My Year of Discovering How Weird the Mind Gets, Part VI [Breathwork]

This month’s post will explore breath as an influence on one’s state of consciousness. My apologies for getting into the weeds at the start with a long discussion of the minutiae of this breathwork practice, but this is a topic that can create confusion for a couple different reasons.

First, there are a number of ways breath could be used to influence one’s state of consciousness, and the practices I’m talking about are of one specific type. For example, I often use a balanced pranayama practice (breathing exercises that mix calming, exciting, and balanced breaths) as a lead-in to meditative practices because it helps to put me in a state of mind that is neither groggy nor mentally agitated, allowing my mental chatter to quiet rapidly without making me drift off. However, that’s not the kind of practice I’m referring too in this post. I’m talking about breathing in a way that is excessively deep and / or fast for an extended period such that the blood becomes more alkaline (i.e. blood is slightly alkaline in homeostasis, but the pH goes up in this type of practice) as carbon dioxide is purged.

Second, there’s no terminology that’s commonly agreed upon. For one thing, the breathing that I’m discussing could be called “hyperventilative” or “over-breathing.” However, those terms are usually used to describe medical conditions that may have similar physiological effects, but aren’t controlled activities done on purpose. While there are some similarities physiologically, equating this practice with involuntarily rapid breathing caused by a physical injury, mental condition, or consumption of a toxic substance can create confusion. After all, whatever is causing involuntary hyperventilation is likely to have other effects (at a minimum, increased anxiety) over and beyond those seen in a voluntary practice. This means the list of adverse effects will also be different. I wouldn’t want a reader to look at a Wikipedia or WebMD page for “hyperventilation” and think I’m insane for undertaking the practice.

For another thing, this type of breathing is employed in a number of different systems — each of which has its own particular approach and particular context in which the breath practice occurs (and variations in terminology.) Tibetan Buddhist Tummo, the Wim Hof Method, and Holotropic Breathwork all use kinds of breathing that create a similar effects. However, it should noted that the breathwork is just a part of each of these practices that occurs within a more extensive context. In Tummo, visualization in conjunction with the breath is an essential element of the practice. The Wim Hof Method has a defined sequence including breath retention, not to mention other practices — most famously, cold exposure. Holotropic Breathwork employs an observer and encourages practitioners to make sounds and movement as they feel fit as part of the practice, basically responding freely to the impulses one feels. It should be noted that Holotropic Breathwork was developed by Stanislav Grof after psychoactive substances like LSD became illegal, and he was looking for a way to generate similar results endogenously, having seen positive therapeutic effects using LSD. 

It should be noted that yoga also has breaths that create this type of effect: Kapalbhati (forced exhalation breathing) and Bhastrika (bellows breath.) However, these breaths are more self-regulating in that they are generally done in and out through the nose (as opposed to exhaling through mouth which allows a greater tidal turnover of breath) and because the rapid contraction of the abdomen to force the exhalation tends to be self-limiting. In other words, the capacity of one’s nervous system to keep up with breath will — for most people — give out well before one’s blood chemistry is so out of whack that it is likely to create any bizarre or potentially dangerous effects. For this reason, kapalbhati and bhastrika can be safely practiced daily in a seated position (though if one is doing unusually large sets or numbers of sets, one might be wise to lay down.) It should be noted that the basic breathwork of the Wim Hof Method involves three sets of 30 breaths (though with breath retention in between), and most people would probably be fine doing that seated as well (though it seems to done laying down most frequently,) and it can be done daily.

I focused on the breath entirely — as well as observation of the after effects upon my mind and body. The practice I did involved a full and rapid in breath through the nose and a blowing exhalation through the mouth, repeated as quickly as sustainable for as long as 30 minutes at a time. I always did this practice lying down, and I always allowed the same amount of time I did the practice before attempting to get up. (i.e. if I did the breath practice for 30 minutes, I would reset the alarm for 30 minutes after I was done and lie still, watching the sensations, at least until the alarm went off.) I only did half-hour sessions once a week, though I would sometimes engage in shorter practices or specific practices (e.g. trying out the basic Wim Hof breath exercise.) While stimulating yoga pranayama (e.g. kapalbhati) and relatively small repetitions done in a few sets (e.g. the basic Wim Hof breath practice), can be practiced daily, I wanted to give my body lots of time to restore homeostasis because of the extensive and relatively long-lasting effects of these sessions.

The experience of doing the practice was interesting. I almost always face a challenge at the very beginning of the practice. Forcing such over-breathing feels burdensome at first, and its hard to image getting through a half hour of it. However, before long I would catch a rhythm and by the end of the practice I was usually stunned at how quickly the time went. I suspect having to focus on maintaining the breath keeps one from internally referencing time, and that’s why one seems to lose track of it altogether.

