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 EmbodiedYoga.com
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.