In Sanskrit, Mula means “root”, foundation, origin, source, and beginning. Bandha means energy lock, binding together, or posture. Mula bandha is the root of the body, the excretion point and the bottom of the spine. This is perineal muscle group and terminates between the coccyx and tailbone.
Strengthening the perineal muscles has a variety of effects, including greater control over sexual organs through strengthening the area between your sphincter and your sex organ. It is also healthy for digestion and excretion, two very important functions within the body.
Mula Bandha assists the body in breathing, most specifically with exhaling.
The pubococcygeus muscle is the primary agonist muscle to the perineal, and activates as a part of the levator ani muscle group. This is the muscle connects to the base of the spinal cord to contain energy within the spinal cord.
Bulbospongiosus muscle is a superficial muscle of the perineum, in both males and females covering the bulb of the sex organ, or vaginal wall and penis shaft. Then it connects to the front of the anus in two symmetrical parts. This is said to be the orgasm muscle, contributing to erection, ejaculation, and closes the vagina during intercourse. It is extremely important to the functioning of the sex organs and the muscles of excretion.
Mula Bandha – The interlocking of interlockings
Mula bandha is the primary bandha in yoga, it is said to seal energy into the spinal cord. Iyengar said that while one is working with the mula bandha, they are focused on the root of existence and creation. Ideally, you can practice this after an inhale, while you retain your breath. Squeeze your sex organs up and in while holding your breath for a few moments, then release. A 5 count can work well to start, then start working between exhale and inhale, when the breath has left the body completely, then engage the bottom of your diaphragm as the exhale completes, or essentially squeeze the exhale out. This is your Mula Bandha.
Perineal muscle activation is one of the most important and beneficial parts of a yoga practice, particularly involving inversions. Contraction of these floor muscles allow the abdomen to move in space without too much consequence, especially handstand will force it to strengthen in ways that the muscle would not normally need to.
Practice activating, then resting the mula bandha in breathing exercises with Kumbhaka (space between breaths) and during poses like warrior 2, standing splits. Find some time to experiment and strengthen the muscle during your practice.
The mula bandha is the Muladhara shakra of tantric traditions. I am not a big fan of the tantric traditions to I mostly ignore the chakras.
The Other Bandha’s interlockings, or muscle groups
Nose breathing is the most essential part of yoga. It is also poorly understood in modern culture. Breathing through the nose is physiologically much different than breathing through the mouth; there is far more space in your nasal cavity than in your mouth to start. There is also a filtration system in the nose that doesn’t exist in the throat. You can see this on the right; the tongue takes up the vast majority of the space in the mouth and the nasal passageway is very small at certain points. The mouth actually makes for a more narrow and less effective breathing passageway, especially when you consider the benefits of the pressure system that exists in the nasal cavity. Your body craves breathing through the nose, especially while you sleep! Human breaths are more powerful through the nose.
There are studies that have shown all kinds of benefits of breathing through the nose; it is even considered the proper method for breathing by the scientific community. “[Nose breathing] increases circulation, blood oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, slows the breathing rate and improves overall lung volumes ” Swift, Campbell, McKown 1988 Oronasal obstruction, lung volumes, and arterial oxygenation.
Breathing through the nostrils has also been proven to improve brain function; opposite nostril breathing stimulates the opposite hemisphere of cortex and the nervous passageways in the cortex (ie left nostril breathing is associated with stimulating right brain activity).
There is also significant research being done on the relationship between the prefrontal cortex and the passageways to the lungs. It is being shown that there are major correlations between ADHD and sleep disorders and breathing habitually through the mouth. Information beyond the clinical applications for sleep apnea where hard to find; obviously the health need ($$) for assistance with sleep apnea is somewhat sizable, therefore there is more research done around it. However, it has been proven that alternate nostril breathing affects the brain’s physiology; there are some extremely close relationships between specific portions of the brain and the respiratory pathways, especially in the hindbrain (medulla and pons).
There is an ever-increasing body of research on the relationship between sleep apnea, asthma, and on the negative effects of breathing habitually through the mouth. Nose breathing is more protective and efficient at fueling the human body’s need for oxygen; however, the passageway is relatively easily obstructed. The mouth has been shown to be more efficient at releasing carbon dioxide quickly than the nose, although exhaling through the nose has notable benefits for the mucus membrane and cilia of the nose. Let’s explore how the nose is a powerful filtration system for the lungs.
