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Advancing in Yoga with Volitional Breathing

Certain types of breathing can make you ill and others can make you well” – Robert Fried Ph.D

I was blessed with being able to teach Yoga at the Aquatic Therapy and Rehabilitation Conference in Florida this past week and just before that in St. Louis at the Accessible Yoga Conference and as my flight got delayed by a day and my yoga mind is always ‘ON’, I thought I would share some thoughts on breathing if you are interested.

Breathing for the most part is an unconscious autonomic response in the majority of people. Even with the continuing explosion of Yoga in the West, many people just don’t feel the need to refine their breathing or know how to do it, or how it can help improve their lives.

The perception is that It’s all about the poses and how bendy people can get or need to be to even start to practice.

That may be a fun entry point for many people into yoga but for me personally, even though I started in my teens I always wanted the connection to wisdom, mysticism and yes… even enlightenment. The psycho/spiritual ‘promise’ is a life of serenity in spite of the many challenges’ life throws at us.

Slow deep breathing has been shown to improve the degeneration of grey matter in aging brains and this is a positive outcome, beyond being able to get the body in a pretzel pose.

Advancement in yoga is not about being bendy, thin and young because we have work to do on balancing our own personality and that takes practice, discernment and wisdom which needs time. Lots of it in order to master better breathing habits.

As we breathe, millions of receptors in the respiratory system send signals via the vagus nerve to the brainstem. Fast breathing triggers the sympathetic nervous system and ramps up stress hormones, heart rate and blood pressure and slower breathing induces a parasympathetic response which initiates relaxation and mental clarity. Like the musk dear prancing here and there in search of the source of the smell forgetting it is within itself, through slowing things down we can learn to remember our true nature. That we are indeed whole and complete just as we are. We have just forgotten. The word in Sanskrit is Purnam. Completeness, and the purpose of yoga is to remember that and take action which is a Kriya or a conscious action.

As a long term-initiated disciple, sitting in a sangha or with a group of spiritual aspirants, our daily practice would begin at sun rise, with meditation and then pranayama before we engaged in a physical asana practice tailored for the individual. This allowed us to function with ease in the physical body for the rest of the day. As the sun sets or moon rises the sequence was reversed. Asana (postures and breathing, pranayama and then meditation) This patterning follows the circadian rhythms in nature in a gentle way that helps us to adjust and become more in sync with our external universe. Nature.

The spiritual life is a balanced earth life and in order to sustain that through life’s ups and downs we need to utilize techniques in order not to lose our sense of a higher purpose in life, beyond our ego. A study done at the Brigham Young University in 2017 concluded that resonance breathing (6 breaths per minute) improved oxygen saturation and baroreflex sensitivity and that fibromyalgia patients who breathed at half their normal rate experienced less pain and depressive symptoms. One of my earliest FML students who was not comfortable with yoga on land or even thought it was possible for her, enjoyed 3 hours without pain after her first Aqua Yoga class. Placement and type of class appropriation is important in yoga therapy.

Volitional Breathing is more subtle than us ‘taking air in’ like something we can demand, as our body responds to Boyles gas law, which is about volume and pressure exchange in closed spaces. For example, when we inhale, volume in the lungs increases which decreases pressure relative to the environment outside our body, allowing air to rush into the lungs. Relaxing to allow this to happen is vital for maximizing health benefits and yoga can be very beneficial for this.

Modern medicine tends to look more at the physical body and how it functions, whilst the more Eastern tradition finds road maps to optimal health via more subtle aspects of our body that are addressed with yoga therapy. For example, we explore the Panchakosha System (gross to subtle bodies) as we endeavor to bring our 5 layered body into greater balance.

The Pranic or Breath Body is the bridge between the Physical (food body) and the Emotional Mind body.

Modern science still needs to catch up with validating the existence and importance of prana, but in the meantime, it remains of vital relevance in complementary practices. The subtle body consists of a network of channels that help (or hinder) the movement of Prana or lifeforce. The major 3 channels are linked to the left and right nostril and the spine. Its main home is in the brain and chest as it enlivens the nervous system. Disturbances in the flow of prana are reflected in how a person breathes and in time may cause illness and disease emotionally and physically.

The spine is the main ‘highway to enlightenment’ within the body and there can be many experiences and distractions that affect our journey, perhaps stalling or deviating us from the goal of ultimate balance. (enlightenment)

This is why we need techniques to get us back on track again and this could be a combination of yoga poses, pranayama techniques, meditation, chanting etc. Incarnating as a human is thought to be a place where we can actually choose to improve because we have something known as free will. The problem is that most people do not use it and so instead function unconsciously, reacting as emotional buttons are pushed.