I wish I had more of a culinary sense and set of terminology, because I found there was definitely a subtle flavor associated with my changed body chemistry. I could taste the experience of respiratory alkalosis, but I have no way of describing what the taste of it was like. Of course, the most dramatic sensory experience associated with the practice was tingling all over the body. It wasn’t just in the usual parts (e.g. the extremities), but I also felt it — for example —  along both sides of my abdomen. While the intensity of the tingling began waning as soon as I was done, it often would more than last through my post-practice observation period.

As for the effect on my state of consciousness, in general I came out of it feeling loose and blissful. I haven’t had any trippy, psychedelic, or hallucinatory experiences, but there is definitely a sense of calm and clarity (not to mention a slightly inebriated feel.) I generally finished with a kind of rhythmic, music ready state of mind. I don’t know if that was a feature of the rhythm of the breathing or just a quirky sensory craving. It should be noted that I also had sensations that weren’t particularly pleasant (though they weren’t particularly uncomfortable either — like a faint trace of a headache.) I’d recommend being as slow and gentle as possible when coming out of such a practice.

As for recommendations, for this practice my recommendation would be the same as it was in my January post about an experience with psilocybin tea. That is, “know thyself.” In other words, I wouldn’t make a wholesale recommendation that someone try this type of practice. Certainly, people who have anxiety when everything isn’t in perfect homeostasis in the body should steer clear of it. If one doesn’t have an extensive background with breathwork and how one’s body responds to it, I’d, furthermore, recommend that one only try it under the guidance of (and in the presence of) someone who does. This practice has had a more drastic influence on mind and body than any of the other consciousness-altering practices thus far and may be the most potentially dangerous. All that said, I have found it beneficial, and believe others may too under the right circumstances.

Continuing this series, next month (July) I’m going to try to jump-start my practice of lucid-dreaming (a.k.a. dream yoga.) [It’s something I’ve never excelled at, though I do have a few lucid dreams a year.]

5 Non-Yoga Video Channels that Are Great Resources for Yoga Teachers

As I’ve been expanding my pranayama (yogic breathing exercises) practice, I’ve found myself searching beyond traditional yogic sources of information at times. It turns out that there are several disciplines from which valuable tidbits of information about breath can be gleaned, including: martial arts, freediving, and physiology.

As I was on a freediving site (shown below, #5) learning some lung capacity expanding exercises, it occurred to me that it might be beneficial to do a post of some of the sources of information that I’ve found useful that wouldn’t necessarily be stumbled upon by those looking for information on yoga.

5.) Adam Freediver: This enthusiastic and whimsical Aussie freediving champion offers fascinating tips on respiration — many of which are of use out of the water as well as in.

4.) Physical Therapy Video: Bob and Brad, Physical Therapists, offer advice and exercises that may be helpful for students with hyperkyphosis (excessive back rounding), duck foot (excessive external rotation of legs), or a number of other common postural / bodily challenges.

3.) SOLPM (The Science of Learning Power Move): This site offers progressions and capacity building exercises that will help one with challenging exercises, e.g. handstands, that most people can’t do without a gradual building up. As with the Adam Freediver channel, not all of the videos are relevant, but a number of them are.

2.) Crash Course:: This witty educational channel presents excellent graphics and a light-hearted and watchable commentary by Hank Green (one of the Vlog Brothers.) The Anatomy and Physiology Series is particularly relevant, but there are select videos in other series — such as Mythology — that one may find illuminating.

1.) TED Talks: Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably familiar with TED, but you may not be aware of the breadth of topics they’ve covered, including meditation, biomechanics, yogic philosophy, breathing, and more.

Honorable Mentions:
Calisthenic Movement: Like SOLPM, this channel can help build up some of the challenging maneuvers, such as handstands, but you may also find out something useful about more rudimentary exercises, such as planks.

ASAP Science: This science channel that uses line-drawn graphics has some interesting and informative videos on topics such as meditation, hypnosis, and nutrition.

5 Fun Facts about Breathing

Annapurna, Nepal; Taken in May of 2018

5.) The Death Zone may be a myth, or — probably more accurately — everyone may have their own personal death zone:

It’s widely stated as fact that above 8,000 meters (26,000 feet) every human being is dying, no human can acclimatize, and the race is on to get back below that altitude before the body is damaged beyond its ability to repair itself. This hard-limit is widely publicized in reputable, mainstream publications such as National Geographic. There’s a certain logic to such a limit. In response to the diminished pressure of oxygen, the body produces more hemoglobin (that’s acclimatization), but the bloodstream can only take up so much hemoglobin.

Mark Horrell, in his mountaineering blog, challenges the idea of a one-size-fits-all hard limit, and provides anecdotal examples that contradict the 8,000 meter cap.

4.) Sticking one’s face in water allows one to hold one’s breath longer:

Sensory cells in the face and nostrils sense wetness and this sensation triggers a slowed heartbeat (bradycardia) and constriction of blood vessels (vasoconstriction) so as to reduce blood flow to the extremities.

