Christian Yogi’s Perspective on Yoga Philosophy: Pranayama

“Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.”
Genesis 2:7

From the moment you woke up to the seconds before you started reading the scripture above, how many breaths have you taken?  If your answer is, “I don’t know,” then you and I are on the same boat!  In fact, we take take  on average approximately 20,000 breaths per day, so it makes sense that we’re not aware of every breath we take and the number of breaths we have taken since our eyes opened this morning.  God has breathed the breath of life in our nostrils the moment we took our very first breath at birth, and we have been continuing the tradition of breathing everyday for the most part (with the exception of traumatic events that you may have experienced that temporarily paused the breath of life — which in that case, I celebrate that you were able to resume breathing again).  God made breathing an essential part of sustaining life in our earthly bodies.  We experience various types of breathing in life: Deep breaths, shallow breaths, slow breaths, short breaths, erratic breaths (thanks to hiccups, sneezes, coughs, etc.), held breaths, and forced breaths.  The fourth limb in Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga, Pranayama is sanskrit for controlling the breath/regulating the life force.

The state of the body changes depending on the way we breathe. Just with breath alone, we can induce and reduce anxiety, stress, aggression, and any other unfavorable emotion.  Believe it or not, you can actually increase and decrease your blood pressure by changing the way you breathe.  During one of my annual check-ups, my blood pressure was 130/80 which was higher than my normal.  Granted, I had just come from taking a cycling class 10 minutes ago, it was really hot outside, and I speed-walked across the parking lot because I thought I was going to be late for my appointment.  I asked her if she could take my blood pressure again at the end of my appointment “just for the fun of it.”  She looked puzzled but agreed to do so.  At the end of my check-up, I began taking deep, diaphragmatic breaths while I took longer exhales than I did inhales.  My blood pressure changed to 120/73 (which was still higher than my usual 115/68).  She was surprised at my new blood pressure reading until I told her I simply activated my parasympathetic nervous system through deep, slow breathing.

Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) is our nervous system that is responsible for the body’s “rest and digest” response to homeostasis.  Unfortunately, most of us live with our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) — our “fight or flight” response to health — active.  When our SNS is active, our muscles and organs tighten up, stress hormones are released, and our digestion & elimination slows down.  This is a needed response if we’re in danger and need to get out of harm quickly, but if we live with an overabundance of SNS active, our bodies will not be able to relax, balance and heal.  One of the greatest ways we can balance and heal our bodies is through controlled breathing, aka Pranayama.

God has created our bodies to heal itself.  One of the ways our bodies heal itself is through the breath.  When the breath is balanced, the body, mind and soul become balanced.  Here is a pranayama called Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing) that I like to practice to create balance between my masculine and feminine qualities (we all have both), moving and stillness, self-control and surrender… faith and deeds:

  • Close your eyes and begin breathing in and out through your nose, moving toward matching the length of your inhales with your exhales (i.e. – if you’re inhaling for 4 counts, the exhale for 4 counts).
  • Bring your right hand up to your face and fold your index and middle fingers down.
  • Plug your right nostril with your thumb and inhale through the left nostril; hold your breath as you plug your left nostril with your right ring finger (simultaneously, unplug the right nostril).  Continue, imagining that each breath you’re taking in is coming from the breath of the Almighty (Job 33:4):

The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.
Job 33:4
“This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life.”
Ezekiel 37:5

With Gratitude,
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