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 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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6 Lessons from a Pranayama Intensive

Last week I attended a five-day workshop on pranayama, the breathing exercises practiced in hatha yoga. (Yes, I’m aware that that definition may be a radical oversimplification to many.)

 

Breath is like water. It’s easy to take for granted as long as it’s unimpeded, but the moment it’s cut off life is miserable–not to mention short. (If you’ve never been at an altitude that your body wasn’t adjusted to, this may not seem profound, but trust me.) We reduce breath to an autonomic function–mindless and effortless. It’s easy enough to do this if one doesn’t have an interest in getting control over one’s emotional life or one’s health.

 

FUN FACT: Exhalation inhibits the firing of the amygdala–two structures in the brain that are partially responsible for our experience of fear. Ergo, elongating exhalations may diminish the expression of fear.  [This isn’t a fact that I learned at the workshop, but was something I recently read in the book Zen and the Brain, which is a neuroscientist’s explanation of the nervous system and the effect of meditation on it.]

 

The workshop was educational and offered plenty to work on as I expand the pranayama portion of my practice. Here are a few of the takeaways I brought from the workshop:

 

1.) There’s a thorough system of classification of the various pranayama practices. This might seem self-evident, but it’s not something I’d thought of before.

PranayamaClassification begins with the tree above, but there’s much more to it. For example, one might group practices lying under the “without mantra” box as vitalizing (e.g. Bhastrika) or tranquilizing (e.g. Sheetali/Sheetkari.) One can also classify pranayama by whether there’s a retention of breath or not, and–if so–whether the retention is done with air in (Antar Kumbhaka), air out (Bahya Kumbhaka), or both (Sahit Kumbhaka.)

 

2.) [Related to lesson # 1.] Some of my favorite pranayama aren’t necessarily considered pranayama.  Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) is classified as a shatkarma (cleansing practice) rather than a pranayama by many. Furthermore, some think of kapalbhati (forced exhalation breathing) more as a shatkarma–though many accept that they can be classified either way. Certainly, it’s more important that you do it than put it in the right box, but I found it interesting nonetheless.

 

milk3.) Ghee is to yogis as duct tape is to a handyman.  It’s a readily available multi-purpose tool. But seriously, I learned that hot milk and ghee–for some reason–have different characteristics in the body than regular cold milk. One wants to minimize mucus producing foods when one does a lot of pranayama for obvious reasons. (Blowing snot bubbles is neither dignified nor sexy.) So it came as a surprise when ghee and warm milk were suggested foods. (Milk, when taken cold, is about as mucus-producing a food as there is.)

 

4.) I learned why I can hold my breath so long after kapalbhati (or bhastrika) breathing. (Kapalbhati is a breath in which the exhalation is forced out; in bhastrika both the inhalation and exhalation are forced [pumped]–i.e. these are hyperventilating breathes.) I noticed a while back that as I practice kapalbhati, doing internal retention afterward was easy to hold for a long time. This is probably one of the most counter-intuitive facts I’ve experienced in practicing breathing exercises. The body has shed a bunch of carbon dioxide and has time and capacity to build up more without the body responding severely. It should be noted that the feeling of suffocation what we experience as being “short on breath” isn’t a lack of oxygen. It’s an excess of carbon dioxide. [One should also note that the reason that one needs to exercise great caution and graduality with these breathing methods–i.e. the reason that people have been known to pass out–is that the body reacts severely to carbon dioxide levels that are outside the appropriate ranges.]

 

5.) Diet is considered more important in starting a pranayama practice than in starting an asana (postural) practice. The basis of this statement is that one of the most prominent hatha yoga manuals (e.g. Hatha Yoga Pradipika) recommends dietary considerations for those beginning a serious pranayama practice, but it makes no similar statements with regard to beginning an asana practice. This doesn’t mean that what / when one eats isn’t important for postural practice. Anyone who’s ever eaten a heavy meal too close to an intense asana practice will know that it’s not true that food is irrelevant for asana practitioners. However, there seems to be a belief that many specific foods can be quite detrimental to pranayama practice–and a few really mesh well with such a practice.

 

FUN FACT: Conscious breathing stimulates the Vagus nerve, and the Vagus nerve is crucial in the functioning of  the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS)–i.e. advancing the “relaxation response” or “rest & digest” functions. Therefore, conscious breathing practices can help one to be healthier because PNS activity supports healing functions.

 

6.) There’s an established sequence of advancement that can be used across many different breathing exercises. One will see breath ratios that consist of up to four numbers. (e.g. 1:1 means that inhalation and exhalation are the same length (whatever that length may be, it will vary by person); 1:2:1 means that one internally holds the breath for twice as long as one does the inhalations and exhalations; and 1:1:1:1 means that one will inhale, internally retain, exhale, and externally retain all for the same length.)

 

Note: the counts that those numbers represent can and should increase over time–e.g. a 1:2:1 ratio may represent a six count inhalation/exhalation with a twelve count retention or it could be an eight count inhalation/exhalation and a sixteen count retention.

 

The aforementioned sequence is 1:1, 1:2, 1:1:1, 1:2:1, 1:2:2, and 1:4:2.

 

Happy breathing.