A more detailed explanation can be read here.

3.) Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation works because our lungs only capture about 20% of the oxygen in each inhalation:

If we had super-efficient lungs, our exhalations wouldn’t contain enough oxygen to sustain the patient receiving cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR.)

This and many other fascinating respiratory facts can be found on the Crash Course videos on the subject.

2.) In two weeks time the breath you’re exhaling right now will have spread out around the globe.

Sam Kean’s book, Caesar’s Last Breath, discusses this subject in great depth. In fact, the title is a reference to the fact that in each breath it’s likely that one inhales a molecule of Caesar’s dying breath.

1.) When you lose weight, most of it (84%) is lost in exhaled carbon-dioxide:

This may not be a question that ever occurred to you, but I bet you find it fascinating once it’s brought to your attention. It’s not like when you cut 5 kg, there’s a fat pile sitting somewhere. More about this subject can be learned here.

Nadi Shodhana; Alternate Nostril Breathing

BOOK REVIEW: Perfect Breathing by Al Lee and Don Campbell

Perfect Breathing: Transform Your Life One Breath at a TimePerfect Breathing: Transform Your Life One Breath at a Time by Al Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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It’s not an exaggeration to say that there is no set of yogic practices with a greater power to transform one’s life than breathing exercises (pranayama.) With this in mind, I’m always on the look out for new sources of insight into breathing – be it from free-divers, Buddhists, sports scientists, yogis, martial artists, or else-wise. This book provides an overview from a diverse set of experts with descriptions of a number of different breathing practices (e.g. Taoist qi gong, yogic pranayama, a practice for runners, etc.,) but it takes as its central tenet a six-second breath that it recommends as the titular “perfect breath.”

Breathing practices are often underestimated. People, after all, figure that they’ve been breathing every day of their lives, so who can teach them anything on the subject. The idea of reading a book on breathing is right up there with watching the paint dry or the grass grow for excitement. Unfortunately, in parts – many densely pack up front – the authors do too little to dissuade readers of this belief. In early chapters and sprinkled throughout, the book is rife with truisms and banal comments that will leave the rankest neophyte thinking they aren’t going to learn anything of value. That said, I’m glad I kept with it, because the authors convey some powerful insights by telling the stories of people from various walks of life who’ve achieved great things by improving their breath.

The book is organized around a central structure of breathing as a tool for improvement of body, mind, emotion, and spirit. This is sound approach to covering the topic, and the discussion of breath as a means to emotional control is particularly beneficial and welcome. It could be argued that the coverage of the topic of spirituality could have been jettisoned without much loss. The authors talked around the subject in away that was vague and insubstantial. To be fair, they may have been trying to avoid running afoul of individuals who were either secular / scientific (non-spiritual) or who had strong sectarian beliefs on spiritual matters.

The book has seven parts. Part I consists of two chapters that offer an introduction into the topic. These could have been pared down without substantial loss of value. Part II (Ch. 3 – 8) is entitled “Your Perfect Breath” and it discusses developing awareness of breath, body, emotion, spirit, and introduces the fundamentals of how one should breath the “perfect breath.” Part III (Ch. 9 – 12) explores the role that breathing practices can have on improving health outcomes. It’s well established that the body puts healing / rebuilding on hold under high stress, when the sympathetic nervous system is engaged. Breathing practices can help trip parasympathetic (rest and digest) activity. Part IV (Ch. 13 – 15) is of particular interest to athletes and those who want to perform better at some physical or mental activity. In addition to discussing both physical and mental performance, the authors devote a chapter to what is sometimes called Flow (Csikszentmihaly) or The Zone, and how breath can play into quieting the mind to facilitate said state. Part V (Ch. 16 – 19) is about breathing as a means to take control of one’s emotional life. People in the throes of emotional turmoil are unlikely to notice how that turmoil influences their breath, but it has a major impact — and it’s a two-way street, i.e. one can help mitigate excessive emotional response through breath. Part VI (Ch. 20 – 21) is devoted to spirituality and the nexus of breath and prayer or meditation. The final part (Ch. 22) explores the idea of the final breath. I thought this was a valuable discussion, given the tremendous anxiety of coming to one’s last breath and its impact on people’s lives.

There are no graphics in the book. They aren’t greatly missed, but might have been useful in places. (It’s probably more accurate to say the authors could have gone into more depth if they’d used graphics and not stayed in such vague territory.) There is an appendix that lists and briefly describes the included exercises, and the e-book / Kindle version includes hyperlinks to the detailed description in the book’s interior. Having a link to the practices is a useful feature. There is also a short section of recommended readings.

While it took me a bit of time to get traction in reading this book, once I did, I learned a great deal. I would recommend it for anyone who is interested in an overview of breathing practices for health, emotional control, and increased physical performance. The authors transmit expertise from a broad range of experts from various walks of life.

