Breath – Our Life Force

Think about this for a moment: your breath is the only action that is keeping you alive right now, in this very moment as you are reading this. Our breath is the single action that keeps all of us alive. It is an irrefutable fact that every other action, plan, aspiration, hope, desire or interest we are pursuing or intend to ever pursue is contingent on the fact that we continue breathing, for without it, there is no life.

Given its paramount importance, isn’t it worthy of reflection as to how much attention we give to the breath, our life force? The reality for most people is “not much” and understandably so in the hustle and bustle of life. It is my wish and my hope that reading this article may encourage changing that….

The fact that we are breathing only means that we are alive. To do this much is possible for most people, but what is rare is to live consciously. Choosing to breathe consciously means to live consciously, for our breath is our only companion that is always with us in each moment.

The Science of Swara Yoga

In Yogic tradition, the science of the breath (Swara Yoga) is known to be deep, and only understood by those who have undertaken sufficient self-study (Swadhyaya). The full breadth of this science is captured in an ancient tantric text called the “Shiva Swarodaya”. I will not be exaggerating when I say that the knowledge of Swara Yoga only comes to be realised by individuals after many years of spiritual practice, if at all. I have been incredibly fortunate to be introduced to the study of Swara Yoga when I was still in high school (well over a decade ago) when my dad gave me a book to read that contained the full text of the Shiva Swarodaya. Indeed, I have my dad to thank for introducing me to this so early. Having this background allowed me to study of my own breath since then. This has significantly enhanced my experience of spiritual practices, with the ability to practically and intuitively understand why we do certain pranayamas, asanas and kriya yoga practices the way we do and their effects on the body at a physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual level. 

Observation and Practice

At the anatomic level, we know that we have one nose, with two nostrils. When we begin to study our breath, the first thing we discover is that we breathe through only one nostril at any given point in time. You can test this for yourself by constricting (blocking) one nostril at a time and trying to inhale through the other nostril. You will find that inhaling through one particular nostril is more seamless and easier than the other at any given point. The nostril you can inhale through with greater ease is your ‘dominant’ or ‘active’ nostril at that point in time.

The breath changes between the two nostrils approximately every 1.5 hours and only in that change-over period, the breath flows evenly through both nostrils for anywhere between a few seconds to 2 minutes. Naturally, breathing is the primary source of energy for the body. Swara Yoga provides that the flow of breath, through the left nostril is known as ‘Ida’, through the right nostril is known as ‘Pingala’ and breath flowing through both nostrils together is known as ‘Sushumna’. These constitute the three channels (Nadis) through which life force energy flows throughout the body. It’s from here that it gets complex and it’s my every effort to express these concepts in the simplest way possible….

Our brain itself is divided into two hemispheres (the right and left). When we breathe through the left nostril (Ida), the right side of the brain is dominantly active. When we breathe through the right nostril (Pingala), the left side of the brain is dominantly active. This correlates with brain research which indicates that the respective sides of the brain control the opposite sides of the body (that is, the left hemisphere of the brain controls the right side of the body and vice versa). There is a lot of research available on particular functions of each hemisphere of the brain in terms of our day-to-day activities, so I will not venture into that, but rather, I intend to focus on information that can be available to us simply by observing the flow of our breath.

Interestingly, it is also the case that when we exhale, the breath flows in any one of five directions (left side, right side, upward, downward or in all directions at once in a scattered way), which also changes throughout the day. This is part of a more complex analysis which will become easier to recognise after a few years of careful and attentive breath observation.

Secrets within the Breath

The duality of the masculine and the feminine, the solar and lunar, the heating and the cooling characteristics within our body is indicative in the pattern of the breath. The Pingala symbolizes the masculine/ solar/ heating properties. Under the dominance of the Pingala (right nostril), the body more easily carries out heating or energy intensive processes like digestion, exercise, critical thinking or sex, amongst many others. The Ida symbolizes the feminine/ lunar/ cooling properties. Under the dominance of the Ida (left nostril), the body cools down, becomes more receptive to learning and is able to relax deeper. So for instance, creative endeavors, studies (for increased retention of knowledge) and sleep is optimal under the dominance of the Ida.

Image credits: Pinterest.

The rate and pace of our breath is directly related to emotional regulation. When we are angry, irritated, frustrated, it is common for the Pingala (right nostril) to be dominant and the pace of our breath will be fast, irregular and shallow. If we are sad, depressed, lonely, it is common for the Ida (left nostril) to be dominant and the pace of our breath will be slow, irregular and shallow. For behaviours on both ends of the spectrum, we find that mindfulness, meditation and deep breaths are often recommended. When in a state of such volatility of the breath and therefore volatility of the mind however, it is improbable that anyone will have much success meditating or practicing mindfulness. This is why yogic scriptures prescribe the practice of Pranayama.