When I was 25 I visited Beijing with some of my friends from the time that I studied abroad in Paris. While I was there, I noticed myself continually nose breathing due to the large particles in the air. I was fairly deep into my yoga practice so I was used to breathing through my nose for long periods of time, but I instinctively understood that breathing through my nose would help to filter the air and keep the large bronchitis and cancer causing particles out of my trachea and mouth.
“The nose serves as the only means of bringing warm humidified air into the lungs. It is the primary organ for filtering out particles in inspired air, and it also serves to provide first-line immunological defense by bringing inspired air in contact with mucous-coated membranes that contain immunoglobulin A (IgA).”
The nose assists in stimulating the immune system. The changes in pressure stimulate the physiological processes associated with the maintenance of the mucus membrane and help to retain oxygen in the lungs. It also provides humidity and heat for the air entering the lungs, as well as increased filtration from the cilia and small hairs that line the nose. In the picture above, you can see the olfactory(smell) nerves and the organization of blood vessels within the nasal cavity. Overall, it is a good idea to concentrate on breathing through the nose, whether sleeping, awake, or even during milder forms of exercise.
Why is this important for yoga?
This information helps to explain a large portion of why yoga is so beneficial for the body. Breathing intensively through the nose for one to two hours creates space for the habit of constantly breathing through the nose. This is probably the biggest reason that in clinical studies, sleep quality of subjects who practice yoga is higher. Breathing’s relationship to the functioning of the brain is also interesting; some studies have shown that yawning helps to cool the brain, but the act of yawning is probably far more complex than that simple generalization.
How does nasal breathing affect the hippocampus and memory?
How does nose breathing affect the hypothalamus and the regulation of your emotions through the endocrine system?
What parts of the brain does yawning cool?
What portions of the cortex received the greatest benefit from breathing through the nose? How about the mouth?
These questions, at least as far as I can tell, science has yet to answer. But we do have clinical evidence that yoga positively affects mood disorders, PTSD, anxiety, depression, and there are a lot of very positive findings between yoga and cardiovascular health, while simply nasal breathing is proven to positively affect the heart and lung tissue. It is probably just a matter of time before we discover more of the benefits of yoga and of nose breathing.
If you have practiced yoga lately, chances are that you sat on the floor for a little while. This is a very healthy activity that every human should probably practice regularly for the strength of the pelvic floor muscles, and to allow the inner thighs and hips to relax. You can always work your way into it with blocks, props, cushions, pillows; you can do it while watching TV. It is good for releasing the muscles in the lower spine which have a strong connection with the hips, pelvic floor, abdominal muscles, lower back, and lower organs, including the sex organs and excretion organs; it’s good for all that important stuff.
In this article, I will speak specifically about the lower back and the anatomical features that you will want to be aware of as you practice yoga. If you have any of the following symptoms, you may want to begin a restorative yoga practice to assist in the alleviation of your pain, as well as begin to sit on the floor regularly. If it is too painful to start, contact a specialist or something like that, here are some symptoms of dysfunction:
Pain and stiffness in the back.
Pain in the buttocks and the legs, often in the back of the thigh.
Pain that worsens when bending, stretching, coughing, or sneezing.
Sciatic Nerve pain (pain in the hips, or back of your legs that shoots down the leg)
The lower back is really composed of three areas of the body: the lower spine, the hips and tailbone, and the abdomen. Since the spine is encircled by musculature, the abdomen, spinal muscles, and hips are all integral aspect of maintaining a healthy lower spine and therefore lower back.
Here is a depiction of the skeletal frame with the lower back in red:
You can see the there is a lot of big bone support at the base of the spine you will know from your own body that your hips provide the support for the lower spine. The ribs and upper legs have a tremendous amount of connection with the lumbar region of the spine and are the primary support structures in providing space for the lower back and lowest organs. Here is a very detailed depictions of the inner hips muscles and lower spine:
This is a depiction of the primarily of the psoas muscles and illiacus muscles. The psoas is a primary muscle group that moves the trunk and is greatly affected by sitting habits. It lines the font of the spine and inserts separately into each vertebral process up to the T12 in most people. The illacus muscles line the insides of the hips and connect with the psoas at the insertion point of the lesser trochanter of the femur. Both the psoas and the QL run along the lumbar spine to the trunk, the QL going posterior to the spine and the psoas anterior to the spine, bone are connected to the transverse spinal processes. The muscles work together to move the trunk, along with the muscles of the abdomen. The psoas and the QL muscles are the primary muscles of the lower back, so we’ll come back to them.