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5 Interesting Respiratory Facts for Yoga Teachers


Pranayama (breath exercise) is a crucial part of yogic practice. While I may spend less time on the pranayama portion of my practice than the asana (postural) part on most days, I’ve come to view pranayama as at least as important. (i.e. It packs a lot of punch.) With that in mind, here are a few fun facts about respiration for you your consideration:

 

5.) Asthma Fact: People in richer countries are more likely to have asthma, but–within more wealthy countries–poor people are disproportionately effected. (Asthma is a condition in which lung tissue becomes inflamed, and thus it’s hard to breath.)

Source: Krucoff & Krucoff. 2000. Healing Moves. New York: Three Rivers Press. p. 288

Yogic Relevance: There’s at least some preliminary evidence that yoga practice can benefit asthma patients. Mekonnen, D. & Mossie. A. 2010. “Clinical Effects of Yoga on Asthmatic Patients: A Preliminary Clinical Trial.” Ethiopian Journal of Health Science. Vol. 20(2). pp. 107-112.

 

4.) Altitude Fact: At the summit of Everest, atmospheric pressure is about 30% of what it is at sea level.

Source: Coulter, H.D. 2001. Anatomy of Hatha Yoga. Allahabad: Himalayan Institute India. p. 96.

Yogic Relevance: The slow deep breathing you sometimes teach in pranayama courses could be a life-saver. Bilo G. et. al.  2012. “Effects of Slow Deep Breathing at High Altitude on Oxygen Saturation,” Pulmonary and Systemic Hemodynamics. PLoS ONE. Vol. 7(11): e49074. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0049074.

 

3.) Lung Fact: If one extracted, flattened, and laid side-by-side the 300 million alveoli of the average person’s lungs, they would cover an area greater than the average one bedroom apartment. (Alveoli are the little sacks at the end of the bronchioles where oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged.)

Source: Hymes. A. 2009. “Respiration and the Chest: The Mechanics of Breathing.” in Science of Breath: A Practical Guide by Swami Rama. Honesdale, PA: The Himalayan Institute Press.

Yogic Relevance: Vital capacity (total amount of air one can breath in and out of those little sacks) is increased through yogic practice. Karthik, P.S. et. al. 2014. “Effect of Pranayama and Suryanamaskar on Pulmonary Functions in Medical Students.” Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research. Vol. 8(2). pp. BC04 -BC06.

Note: there has been confusion about the degree to which yoga helps VO2 max (maximum oxygen utilization), at least in comparison to other forms of exercise, because there has been mixed results in the literature. The consensus seems to be the effect–if any–isn’t large compared to cardiovascular exercises. The strength of the pump (i.e. the heart) seems to have more to do with this particular measure than the lung’s holding capacity. While VO2 max is an important measure for athletes, the fact that it may not be improved by yoga doesn’t mean yoga doesn’t offer many fine benefits for athletes. As I recall, this is dealt with at length in Broad’s book (i.e.  Broad, W.J. 2012. The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards. New York: Simon & Schuster.)

 

2.) Nose Fact: Rhinologists (doctors specializing in noses) figure that the nose has around 30 functions in the breathing process (e.g. moisturizing and warming air, catching foreign matter, directing airflow, and much more.)

Source: In the aforementioned Swami Rama book Science of Breath in a chapter entitled, “Following Your Nose: Nasal Function and Energy” by Rudolph Ballentine, MD.

Yogic Relevance: Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhana) is shown to tone the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS, i.e. the part of the autonomic nervous system involved in rest & digest functions.)  Sinha, A.N., et. al. 2013. “Assessment of the Effects of Pranayama / Alternate Nostril Breathing on the Parasympathetic Nervous System.” Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research. Vol. 7(5). pp. 821-823.

 

1.) Pace Fact: At about 5 breaths per minute, most people’s thinking is clearer than usual.

Source: Brown, R. & Gerbarg, P.2012. The Healing Power of Breath. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

Yogic Relevance: The breath is our most powerful tool for controlling the mind. Vindicated!

BOOK REVIEW: The Way of the Iceman by Wim Hof and Koen De Jong

The Way of The Iceman: How The Wim Hof Method Creates Radiant Longterm Health--Using The Science and Secrets of Breath Control, Cold-Training and CommitmentThe Way of The Iceman: How The Wim Hof Method Creates Radiant Longterm Health–Using The Science and Secrets of Breath Control, Cold-Training and Commitment by Wim Hof
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Wim Hof is often presented as a freak of nature. If you’re flipping through the science channels, you might see a segment that shows him subjecting himself to extremely cold temperatures with no ill effects. This book is an attempt by Hof, and co-author Koen De Jong, to counter the proposition that he’s some sort of mutant (or—worse–that his demonstrations are cons) by offering a method by which anyone can achieve the same feats. It should be noted that long before Hof and YouTube came on the scene, there were people [notably Taoist and Tibetan Buddhist monks] performing similar acts.