The Solution – Harnessing the Power within the Breath

There is no doubt that we are able to transform our emotions by simply regulating our pattern of breath. Once the breath is regulated through conscious awareness and targeted interventions, our emotional state will automatically also become stable. It is impossible for one to remain emotionally heightened or affected while their pattern of breath is serene. There are specific Pranayamas (rhythmic yogic breathing techniques) that can bring stability and serenity to the breath and mind, but these techniques need to be properly taught to ensure correct practice. If one does find themselves in a situation of overpowering emotions, taking long, deep breaths will certainly help. As a guide to long and deep breaths, you may inhale for as long as is comfortable, hold the breath for 3-6 seconds (as comfortable) and then exhale for as long as is comfortable. This practice can slow down the breath and re-establish a regular, stable flow. Most importantly, any breathing techniques should be done effortlessly and at minimal (if any) exertion on the body.

It is also important to give credit to our bodies, for the body is naturally a highly intuitive and intelligent mechanism. The body’s natural intelligence will want to ensure that both these Nadis (Ida and Pingala) are in balance. When balanced, we could say that the body is fully aligned with the Circadian Rhythm, resulting in us experiencing greater satisfaction in all facets of life, increased calmness of mind and most importantly, improved sleep (through deeper relaxation).

However, when the body’s natural rhythm is not balanced, it is very likely that the breath will be irregular, with one nostril being more dominant throughout the day(s) than the other. This can result in weakened immunity and we may find ourselves prone to illnesses, conditions or unhealthy states of mind. Naturally a myriad of lifestyle factors will add to the nature, specifics and complexity of the imbalance, which may then determine what conditions or illnesses (if any) we develop. Prevention and management of health conditions enters the realm of Ayurveda, which I wouldn’t digress into in this article. Of course, it is important to first seek medical advice and treatment for any health concerns.

It can be advantageous to complement any medical treatment or therapies through proper Yogic guidance if you are so inclined. When I speak of Yoga, I don’t necessarily just mean physical yoga poses. Yogic guidance includes the use whatever steps are best in the circumstances from the eightfold path (Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyan and Samadhi). One way to naturally build back the body’s immunity may include practice of specific Pranayamas or kriya practices. This level of guidance can only be provided by a knowledgeable yoga practitioner who has a thorough understanding of what you are personally experiencing.

I feel it necessary to put a disclaimer here. With all due respect to Yoga teachers, the practice of yoga has become far too much of a one-size-fits-all fitness-oriented product, with an increased focus on marketing and the optics of it. This has resulted in the philosophical essence of the practice being diluted amongst many urban yoga practitioners in Australia. At the very least, a study of the Bhagawad Gita and the Patangali Yoga Sutras is necessary to understand the essence of Yoga. Interestingly, the original and best yoga teachers of the world don’t have any qualifications to show for it; rather their experience and depth of Yogic wisdom and understanding shines through their teachings (for example, Swami Ramdev, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Sadhguru, B K S Iyengar, amongst many others). Hence, what is discussed in this article about Swara Yoga should not automatically be considered ‘common knowledge’ for all yoga teachers, this quite likely will not be the case.

Balanced Breath = Balanced Mind and Body

It is only appropriate to now address what a balanced state looks like. In a state where the Ida and Pingala are balanced, our physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual health will also be balanced. In such an ideal state, the Sushumna is able to be invoked consciously, in the appropriate way. It is likely that both nostrils may become active during meditation or other spiritual practices. The activation of the Sushumna is only ideal for spiritual endeavors. When and if this happens, it is an immensely powerful state of being that can help us transcend into deeper states of meditation (Dharana, Dhyan and Samadhi).

Each Nadi (Ida, Pingala and Sushumna) has a designated purpose. The nature of these channels are to change throughout the day. As such, in the normal course of everyday life, it is mostly just the Ida and Pingala that will be dominant, alternating approximately every 1.5 hours.

If you got this far into reading the article, woohoo! I hope it has given you some food for thought. A couple of quick take-aways for your regular practice:

  • Observe the flow of your breath,
  • If you ever find yourself in a situation that is overwhelming, just breathe!
  • Practice long and deep breaths. Even during intensive physical exercise, we only use up to a maximum of 70% of our lung capacity (for healthy adults). The more attentively we breathe, the better we are able to expand our lung capacities which results in increased concentration.
  • If the breath is serene, regular and calm, we develop the ability to deal with absolutely anything life throws at us, anytime. So keep the breath in check!

I don’t profess to be an expert on this. I too, am learning and growing. It is just my hope that more of us chose the path of living consciously, to be aware of the immense power that lies in our breath to make this life a celebration for ourselves as individuals, and for everyone around us! Breathing is the simplest action we do, yet it has the power to provide immense innate guidance, only if we consciously develop the capacity to observe and recognise this.

Nothing in this article should be construed as medical advice. The use of any breathing techniques provided here are only suggestions that may be considered and are to be undertaken at your own responsibility. Nothing contained in this article is a substitute for medical advice and/ or treatment.