There are a few more groups of muscles to pay attention to, but other primary muscle group to consider when talking about the lower back is the abdominals. Your abdominals provide frontal support for the spine, but in addition to the abdomen and primary lower back muscles of the Psoas and Quadratus Lumborum, the diaphragm, obliques, serratus muscles, pyramidalis muscles, levatores costarum, subcostal muscles, transverse thoracis muscles, and intercostal muscles play roles in the alignment of the lower spine. The final, possibly most under looked muscle is the latimus dorsi, which runs all the way along the back of the spine up to the shoulders. We can go over most of them as accessory breathing muscles, which is an action largely affected by the lower spine. It sounds like a lot of muscles because there are lots of muscles that are connected to your lower back. Let’s break it into pieces to see how it works.
Lets start at the top and work out way down the body, so lets start with the shoulders. The serratus muscles, obliques, levatores costarum, costal muscles and subcostal muscles all play a role in spinal alignment at the shoulder level. The subcostal muscles are the innermost, being inside of the rib cage, and surrounds the diaphragm along the ribs. The intercostal muscles are just superior, or further outside than the subcostal muscles. The levatores costarum run along the back of the spine on the outside of the rib cage, providing even more support for the spine, which you can see act in opposition to the interlacing rib muscles. Notice the spinal erectors and spinalis muscle groups. You can also see how the muscles interweave with the spine and ribs, making breathing a full body movement. This is why forward folds are so effective at releasing the muscles the support the spine, so that they can stretch and relieve tension. This part of the reason why breathing in yoga can help to align the spine, and why spinal alignment and breathing have a close relationship. The obliques are a portion of the abdomen that you can read more about here. The serratus anterior is the another muscle to consider, which is also known as the punching muscle, as it pulls the shoulder blades forward. This is an extremely strong and useful muscle in yoga that supports you in handstands, forearm stands, and headstands in specific variations with proper alignments. and keeps the shoulders aligned, which then keeps the spine aligned. Like links on a chain. The final muscles to look at is the latimus dorsi, a muscle that runs from the lower back to the outside of the shoulder blades. The muscle connects the arms to the lower back, so can be really important for golfing, blowing, javelin throwing, or boxing. Anything where you are using your hips to power the upper body. These muscles can be easily overlooked in sun salutations, especially downward dog, which can allow the spine to hyperextend. This muscle is also more active in the elbow close push up, allowing the serratus anterior and lats to move the spine up from chaturanga into downward dog. Hollowing your armpits in plank/chaturanga/down-dog will likely activate and strengthen your lats, but its good to have a second pair of eyes on your alignment, so if you have questions find a local studio or teacher and ask them about your down dog. I’m sure they will be thrilled to answer your questions.
The last muscles to consider are the diaphragm, the obliques, the
pyramidalis muscles, and the transverse abdominus. The final piece of the puzzle is the rectus abdominus, which acts in direct opposition to the Psoas and QL muscles. The pyramidalis muscles are tiny triangles below the lowest layer of the rectus abdominus, and they form muscles just above the genitals. The diaphragm forms the inner musculature needed to move the ribs as the lungs expand.
The obliques line the outsides of the torso at the bottom of the rib cage, and all four layers of abdominals meet at the linea alba and run down to the pyramidalis muscles. You can see the lowest layer of the abdominals, the transverse abdominus, which acts as a kind of weight belt to support the lower spine when heavy lifting with the back, or squatting. It works with the psoas and QL to keep the trunk stable. The rectus abdominus acts in opposition to the QL and psoas, which forms a kind of push-pull system for you to lean forward and back, to squat, and to jump. Think of them as working against each other, but really they work in unison to support your spine. A great way to feel all of these muscles is to do burpees and/or sun salutations.
