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Meditation Master Class: 7. Congruous and Incongruous ways of Breathing

Let’s do an exercise, please sit at the edge of your chair or sofa or whatever such that the soles of your feet and thighs are parallel to the floor with back straight and look forward, with a relaxed gaze without focusing on any particular object. Take a few deep breaths, calmly inhale and exhale a few times. Now, do you observe your shoulder blades or clavicle (collar bone) moving? Your chest rising up as the belly goes in while you inhale and the chest and collar bone falling down as your belly expands while you expel the breath? Then you are breathing in an anatomically incongruous and harmful way. But don’t worry this can be corrected with conscious breathing practices and awareness.

According to Dr Belisa Vranich (American clinical psychologist) 9 out of 10 adults breath in an anatomically incongruous way. Breathing this way can lead to severe and chronic stress, anxiety, pain in the neck and lower back, hypertension, reduced elimination of toxins in the body and even severe metabolic disorders such diabetes and tumour in a long run. If any of this sounds strange or unfamiliar, please go and read my previous blogs in this series.

Just to summarise a few most obvious indications of incongruous breathing are:

  1. Shoulder blades and/or clavicle (collar bone) move up and down during inhalation and exhalation respectively. If you breathe correctly shoulders or chest shouldn’t move at all unless you do so willingly in certain yogic practices such as bhastrika pranayama (bellows breathing).
  2. The belly moves in (is sucked in) during inhalation and moves out (or expands) during exhalation whereas this should be the other way around. If you breathe correctly, with each in-breath the air falls naturally into the lungs as the diaphragm moves down pushing the organs of the abdominal cavity out, hence the belly button moves outward whereas during exhalation the diaphragm squeezes our sponge-like lungs as it moves upwards forcing the air out of alveoli (which are like pores in a sponge), this action pulls the organs of the abdominal cavity up and in, causing the belly button to be sucked inward as if pulled toward the lower back.
  3. You breathe in and out through the mouth. The nasal cavity has very unique anatomy which filters, warms and moistens the inflowing air without which there as chances of lungs being harmed by pathogens or cold and/or dry air.
  4. You experience fear, anxiety, chronic stress, migraines, hypertension, neck or lower back pain and/or stiffness. Which is a result of repetitive stress on certain muscles and forced and unbalanced muscular tension.
  5. You experience cold and numb hands and/or feet even in a warm room.

Besides these, if you calmly observe your own breath by repeating the same exercise. You’ll find five irregularities in your breath:

  1. Unevenness
  2. Shallowness
  3. Jerks
  4. Noise
  5. Pauses

The last one is the worst, as it induces fear and agitation and keeps one gasping for breath. One can never meditate or even sit peacefully or even sleep with these irregularities. Now let’s examine each in brief and we shall also discuss later how to get rid of all these systematically.

Unevenness means that the in-breath may be longer than out-breath. This induces fight or flight. So the first step to correct this would make both equal. Try to inhale for four seconds and then exhale for 4 seconds. Do this exercise for 10-15 minutes in the morning and in the evening. This can also help with insomnia. Then slowly increase it to 6 seconds, 8 seconds, 15 seconds and eventually try to increase the duration to 30 seconds for each.

Shallowness means breathing only in the chest and not utilising the more alveoli and blood-rich part of lungs this makes the heart pump harder. This induces in a long run poor heart rate variability, higher heart rate, hypertension etc. It may also increase the chance for stroke. We will discuss how to correct and eradicate this systematically in the upcoming discussions.

By jerkiness, we mean that the in-breath and the out-breath are not smooth like the flow of oil from one container to another but rather jerky like the motion of a demolition hammer or jackhammer. This can be corrected slowly but easily with awareness and practising various breathing exercise.

Noise is created when nostrils are blocked due to one or more reasons and the lower part of the lungs is not utilised to create necessary suction and hence there is an effort to draw in the air. If one breathes diaphragmatically and the nasal passage is clean air falls into the lungs as effortlessly as a tired man falls on a soft cushion without any noise. Additionally, Jala Neti and Nadi Shodhana are the easiest and most sustainable ways to keep nasal passage clean without any side-effects.