Hof’s method (called the “Wim Hof Method” or WHM herein and in this book) consists of three components: cold training, breath exercises, and commitment building. The book explores this three-legged stool from both the scientific and practical dimensions. There’s one chapter on each of these elements that describes what it does to the body and how it contributes to well-being, and later chapters both describe what scientific studies have found so far and outline the approach by which the reader can explore the WHM on their own.

There’s a lot of front matter in this book (two forwards, a prologue, and an introduction), but the book more-or-less consists of seven chapters. The first of these is a mini-bio of Hof. It describes a fascinating event in Hof’s youth in which he was exposed to cold, as well as his travels to India in an attempt to find a yoga teacher. [As is the case with most people who come to India seeking to find that quintessential guru—i.e. a half-naked, weather-beaten, and forehead paint-streaked classical guru—he found that he had to wade through a sea of charlatans and shysters while never finding the true masters who are likely hidden away in caves in the Himalayas. Note: this is not to say that one can’t find excellent yoga instruction in India but it’ll likely be by someone fully clothed and not someone smoking pot on a ghat in Varanasi.] This resulted in Hof taking an experimental approach in which he studied the effects of various activities on himself (and such experimentation is what he advocates for others as well.) It should be noted that Hof didn’t invent this method from scratch—e.g. the breath component is based on Tibetan Tummo meditation.

As mentioned, Chapters 2 through 4 explore the three components of the WHM, i.e. cold training, breath exercise, and commitment building, respectively. These chapters describe the science of how these three elements generally (as opposed to a later chapter that describes studies in more depth) act upon the body. The commitment section describes a number of arduous feats such as climbing Kilimanjaro in a T-shirt and shorts, but also describes the role of diet (with particular emphasis on the fast-5 diet which is similar to, but not precisely, what Hof came to practice organically.)

Chapter 5 dives more deeply into the science than does the preceding chapters, and focuses on the studies in which Hof has participated in his attempt to facilitate a better understanding of his method.

The penultimate chapter suggests what the WHM might do for people in various classes, including: healthy people, athletes, and people suffering from various physical and mental ailments. With respect to the latter, there is discussion of exemplary cases as well as the possible means by which the training might act.

The final chapter is a brief outline of how the WHM can be put into practice by readers. There is also a sample log by which practitioners can chart their experience.

There are a range of graphics including line diagrams and photographs. Most of the photographs are inspirational shots of Hof in action, but there are diagrams and other graphics used to convey scientific ideas. There’s a recommended reading page as well as a works cited page. Both lists are small and confined to a few key sources of information, with the latter being the more scholarly works. There is also a glossary that may prove handy for some readers.

This book is illuminating and many stand to benefit from it. I found the approach of the authors to be sound; it’s basically “see for yourself.” This book could easily have been a sales brochure, and in some ways it is, but the fact that it emphasizes the science and the suggestion that the reader try the practice lends credibility. I’d highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to expand and explore the limits of their capability.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Science of Breath by Swami Rama et. al.

Science of BreathScience of Breath by Swami Rama
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is an oldie, but a goody. The first edition came out in 1979, but as its intent is to provide an overview of the anatomy and physiology of breath for yoga practitioners, the fact that it doesn’t access the bleeding edge of respiratory science isn’t all that detrimental.

This short book consists of four chapters. Two chapters are by the famous yogi Swami Rama, and the other two are written by medical doctors. The first chapter is an introduction to breath from the yogic perspective. It both explains why it’s so important to understand and work with breath and introduces the mythic physiology (prana, nadi, chakra, etc.) that has historically been used to explain pranayama (breath exercises.)

The second chapter is written by Dr. Alan Hymes and it explains the mechanics of respiration. While Chapter 2 focuses on the anatomy of breathing, it begins with an explanation of cellular respiration to introduce the role of breath in powering muscles. There is a fine explanation of the operation of the diaphragm and the intercostal muscles in breathing.

Chapter 3 is written by Dr. Rudolph Ballentine, and it delves into the role of the nose and nasal cavities in respiration. Breathing through the nose is emphasized in both yoga and many other systems of breath training (e.g. the Buteyko and Wim Hof methods.) This is because the nasal cavities perform many useful functions such as moisturizing and warming air, capturing pollutants, and extract heating and moisture from exhaled breath. Besides exploring nasal anatomy and physiology, Dr. Ballentine describes jala neti shatkarma (nasal cleansing with salt water) and nadi shoudhana (alternate nostril breathing.)