That wraps up the muscular and skeletal portions of the anatomy of the lower back. Please check back in about a week for the second section where I discuss nerves, organs, blood vessels, and fluid distribution, and if you are looking for something a bit more entertaining, you can check out the WANDERER series, I am working on part 13 right now and should have it out in a few days. Thanks for reading, would love to hear any questions or feedback
There is one thing you have done every moment of your life. Even before you can remember. This will be the last thing you do before you die. And your awareness of this thing will partially determine how you exist on planet Earth. Prana, or your breath, is the primary mover on life in your body and corresponds deeply to your mental and physical health.
Humans have two lungs and five lobes, two on the left and three on the right (the right is bigger), each of which can be from 70-100 square meters in surface area, about the same surface area as a tennis court. The lungs have 2,400 kilometers of airways and 300 to 500 million alveoli which are gas exchange points for the bloodstream. These are powerful organs of exchange with the environment, with power and functioning that should not be taken for granted.
The respiratory system is a series of organs responsible for intaking oxygen from the atmosphere and expelling carbon dioxide back into the air. This basic gas exchange between the body and the atmosphere is completely dependent upon the respiratory system and almost every vertebrate animal has one. This exchange affects every other system, as they oxygenation of blood is necessary in every organ. The nervous system also seems to draw energy from the respiratory system, and the cardiovascular system takes cues from the respiratory system (both cue off brain activity) to determine how much blood it should be pumping based on breath rate. When the sympathetic nervous system becomes active (the flight or fight mechanism), heart rate is increased, respiratory rate is increased, the sensitivity of the nervous system is heightened to allow for survival, but this comes at a cost.
Yoga focuses primarily on the respiratory system’s functioning to move the muscular-skeletal system in the opposite way. In our modern world full of non-environmental stress and high levels of adrenaline in non-life threatening situations, the sympathetic nervous system is overactive and is probably the biggest contributor to the high fatality rates from cardiovascular disease (nutrition would be the other competing contributor). The respiratory system is vital to the functioning of every mammal on the planet and is one of the most intricate and powerful tools for surviving, prospering, and thriving on planet Earth.
I honestly think the vast majority of people take breathing for granted. Most Americans are in such a rush that they don’t even notice their superpower of consciousness. We don’t learn about breathing in school, or in early sports, which is really a shame because breathing concentration allow for intense amounts of focus. Every athlete should learn breath control techniques from young ages; I can remember when I learned to run with proper form at 15 and I think that learning about breathing should happen even younger. This is what keeps us all alive, after all, and we really should learn how to keep our nervous systems functioning optimally through breathing exercises.
To really understand how intricately related the nervous system and respiratory systems are, we need to go back in time to when you were born. At birth, a babies lungs are full of fluid, but once the child is released from the birth canal, the central nervous system trigger a huge change in reaction to the environment, which then triggers the first breath, about 10 seconds later. From there, the lungs develop rapidly until at about 2, the alveoli are fully developed, then the lungs begin to grow normally until full adult muscular maturity is reached. The lungs are muscular and most mammals use their musculoskeletal systems to support their breathing, as humans do. This is why yoga can alleviate many hampering disabilities having to do with lung functioning, because strengthening the accessory muscles to the diaphragm strengthens the overall functionality of the respiratory system.
The muscles of the respiratory system are the following:
the diaphragm (primary)
the external intercostals
the internal intercostals (intercostals interlace on the inside and outside of the ribs).
As you can see, there are a tremendous amount of accessory muscles involved in breathing. I interpret this a particular way, that there is an enormous spectrum between thriving and breathing with ease and freedom contrasted to breathing for survival, or breathing only with the diaphragm and ribs, which puts extreme amounts of stress on those muscles. I think the idea of balance between the primary and accessory muscles is the right idea, and the stronger the accessory muscles, the more powerful breathing will follow. This takes time, muscles build strength in increments, and this is probably the biggest reason why yoga is so difficult for many Americans. Because we need it the most!
What kinds of breathing exercises do you practice for optimal health?
What kinds of breathing exercises would you like to learn about?
Do you find that breathing affects your mental health?
Do you find time to meditate on your breathe during the day?
