja Brierley Lange

Some of you might be saying wait, wait, there is something wrong here.  "You said to trigger the parasympathetic response the exhalation had to be longer than the inhalation, but in this practice they are even.  What gives?"  Well here's what gives.  All time spent not inhaling is counted as exhalation.  This is body wisdom, not something I made up.  So as long as your inhalations and exhalations are fairly even AND you are doing the hold at the top you will be in relaxation response territory.  Ahhhh.

When you do this and have some positive experiences to share or any questions, I'd love to hear about it.

Five Minutes of Bliss: Getting Silly

"I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." - Luke 18:17

Relaxing doesn't always have to be closely focused on relieving tension, nor does it have to be serious.  In fact some of the best ways to become calm are downright silly and dare I say it, fun.

Think of the last time you had a good laugh.  A real big smile till your face hurt kind of experience.  How did you feel afterward?  Tense and down cast?  Of course not!  If you are like me, you felt happy, serene and satisfied.  Why not induce these joyous feelings?

"Easier said than done," you say.  I'm not so sure.

Try this.  Smile.  Are you smiling?  How does that feel?  I bet you are already feeling happier and more at ease than before you smiled.  Voila.  Instant bliss.

big toothy smile

So now we know.  The way to Nirvana is to keep smiling!  Well, it may not be that easy, but finding 5 minutes of bliss does not have to be very hard either.

Here's a practice I love that is just plain fun. I call it Operatic Breakfast because that is when I concieved it but you can do it at any time, alone or in a group.  I started doing it by myself and liked it so much I shared it with some close friends and we have had a blast with it.  I smile and laugh just thinking about it.

Ted Weis in The Most Happy Fella, Festival
 Opera, Walnut Creek, California
The concept is simple.  Narrate what you are doing or thinking about in an elaborate song that is overly dramatic.  Use your favorite big voice and really let loose.  Singing about how much I love my cereal and fruit in the morning, how white the soy milk, how crunchy the flakes, how sweet the banana.  How much fun is that?  This can of course apply to anything and it is especially satisfying to show appreciation of our friends and loved ones in this way.  Even talking about hurt feelings can be a pleasure when you are putting on a big show about it.  This practice takes things immediately from mundane to absurd.  With this perspective shift it is easy to have a sense of humor about nearly anything.  
There are plenty of situations where you might not be comfortable belting out your personal aria or gesticulating with vigor and you know what, this practice can still be the one for you.  Imagined situations work almost as well as full displays.  Say you feel the tension of an impending deadline tightening your neck, shoulders and back while working at your desk.  Now, just think of yourself singing at the top of your lungs ,"O woe is me, I will never have this job done on time.  I have to stay late, the hunger is making me weary, my partner may leave me, my life is so hard."  All delivered in a full throated open mouthed lyric while you embellish that you are tearing out your hair and banging your head, crying big tears.  Woe.  Mentally picturing this big display makes the actual situation start to look more handleable!  And here's a bonus, this humorous expression of your pain somehow breaks through your tension  leading to genuine, self empathy.  When you become both the actor and the viewer it is easier to give yourself the compassion you deserve.  Go ahead.  Give yourself some credit for that great mental performance and for hanging in during a difficult time ;--)
Imagining living life as melodrama somehow makes the real experience richer and more fun.  Who would have thunk it?

If you try this and have any questions or thoughts to share, I'd love to hear from you.

Five Minutes of Bliss: Buddhist Counting Meditation and Sleep Aid - 7 rounds of 7

This is a wonderful practice for clearing your mind when it is racing and needs to cool down.  I have found it helpful when I wake up agitated, thinking of all kinds of things not conducive to sleep.  Sometimes I don't  make it through the whole thing before I fall back into slumber.  Other times I have to do it twice or more, however, it always leaves me calmer than when I started.  I also like it as a short meditation that helps me shift from my mind flitting from one thought to the next to focused attention.

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insomniac cant sleep

     Thanks to Alvaro of

I don't want to give the impression that I advocate jumping over difficult feelings and somehow numbing ourselves with "mind controlling" practices.  I suggest that when we wake up with difficult feelings we make an effort to stay with them and see where they lead us. Discover if you can, what in your present circumstances is triggering these emotions and notice how they may connect to your past.  This is important work on the path of self knowledge and I encourage you to do it.  The reason these feelings may be waking you up is because they "need to be heard".  Listening to them can be very liberating.  Sometimes after that process you will feel so soothed that you relax and go back to sleep with no other technique being necessary.  I love the times when that happens.

However, it is often the case that charged with old feelings of fear, shame or anguish of any sort our minds will race around looking for things to glom onto in an effort to hide from difficult feelings.  Focuses that seem common for this kind of thinking are all the things that we've done wrong lately, or the things that have gone wrong or may go wrong, or more mundanely what we have to do tomorrow that may of course go wrong.  Regardless of where the mind is trying to escape to to avoid feeling uncomfortable, it is rarely what you want to be focusing on at 3AM.  It serves no purpose and will only make you groggy the next day.  So I suggest you spend a few minutes closely focused on the energy you wake up with and what it represents, but don't let it lead you far afield in ways that  feed your agitation and make it hard to sleep.  When you are done exploring your feelings and ready to slow the mind down, begin this practice.