The final chapter, written by Swami Rama, mostly describes various techniques of pranayama (breathing exercises) and related practices bandhas and mudras (locks and seals in which bodily parts are contracted or constricted.) However, the chapter begins with a mix of physiology and mythic physiology. That is, it explains some topics not addressed earlier–such as the interaction between the nervous and the cardiovascular systems as well as chakra.

My standing complaint about books that weave together science and pseudo-science is mitigated a bit herein. My problem with putting these ideas together is that it can be difficult for the reader to determine what concepts reflect reality and which offer models to help one visualize energy. However, except for the last chapter, this book does a good job of keeping these ideas separate. The chapters by the medical doctors present the science with minimal intrusion of unscientific concepts. Swami Rama does present science and mythology together, but not so much scrambled together in a confusing mish-mash.

Chapters 2 through 4 use a number of graphics to help present the material. In the middle chapters these largely consist of line drawings to convey the relevant anatomical features or physical actions. The last chapter adds photographs to demonstrate relevant postures. There is a page of recommended readings, but it’s more of an advertisement for other books put out by the Himalayan Institute than the recommendation of books on the science of breath.

I found this book to be educational. It packs a lot of useful information into a concise package and is readable to a layman. I’d recommend it for yoga practitioners and others who are engaged in breath work.

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BOOK REVIEW: Light on Pranayama by B.K.S. Iyengar

Light on Pranayama: The Definitive Guide to the Art of BreathingLight on Pranayama: The Definitive Guide to the Art of Breathing by B.K.S. Iyengar
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is B.K.S. Iyengar’s A-Z guide to breath and breathing exercises (pranayama.) It’s meant to do for pranayama practice what “Light on Yoga” did for asana (postural) practice. That is, it presents all the classic techniques, offers variants to meet individual needs, and provides the background necessary to put pranayama into the context of a balanced yoga practice.

Let me begin by discussing the book’s organization, and this book is organized to the n-th degree. There are parts, sections, chapters, and even the paragraphs are numbered (though–near as I can tell–the latter serves no purpose for a typical reader and may be more for the help of the writer and his assistants. It does create a somewhat biblical scheme, so maybe it was assumed there would be a need to quote this guide “chapter and verse,” as they say in Bible study.)

The bulk of the book consists of the first of two parts, and Part I is divided into three sections. The first of those sections is “The Theory of Pranayama,” and it puts pranayama in the context of yoga’s entirety. If you’ve read other B.K.S. Iyengar titles, much in these nine chapters will be familiar (e.g. discussion of the eight limbs.) However, chapter 4 offers a nice description of the anatomy and physiology of respiration. There are many anatomical drawings and diagrams in it to help convey the complex information. There’s also additional information about the traditional Indian notions of breath encapsulated in the concepts of prana, nadis, and chakras.

Section II is entitled “The Art of Pranayama” and it covers those topics necessary regardless of what technique of breath exercise one is practicing. It includes seated postures, mudras, bandhas, inhalation, exhalation, retention, etc. This section, too, has nine chapters. The final section of Part I describes the various techniques of pranayama. The chapters of this section are arrayed in lists, and they systematically build from the basic technique towards more advanced variations (e.g. by inserting retentions.)

Part II covers meditation (dhyana) and the corpse pose (savasana.) With respect to the former, it suggests how one’s body, mind, and sense organs should be conducted in the act of meditation. In the case of the chapter on corpse pose (after cross-legged seating position, this being the most common position for practice) there’s an extensive look at the details of that pose.

There are a number of helpful features incorporated into the book. In addition to the drawings mentioned in Chapter 4, there are black-and-white photos throughout to clarify the textual instructions. There is also a glossary of Sanskrit terms and an Appendix of courses of pranayama (i.e. recommendations as to how to sequence breathing techniques for optimal results with guidance as to how many sets or repetitions of each to use.)

My major criticism is one I’ve offered about previous books from this author and others. There’s a muddle of science and mythology that makes it hard to know how much weight to give particular instructions. It may be that a given piece of advice (e.g. a contraindication) is based on repeated observations of the physical or mental effects, or on a sound understanding of anatomy & physiology. In which case, it makes sense to heed such advice. However, advice can also be based on myths and the desire to preserve a way of thinking about the human body which is wholly unsupported by evidence. In which case, if one has no dog in the fight to preserve egos, it makes sense to disregard said advice. I suspect the vast majority of statements of what to do (or not to) fall into the first category, but some may fall in the latter, and it’s not easy to tell which is which.

I would recommend this book for students and teachers of yoga. It’s a good reference for one’s pranayama practice.

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5 Courage Building Yoga Practices

Learning to manage and moderate one’s fears and anxieties needn’t involve strapping on a parachute, cold quitting a job, or bare-knuckle boxing in a back alley. In fact, it may be best to begin by quietly watching those anxieties at the other end of the spectrum, the one’s so subtle that conscious awareness of them can be blotted out by the noise of living–but which nevertheless have a physiological impact.