Yoga’s greatest benefit is increased awareness of your breath, or respiratory system. It is the reason why the yoga ab exercises are so difficult, why every pose eventually feels like an different kind of abdominal stretch, and why you feel so amazing at the end of the class. Your lungs fuel every other organ in your body by revitalizing the bloodstream with new oxygen in combination with the heart, fueling your nervous and muscular-skeletal systems. The lungs also have enormous effect upon the metabolism. I’ve read before that metabolisms aren’t naturally faster or slower, but rather result from lifestyle habits and diet. The lungs pass by all of the lower organs and descend down near the base of the spine, towards the lowest organs. You can contract your perineal, or pelvic floor and sex muscles by bringing awareness to your breath. This is definitely good for your digestion and your sex life! (the muscles group is called mula bandha, or pelvic floor in yoga)
In a way, the lungs lead the body as it moves through space and breathing has an enormous effect on brainwaves and heart rate. It is possible to enter into alpha and possibly beta brainwaves while awake and practicing yoga, even Delta and Theta waves can be found in deeper Savasanas. These represent the different stages of restorative brainwaves that occur during sleep that ultimately provide the deepest rest for the nervous system and therefore the body as a whole. So control over your breath is essentially increasing the amount of control you have over your consciousness.
So the lungs are one of the primary movers of the body; indeed, breathing is a constant in having consciousness. And perhaps we can see consciousness as requiring breath; without it we can’t be conscious for long. From the time we are born, to the time we die, it is with us. Apparently the smallest organisms that breathe are spiders, so perhaps that is where consciousness truly starts; between the fly and the spider. Even trees breathe.
Ancient yoga texts say that there is a power within the breath, but how necessary the individual poses are is up for grabs. Warrior 1 and Warrior 2 are not where the power of yoga is, although aligning your body into those two postures and breathing while focusing on them is a powerful exercise in muscular stability, concentration, balance, stretching, and strengthening. The breathing is where the power of yoga lies; you can do yoga while lifting weights (it’s difficult, but you can stay with deep breathing the whole time, try it!), while running, while shopping, driving, whatever. It just means bringing awareness to your breath, and therefore your nervous system. The two are intertwined.
Feel the POWA!
There is a reason why the idea of power continues to resurface in yoga; however, I don’t think it holds true to what yoga is really about. If awareness is power, then I am wrong, but I think that awareness and power are different. When we relinquish the idea of power or control and simply focus on awareness; awareness seems to be more related to freedom; the ability to transcend individual situations and confrontations to maintain internal peace. Nobody is going to become a world leader by doing yoga. Really, yoga does not accomplish a whole lot in the world outside of your body and it can be really selfish if that is all you do! But that is just my personal opinion. Powerful people seem to be the least free and most obliged; they are always in some crisis, or fixing some problem. That’s why they make so much money, they are good at fixing problems and getting things to work. The ability to be okay with not reacting, sitting with what is occurring rather than reacting without really being aware of what is happening in the situation is type of power that yoga can offer you. True yoga is learning to take responsibility over your own happiness. Being able to laugh while someone flips you off in the lane next to you. Transcending shitty situations. I think this is what Patanjali was talking about when he/she/they talked about releasing from the fluctuations of the mind. Being free from the anxiety, reactions, and obsessions over everyday events so that we can live in gratitude and happiness for what is on a larger scale. Family, friends, and life.
You don’t know what you have until its gone…
Gratitude is true liberation and losing your breath helps to remind you that life is temporary. Maybe this is why yoga is so powerful, it tunes you into the passing of moments. The mental effects of combining your nervous and muscular-skeletal systems first thing in the morning can change the way that you live your life; imagine. Savasana brings the freedom of nothing; knowing that death will come and not caring; being free from the confines of the illusion of death and the senses. Even our eyes lie to us on accident. Letting it go is the most important part; those exhales make life worth living. Be grateful for your breath, because its easy to take it for granted. When its gone, you won’t forget it.
Yoga has changed western lifestyles for a reason. It is a powerful healing and rejuvenation system that cleanses the nervous system, cardiovascular and circulatory systems, the respiratory system, and the digestive system of the human body. With new techniques of Yin yoga, originally brought to the West by Paul Grilley, the development of the Ashtanga series by Patthabi Jois brought to the West by David West, and the spread of yoga through systems created by modern-day teachers like Bikram and Baptiste in the Americas, yoga has become a powerful tool for mastering the body and mind. The West has gotten some potent and powerful exposure to the healing art that originated in India, but we are in the infancy of using yogic techniques to target and heal different parts of the body.