Here's How:
     Evidently, in the Far East, where this practice originated, they think of breathing as beginning with exhalation.  As a result, the way I learned this practice was starting with the out breath.  For us Westerners, since it is counter to habit, this makes it harder to do but easier to concentrate on.  We really have to think to begin with expiration.  Since wandering mind is a big obstacle, any help is welcome.  Doing this the Eastern way makes sense to me for this reason.

So when you are ready, seated or lying comfortably, take a final inhalation, then exhale through the nose counting mentally, "out 1."  Inhale through the nose and count mentally,  "in one." Exhale, "out 2," inhale "in 2," exhale, "out 3" and so on.  Unless your nose is stuffed up all breaths are through the nose.  Try to breath naturally, more observing the breaths and countings than directing them.  After completing 7 breaths, start at one again. Do 7 rounds of 7 breaths. This is way harder than it sounds.

The first few times you do this your mind may wander, making it difficult to keep counting or to remember to stop after 7 breaths and start again, or to remember how many rounds you have done.  Tradition has it that if you lose track in any of these ways, you are to start again from the beginning.  If this was the approach I took when I first learned this practice, I might still be doing it, since I've made all the "mistakes" many times, especially when I orininally tried it.  Lucky for you, it is not necessary to continually take it from the top to derive the calming effect.  My philosophy is that since it is the softening we are after, a nurturing and supportive approach is best.  When you get lost just make your best guess as to where you left off and pick up again.  Applaud your stick-to-ativeness and keep going.  If your goal is to go back to sleep, anytime that feels possible, go with it, let go and drift off, otherwise strive to do your seven rounds of seven.  After a bit more commentary, I will give you some tips, which might be frowned on in certain settings, that make getting through this easier.  I won't tell the sensei if you don't.

Since there are so many details and such specific instructions it may sound like this is a stressful process not a relaxant.  For some people it might be, but after awhile the rhythm of the counts and focus on the breath become a soothing vacation from whatever was bothering you.  This exercise can also be used as a transitioning meditation done for 5-10 minutes at the beginning of a longer sit, just to clear your mind and come into a state of relaxation before pursuing some other practice.  If you really like it a lot you could try doing 7 rounds of 7 rounds of 7 breaths.  This would be a full half hour sit.   Some people say meditation practices should not be used to induce sleep and sleep inducing practices should not be used for meditation.  I don't agree.  I find practices charged with healing, relaxed energy during meditation are just what I need when agitation keeps me awake.  Furthermore, if I am sleepy in meditation it doesn't so much matter what practice I am doing, wakefulness will be elusive.

This 7 counts of 7 practice will take between 5 and 10 minutes depending on the length of your breaths.   Along the way your mind may try to wander off.  Here are some tips, born from my experiance, that make it easier to stay focused on the breathing and counting.

The first thing I discovered is that if I say, "out one" real quick in my mind, I may forget what number I am at before the next breath, so now I elongate the mental saying of the count to match the length of the breath.  This makes it much easier to retain the counts.

The next thing that is hard to do is holding onto what round you are on.  To help here, I have chosen a simple expedient.  I use my fingers.  Figure out a system for curling or uncurling one digit each time you start or complete a round of seven.  This way you will know where you are all the time with the rounds.  I mostly do this mentally now, but at one time would I never have gotten through to the end without this trick.

The final helpful tip is perhaps the hardest to learn.  Don't worry so much about doing it right.  Just do it your way and it will be perfect.  Sweet dreams.

happy sleeper restful sleep

If you try this and have any questions or thoughts to share, I'd love to hear from you.

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Five Minutes of Bliss: Relaxation Breath

Here's what I love about this week's practice. It is so simple and unobtrusive, you can do it anywhere. On line at the grocery store check out, no problem. At your desk while the boss is yelling (again) or the computer is frozen (again), no sweat. Driving with a car full of fighting kids, no worries. No kidding. This breathing exercise, appropriately named, relaxation breath, will take you back to a calm state when your fight or flight response is just getting going.
My understanding is that my teacher Sri Yogi Dharma Mittra developed this practice so he could settle during his lunch hour without calling attention to himself. Since it is so versatile, effective and easy to do, it is the pranayama I teach the most and a practice I reach for regularly, when things get hectic and I feel my body tightening.

Image by mrhayata, licensed by Creative Commons.

Here's how:
Come to a comfortable position, back straight, head erect, shoulders back and down. Inhale through the nose for 8 counts, hold for 4, exhale for 8. Repeat. That's it. Within 6 cycles you will trigger your parasympathetic nervous system, slowing your heart rate, your metabolism and your mind. You will feel relaxed and energized and be happy to wait in line, take verbal abuse or ignore what is going on in the back seat for as long as you need to. This is a rare gem of an exercise since it is so simple, versatile and effective. In 8, hold 4, out 8, repeat. 2 minutes minimum is recommended (6-8 breaths). More will only make the relaxation deeper so feel free to keep going.

When you do this and have some positive experiences to share or any questions, I'd love to hear about it.