 

The ability to quietly and non-judgmentally witness one’s emotional state–as is taught in yoga and related practices such as Buddhist meditation–is crucial (and, in my opinion, is one of the most valuable lessons that these systems have to teach.) Crushing or repressing emotions is a demonstrably losing strategy. At best these feelings are tamped into one’s subconscious mind, still adversely affecting one’s outlook and, therefore, indirectly casting a pall over one’s life.

 

You’ll note that I’ve mentioned courage and moderating fear, but have not mentioned defeating emotions or quelling fear. Wrongly, our archetypes of fearlessness are characters like John McClane (i.e. the “Die Hard” movies), Katniss Everdeen (i.e.”The Hunger Games” trilogy),  or Yoda (i.e. the “Star Wars” movies.)  But neurologists who study patients whose brains have been damaged such that they are literally fearless tell us that the defining characteristic of such individuals is “paralysis by analysis.” In other words, Sheldon Cooper (i.e. “Big-Bang Theory”) is a more apt model. Also, the fearless tend to live short lives because they eventually do something fatally inadvisable.

 

We need our fear. However, while fear can keep us from doing stupid things, it can also turn us into the worst version of ourselves. Therefore, our fear needs to be moderated with courage and reason (to these, some would add “faith.”)

 

You may note that I tend toward the intermediate / advanced with the practices I mention. This is, in part, because that’s probably more likely the point at which one is ready to take this on. In beginning a practice, one may have one’s hands full to grasp the basics of alignment and breath.

 

Without further ado, here are a few yoga practices that I’ve used to help me witness my anxieties and learn to moderate them:

 

1.) Nauli (and other external breath retention [i.e. bāhya kumbhaka] techniques.): Breath retention can produce a subtle anxiety, even when one has full control of the timing of release and the next breath. In fact, subtle anxiety may cause one to have a less robust retention than one might otherwise. Truth be told, this practice has probably been more fundamental than any of the āsana practices that will follow, for me personally.  

Note: external retentions are relatively advanced practice and should only be added to one’s sadhana after one has been taught by an experienced teacher and is somewhat experienced with pranayama.

practicing nauli

practicing nauli

 

2.) Eyes closed: This is particularly effective with Surya Namaskara (Sun salutations), standing poses, and–at an advanced level–balancing poses. One should make sure that ones balance is solid throughout before attempting with one’s eyes closed. We have redundant systems to help achieve balance (i.e. inner ear, proprioceptive, and visual), but–for the sighted–going without vision can be nerve wracking.

ashwa sanchalanasana in Surya Namaskara

ashwa sanchalanasana in Surya Namaskara

 

3.) Inversions: Inversions are meant to be calming because when the blood pressure to the head increases, it triggers reactions in the body to reduce it. However, it may take some time before that promised is reached. I’ve done a more extensive post on inversions that can be read here.

shirshasana (headstand)

shirshasana (headstand)

 

4.) Standing Back-bends: (Ardha Chakrasana / Urdhva Triangmuktasana / full Urdhva Dhanurasana) Simple back-bending can create the feeling that one is about to fall back onto one’s head. One may want to begin with a simple back-bend as one might do in Surya Namaskara before advancing to the complete Urdhva Dhanurasana in which one moves into a wheel pose (Chakrasana) from a standing position. (Urdhva Triangmuktasana is an intermediary in which one’s knees are more deeply bent, and one reaches back towards one’s Achilles tendon.)

ardha chakrasana

ardha chakrasana

 

5.) Standing Balances: Depending on one’s level, anything from tree pose (vrksasana) to bound twisted half-moon pose (baddha parivrtta ardha chandrasana) may be applicable. I’ve shown the unbound version of the latter (parivrtta ardha chandrasana.) Twisting and balancing at the same time provides a great challenge, if one is already confident with balances generally.

parivrtta ardha chandrasana

parivrtta ardha chandrasana

 

Happy practice.

The Good and Bad News About Yoga for Weight Loss

IMG_2643The good news is that yoga can help one lose weight. The bad news is that the mechanism by which this occurs isn’t what most people expect, and it involves the mind a great deal more than the muscles.

 

While many people hope for a secret to weight loss, there’s no secret. Weight loss is a function of calories eaten being less than calories burned.  This simple formula means that one can either eat less or exercise more. Both the diet and exercise matter for good health, but the eating part is more important to cutting weight. This statement may be controversial and seemingly gratuitous—particularly for people who think exercise is going to single-handedly shed excess pounds–and so I’ll take some time to try to make my point.