I once heard yoga described as the most advanced form of physical rehabilitation. I like that. Yoga takes the body beyond its current limits by enhancing neurological, muscular-skeletal, and circulatory efficiency. Essentially, yoga heals disruptions and stagnation in the circulation of the bodily systems through alignment. This creates more efficient pathways for the body to recycle energy and to operate at full efficiency, especially the muscular-skeletal system.
Most yogic theoreticians would tell you that a large amount of the benefits of yoga actually come from the alignment of the respiratory system with the rest of the body; in the vast majority of studies breathing effects are shown to have profound effects upon the mind and body, in many cases even greater effects that the practice of asana by itself. However, all of the studies I have read included a ‘light’ form of yoga; as far as I know there hasn’t been an incredible amount of research on the primary series of Ashtanga and how the more advanced yoga postures effect the nervous system, or the true benefits of a rigorous yoga practice.
All yogis and yoginis will admit to the tremendous mental benefits of yoga: clarity, focus, calm, patience, rejuvenation, energy; Brian Kest is famous for describing the tremendous release of endorphins that yoga causes as a yoga ‘high’. It gets you kind of stoned. But with more clarity and focus. So if you like feeling good, yoga is probably for you. Think of being able to dive into the deepest muscles of your body and release tension after a long race; to be able to slow your breathing and take time to calm yourself after an intense discussion with a significant other; or just being calmer and less reactive during the course of your day. Reducing anxiety, stress, and depression are just a few of the clinically proven mental benefits of yoga; on top of that you can add more efficient sleep cycles, and major improvements in osteoporosis and arthritis. But those aren’t even the most beneficial reasons why you should start a yoga practice. Here are my top 3 reasons why everyone should practice yoga.
Reason #1 why you should start yoga now: Cardiovascular Benefits
Guess what the top killer in North America is? Heart disease. Stress. Yoga continues to be proven to contribute to a healthy heart and cardiovascular system and we are learning more as the studies surrounding the science become more and more regimented.
Reason #2: Respiratory benefits
Have you ever had a hard time breathing? Breathing is something that I don’t think the majority of people think about on a daily basis, but they should. Breathing affects both the heart and the mind in very integral ways: the heart is encased by the lungs and can absolutely contribute to accelerating or decelerating your heart rate (listen to the breath of someone in a panic attack, or after large dosages of stress; their breathing tends to be more shallow). Scientists also say that lifespan tends to be measured in terms of breaths rather than heartbeats or time. This is not new information, in Science News in 1981 you can find this quote on page 74:
“Findings resulting from a 5,200 clinical study group observed over a 30 year span showed that pulmonary function measurement is an indicator of general health and vigor and literally the primary measure of potential life span.”
I’m not sure if you know, but Science News is kind of big deal. Breathing also has enormous unexplored and unproven mental benefits; the peace, appreciation, and tranquility that a yoga practice can bring to your life are nothing short of miraculous.
Reason #3: Mental Benefits
This is the final reason to practice yoga, and probably the most important. Internal peace can change the world, creating non-reactivity allows cycles of anger, violence, discrimination, and intolerance to end. Even in your own life, turning down the volume of stressful situations will help you to live longer.
Many people consider the brain to be the regulator of the body and this is absolutely the case; the entire body is mapped to different areas of the brain and all proprioceptive information flows through the spinal cord (which yoga also focuses on and is also intricately linked to breathing). Many scientists are uncovering that the origins of the vast majority of disease, some estimate as high as 95%, originate in the mind. By disciplining the body, the mind unveils itself and lends itself to be forged by meditation. The body creates consciousness (the brain is a part of the body) and the mind is not necessarily limited to the brain so tempering the body through breath leads to freedom from fluctuations in the mind (high and lows). With yoga, you can obtain a constant bliss, that bring awareness and appreciation to even the hard and crappy parts of life. But you can also do all of that without yoga, but it’s probably quite a bit harder.