Pauses are the worst of all and most difficult to get rid off. Undesired pauses or in yogic terms, involuntary kumbhaka breeds fear, agitation and feebleness in the mind; and keeps one gasping for air and hence yogis call this agent of death. The first step is to become aware of pauses, I want you to repeat the exercise I mentioned above to overcome unevenness and this time watch closely what happens when the inhalation stops and the exhalation begins, you will notice a tiny involuntary pause as the inhalation ends and before exhalation begins, now watch closely what happens when the exhalation stops and the inhalation begins, you will notice a tiny involuntary pause here too. Not just that but every time we feel fear or stress or anger or when we try too hard to concentrate we hold our breath, I have seen people hold breath while writing a cheque or important email or when trying to stand up from sitting position and vice versa.

In general, we will notice your breathing pattern is something like out-stop-in-stop-out-stop and the diaphragm moves up and down like a piston in a reciprocating engine what we want to do is to slowly turn the movement of the diaphragm to that of a crank or flywheel. From reciprocating to circular, of course, the diaphragm doesn’t start turning circularly but the circular movement is what one feels when inhalation smoothly merges into exhalation as a wave merges into sea and vice versa.

Yogins say that the one who gets rid off pause gets rid of death. After all, what is death but the destruction of the bridge of breath (actually the departure of the vital force or prana which sucks that breath in and out) that connects consciousness with the physical body[1]? This smooth merger of in-breath and out-breath and vice versa is also taught in Gita[2]. As the breath becomes smooth, equal and circular the mind also becomes calm, pure and serene. Having concentrated such pure mind, one attains freedom from all suffering and attains Immortality[3].

In short, we should make our breath smooth, deep, even, uninterrupted and noise-free all this can be done by breathing diaphragmatically. There are many different ways of approaching breath some very rigorous and strenuous, others very passive and gentle. I will share with you guys a very gradual and systematic approach which has stood the test of time and has worked for me and my associates consistently as Spiritual Seekers.

Enough of theory, in the next few sessions we will start developing breath awareness and breath control which is a prerequisite for mediation. So be ready for active participation and remove any piece of clothing or jewellery that restricts free movement of breath.

Footnotes:

[1] Purusha and Prakriti, the Manomaya and Annamaya Kosha, the Mental and Physical Being, Karana (Causal) and Sthool (Physical) Sharira etc. can’t be connected without the bridge of prana.

[2] Because The Bhagavad Gita is a discussion hints on different methods of breathing, concentration and Knowledge (Jnana) are scattered throughout the text and it is not possible to pull certain verses out of context and claim this is the method of Gita however I have extracted these four just as a pointing finger:

अपाने जुह्वति प्राण प्राणेऽपानं तथाऽपरे।
प्राणापानगती रुद्ध्वा प्राणायामपरायणाः।।4.29।।

अपरे नियताहाराः प्राणान्प्राणेषु जुह्वति।
सर्वेऽप्येते यज्ञविदो यज्ञक्षपितकल्मषाः।।4.30।।

4.29-30 Others again who are devoted to controlling the breath, having restrained the Prana (the incoming breath) and Apana (the outgoing breath) pour as sacrifice Prana into Apana and Apana into Prana. 30. Others having regulated the food pour as sacrifice their life breaths into life-breaths. All these are knowers of sacrifice and by sacrifice have destroyed their sins.

स्पर्शान्कृत्वा बहिर्बाह्यांश्चक्षुश्चैवान्तरे भ्रुवोः।
प्राणापानौ समौ कृत्वा नासाभ्यन्तरचारिणौ।।5.27।।

यतेन्द्रियमनोबुद्धिर्मुनिर्मोक्षपरायणः।
विगतेच्छाभयक्रोधो यः सदा मुक्त एव सः।।5.28।।

5.27-28. Having put outside of himself all outward touches and concentrated the vision between the eyebrows and made equal the Prana and the Apana moving within the nostrils, having controlled the senses, the mind and the understanding, the sage devoted to liberation, from whom desire and wrath and fear have passed away, is ever free.

[3] Immortality in the highest sense of word as mentioned in the verses:

ॐ असतो मा सद्गमय ।
तमसो मा ज्योतिर्गमय ।
मृत्योर्मा अमृतं गमय ।
ॐ शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः ॥

Lead me from the Ignorance [of transitory Existence] to the Truth [of Immutability],
Lead me from darkness to light,
Lead me from death to immortality,
Om Peace Peace Peace.

(Brhadaranyaka Upanishad — I.iii.28)

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