 

The first thing one should know is that our voluntary activity only accounts for about one-third of calories consumed. The other two-thirds are used whether we move a muscle or not. Between 20 and 25% of our energy consumption is devoted to our brain, and much of the rest is used to keep us at 37°C (98.6°F) because we are, after all, mammals. This means that increasing the intensity or amount of exercise—while it has tremendous health benefits—will achieve only a marginal increase in calories burned. From the Mayo Clinic website, I learned that a 109kg (240lb) individual will burn about 273 calories doing a typical hata yoga class or about 436 calories with Power Yoga. (Compare this to about 327 calories / hr. for tai chi or 654 calories / hr. for hiking.) So your hour of yoga has maybe knocked off a 32oz soft drink or one medium size French fries. Most people have trouble finding more than one hour of time and energy for exercise per day. And as someone who sometimes spends more than an hour a day exercising, I can attest that there is a point of diminishing marginal returns. So while exercise is an important part of weight loss, one can’t go hog-wild in eating just because one exercises.

 

[One should also note that many yoga practitioners experience a reduced basal metabolic rate (BMR) because of the calming aspect of the practice. A lower BMR means that you burn fewer calories just living and maintaining your metabolism. All things being equal, this makes cutting weight all the more challenging—though the effect is certainly counterweighted by the stress reduction aspect of the practice that will be discussed below.]

 

To summarize: unless you’re an elite athlete in training for something like the Olympics, the idea that you can eat whatever you please and cut / maintain a healthy weight is likely to result in disappointment.  A common piece of dietary advice for elite athletes is to daily eat one gram of protein for every pound of ideal bodyweight and eight fist-sized servings of vegetables. Beyond that, they can pretty much eat what they want. But with that much slowly digesting material, they’re probably not going to go overboard—even if they weren’t already, almost by definition, very disciplined people.

 

IMG_2737So if an hour of yoga a day doesn’t even make up for having a Mars bar, what good is it?  For one thing, the yoga student has the opportunity to become more attuned to his or her body and, in doing so, to learn to differentiate physiological hunger from the many other permutations of hunger that overtime merge into a multi-headed hydra of craving. What are these other hungers? First and foremost, there’s psychological hunger, or the use of food as therapy. People use food to reward themselves, to medicate themselves, to take their minds off of their woes. Secondly, there’s sensory hunger in which we have no real need to eat but the food looks or smells too good to avoid.

 

One of the forms of hunger that often remains hidden is social hunger. That is, one eats to be part of the in-group and to bond. For example, imagine you’ve just eaten, are not hungry, and someone offers you food. Depending upon who it is and what your relationship is that person, you may feel compelled to eat even if you don’t need it. The double whammy is that eating as socializing is so deeply engrained and that we humans—contrary to popular belief—are dismal at multitasking. We can’t converse and be aware of what we are eating, and thus one may overeat because one is so engrossed in the distraction of socializing. This isn’t to say that there is anything inherently wrong with social eating. We all have to do it to some degree or another. One just needs to recognize that if it becomes a habit to be distracted from one’s food, one may have problems.

 

Relating back to the idea of psychological hunger, yoga helps one destress.  Stress can be a perfectly healthy phenomenon, but when it’s prolonged it can have many adverse consequences. One such consequence is having cortisol levels remain too high, and this has the effect of ramping up the appetite. Your body has been pressed into fight or flight mode, it expects that you’re hauling ass away from a sabretooth tiger or an angry woolly mammoth mamma, and that you’ll soon need to replenish depleted energy stores. Your endocrine system doesn’t know that you’re curled up on the couch with a pint of ice cream… yeah, let’s call it a “pint.” As a form of exercise, yoga helps reduce this problem. However, beyond exercise, yoga offers many relaxation techniques such as yoga nidra, kaya sthairyam, restorative postures, and some forms of pranayama(breathing exercises) that can help you turn off the “fight or flight” and turn on the “rest and digest”—what Herbert Benson called the “relaxation response.” Sometimes you might delve into an intense practice like Ashtanga Vinyasa or Power Yoga, and other times restorative yoga might be just what the doctor ordered. [Disclaimer: “What the doctor ordered” is a figure of speech. I’m not a doctor, and I haven’t even played one on TV.]

 

IMG_2633There is yet another way in which yoga can help. Yoga helps one dispassionately observe one’s drives and this way one can slowly, over time, rewire one’s attitudes toward food.  One can begin to think of hunger pangs as a sensation, rather than projecting a negative connotation onto them. In this way, one can learn to begin to watch the sensation and learn from it rather than running for the food.

 

Finally, an important benefit of yoga is in teaching one to be contented with oneself, even if one isn’t content to live with one’s present health or physical capability. Santosa is one of the niyama, and it teaches one to be content with who one is–perhaps even while one is simultaneously practicing the austerities of tapas (another niyama) in pursuit of personal development. If one isn’t contented with oneself, one can fall into a shame spiral that may create the kind of persistent stress that I warned about above. Also, if one is at a healthy weight, but has some deep-seated drive toward “perfection,” the lessons of santosa can inform you as well.

 

Best of luck in the pursuit of good health.