When you consider the increased length of time for high-focus activity, freedom from distraction, calmness in the midst of high pressure situations, most high performance athletes and thinkers should consider and intensely personalized yoga practice. The benefits seem to be unending.
I’ve never participated in anything so physically and mentally challenging. Yoga will take you to places inside that don’t exist outside of your consciousness. It places you closer to your humanity and gives a holistic perspective of the world, society, and subjective consciousness’ place in the universe. Give it a chance, you won’t regret it.
Samadhi and Kumbhaka seem to be intricately related. Samadhi is the bliss one experiences during Savasana, or after a long meditation or yoga practice and Kumbhaka is the space between breaths, or between inhales and exhales. The more that I practice, the more I find bliss existing in each moment and not simply at the end of a day’s practice, or when the view is good. Finding peace in the present moment seems to lead to being peaceful all the time.
Patanjali taught that the mind fluctuates, between highs and lows, depression and elation. Yoga teaches that breath allows one to control and truly harness the breath; it is the doorway to the unconscious mind. By deepening Kumbhaka, or the time between breaths, a yogi can deepen their state of bliss, leading deeper into the mystical realm of nirvana. The space between the breaths is where the space between thoughts are found; the most blissful of all states. When one is able to simply feel and appreciate the world with gratitude, then all suffering leaves the individual.
The link between the mind and the breath is truly extraordinary. Consciousness, it seems, is the result of having a body; the mind is not only the brain, but by the entire nervous, muscular and skeletal system. We can then assume that the body influences the states of the mind and that breathing is a way to control the body. Breathing is actually one of the most powerful influencers of conscious states; it is functioning minutes after a child leaves the womb and doesn’t cease until death. Breathing even continues when you are unconscious and I believe it is the most powerful link to the unconscious mind, the deepest layers of thought that create consciousness.
Lately I have been playing with lengthening my breaths, to see how long my body can go without breathing while relaxed. Time seems to be constantly increasing between the need for breaths and my ability to slow my breath has improved enormously. At the end of a practice, once my nervous system has calmed, it seems like I can go into extended periods of time without breathing. Buddhist monks are said to be able to stop breathing completely; in fact, some meditate into death by slowing and stopping the organs through breath. Doctors agree that the lifespan of a being is not measured in the amount of time (minutes, seconds, etc) but by the amount of breaths. Breathing is your life force, known as prana in yoga; the lungs encompass the heart, feed and cleanse it and give the body ability to normalize itself to the environment. The breath, it seems, is also the doorway to long life.
Kumbhaka seems to be a pathway to enlightenment and the inner workings of the mind, having deep implications for the unconscious mind, the heart, and entire circulatory system. Poorak is the name for an inhale and Rechak is the name of an exhale in Sanskrit. The different types of Kumbhaka are also important to understand:
antar kumbhaka – after the inhale, when the lungs are full
bahya kumbhaka – after the exhale, when the lungs are empty
Sahit Kumbhaka – performed during the middle of an exhale or inhale
Kevali Kumbhaka – complete cessation of breathing, an advanced stage of Kumbhaka after intensive Pranayama and Kumbhaka exercises
Practicing these exercises will calm the nervous system and slow the breath rate, leading to increased vitality and focus of the mind. Humans are one of the few species that can voluntarily stop the breath, whales are a second species, and it gives tremendous insight into the inner workings of consciousness. Over time Kumbhaka exercises may very well lead to ultimate Samadhi, enlightenment, and the realization of god. But in any case, it will certainly bring your mind to a more peaceful state and allow you to be less reactive to the outside world, so that you can enjoy it more. Practice your Kumbhaka and look for the little nooks and crannies that you’ve never felt before; these will turn into new worlds for exploration.
Pranayama is the fourth limb of yoga and means life-force control, but is better known as the science of breathing. Prana is the vital energy that provides life through the breath and resides in the blood; it is most concentrated in the semen and vaginal discharge. Yama means self-restraint, control, or discipline. In Pranayama, the yogi learns to control the flow of life-force through the body by regulation of the breathing apparatus.
Yogi’s are renowned for having control over the breath and this can involve holding the breath for long periods of time. Kumbhaka is holding the breath between inhale and exhale
(antara kumbaka) or between exhale and inhale (bahya kumbhaka). Puraka means inhaling, rechaka means exhaling, and kumbhaka means retention. In gaining control of the breath and in the science of pranayama all of these techniques are useful.
Two of the Bandhas (interlocking mechanisms in the body) are intrinsic for control over the breath and can help to refine technique. The primary lock is the Uddiyana Bandha, which is similar to the caving technique of Arnold. At the end of an exhale, suck the stomach up into your chest and notice how you can naturally hold it there. This is useful for increased abdominal and spinal control and can help in sun salutations as you jump forward and back. The second bandha is the Mula Bandha, which is interlock between the rectum/anus and the naval. This bandha is useful in all types of breathing exercises, and between both inhales and exhales and is often used in conjunction with the Uddiyana Bandha. Mula Bandha is also known as the perineum and is often referred to as the primary lock in yoga.
There are some techniques that are useful for deepening the relationship to the breath and the practitioner’s control over it. Bhastrika, or bellows breathing, is the forceful exhales and inhales of the breath to heat the internal system, kind of firing things up. It uses 3-4 second cycling and is really effective at the beginning of a practice. Kapalabhati, or fire-breathing, is forceful exhales that snap the naval to the spine and increase in speed as you do them. This also creates heat, but can simultaneously release tension of the abdominal muscles. Anulom Vilom, alternate nostril breathing, is a great way to equilibriate the brain and entire central nervous system. Exhale then inhale in one nostril, then switch sides and repeat 5 to 6 times. Calming feelings and stress relief should start to enter into the mind and body after you have completed. Breath retention is the process of elongating the breath as much as possible, keeping about equal inhales and exhales and holding in between each. Usually time between inhale and exhale is longer than between exhale and inhale, because it is harder to retain the breath when the lungs are empty. Shitali is a technique where you breath in through the tongue and exhale through the nose. This cools the central nervous system and is a great way to transition into Savasana, or the end of a practice. These techniques will grant increased control over the breath and body and with regular practice will help to alleviate a variety of maladies, illnesses, and inefficiencies in the body.
Pranayama is the fourth limb of yoga; according to Patanjali it comes after asana in terms of the progression of the yogi to enlightenment. Pranayama is not something you want to mess around with; improper use can easily lead to imbalance in the system and cause tension. It is a great way to enter into a practice or to cool-down afterwards, before entering corpse pose (which should always be done after intense asana practice). Use your bandhas and techniques to increase the efficiency of your breath and nervous system. It will also give greater emotional control, leading to relief from anxiety and stress.
I have started to realize in teaching and in my own practice that the way that we truly feel in our bodies involves breathing. I think a lot of it has to do with the way that the nervous system uses oxygen and energy in general; it is pretty easy to forget that we are walking storms of electric consciousness. Literally, your brain is a massive thunderstorm that walks around. And we are not truly separated from our environment; the integration and sharing occurs with the breath. Lucky we have a bubble (the atmosphere) to share with.
Think about the power of singing; powerful emotions become accessible through simply listening to a voice not to mention using one; or about the power of a forgotten scent, able to instantly transport you somewhere else in time. These things are all inter-related with breathing and I believe that touch is too. I often find that when I practice, my body contracts and extends more easily and efficiently with coordination of my breath. There are even muscles that allow us to breath, like the diaphragm, intercostals, and abdominals that directly contract and expand with the respiratory system. Our nervous system (what allows us to feel) seems to be intricately related to our breathing apparatus.
This brings me to the point, that we use our breath to feel the world around us. In a way, it sets the mood for the rest of the body, like the atmosphere of the situation. If you are freaking out, chances are that your breath is too; if you are calm, your breathing is probably slow and deep; I would bet that each emotion has a range of breathing that can determine what the emotion was. Gasping for surprise, yelping, snorting when you laugh (it has happened to everyone once!), sighing with relief, pouting when you are unhappy are all examples and I’m sure there are a lot more.
Someday, the breath will be far more of an indicator for health than it is today. It is so subtle, think about how much time people spend learning and studying heart rate fluctuations and spikes. Measuring breath will probably be more complicated than that, but think about what it could indicate about the central and peripheral nervous systems. Control of the breath will lead to liberation, which bring me to the next article on Pranayama, the fourth limb of yoga. Stay tuned for more