Like the breath cycle which has pauses, we as humans need to recognize that making hasty decisions is likely not allowing us to override our emotional mind and we may not be making the wisest choices when it really matters. In other words, we have forgotten, like the musk deer, what it is that we seek to remember. That we are perfect, complete and whole. This is known as Avidya or forgetfulness in yoga and is the primary obstacle in our lives spiritually.

Axial length by reducing spinal curves cultivates stability in the musculature and I love how in the water, hydrostatic pressure and buoyancy help to accomplish that. For seasoned yoga practitioners it may allow them to become even more aware of the bandhas or engaging the vocal, diaphragmatic and pelvic diaphragms, which due to gravity on land can be difficult to sustain especially as the body ages, injury or illness ensue. Many years ago, when I was learning about yoga for MS from Eric Small, he spoke of when he became frustrated with his practice on land and confided in BKS Iyengar. His reply was, “take your practice into the water.” Yoga is for any stage of our lives and initial health is not necessary to begin a practice or even sustain it. As I mentioned, placement may however be variable. Be it a yoga mat, chair, bed or in the water.

“Mind is the king of the senses. Breath is the king of the mind, and if the nervous system had a rhythmic vibration, then that becomes the king of the breath.” – B.K.S Iyengar

Utilizing advanced Yoga techniques as an effective therapy is dependent largely on the self-regulatory skills of the client and so is not for everybody, but appropriate yoga asana and slowing down the breath can be practiced by anyone. This will help to slow down certain physiological processes that may be functioning too fast or conflicting with the homeostasis of the cells. (Jerath et al.,2006)

In time, the lungs become stronger and allow the alveoli to open for better oxygenation thereby decarbonizing the blood. Blood pressure and heart rate is lowered and there is a reduction in the amount of stress hormones as well as improvement in the immune system.

Pranayama or breath manipulation such as alternate nostril breathing taught by a qualified teacher, ideally who has practiced these techniques for at least 12 years, can help a client to influence blood pressure in different ways. The danger of cavalier attitudes and practice of these techniques from improper instruction is that it can have detrimental effects on the nervous system and so creates more imbalance within the practitioner. One of the annoyances of yoga being diluted is that everyone has access to information and a ‘quick fix’ online or with an under experienced teacher, and is akin to giving a toddler a box of matches.

Researchers at Trinity College in Dublin have found that there are neuroprotective effects that are dependent upon the amount of experience and frequency of pranayama practice. This is seen as a benefit for longtime practitioners as less age related reduction in the grey matter in the brain. Postures, chanting, pranayama and meditation actually increase the size of the hippocampus. This is very encouraging for reducing the risk of dementia.

Right nostril breathing significantly increases systolic, diastolic and mean pressure, and with left nostril breathing they are lowered. The right nostril is linked to the Sun and the left nostril, the Moon and can be prescribed depending on what yoga therapy intervention may be useful. Alternate nostril breathing helps to bring balance to our inner and outer universes. (mental and physical)

Northwestern Medicine Scientists, through a series of experiments discovered that nasal breathing plays a pivotal role in coordinating electrical brain signals in the olfactory cortex of the brain which coordinates the amygdala (process emotions) and the hippocampus (responsible for memory and emotions) The results of the study concluded that the act of breathing can influence our emotions and memory positively as well as improve memory. But remember the first quote in this article;

Certain types of breathing can make you ill and others can make you well” – Robert Fried Ph.D

Yoga asana allows the practitioner to change the shape of the body cavities and this is how we can help to both generate and move Prana and cultivate vitality.

In terms of the volitional breathing rhythm, we have a controlled inhale and exhale. These are the active masculine; solar components. The exhale is lunar, feminine and should be more passive. In the external Solar system, the Moon is receptive, and it is the Sun that generates the energy that is reflected in the Moon so we can see it visibly in the sky at night. The Moon influences movement of water and we are made up mostly of water. We need to find balance in body and mind as we function in our Universe. Once we slow down the breath, we can perceive another component of the breathing pattern and this is a slight pause at the top of the inhale and also at the bottom of the exhale, known as a kumbakha which can also be altered volitionally, but it needs to be done with little effort. This takes constant practice and continued practice.

In the 8-limbed system of Yoga, the postures and breathing are known as Hatha and can effectively balance our internal Sun or focus of greatest awareness at the point between the eyebrows, and Moon at the oblongata or base of the skull and main entry point of Prana, linked mystically to the karma of this lifetime.

Under the umbrella of Hatha there are many styles of yoga that can be selected to accommodate the body and nature of the individual aspirant, making yoga poses and improved breathing truly accessible for everybody.

Camella is a Swami and Yoga Therapist in the unbroken line of Kriya masters and teaches extensively on land and in the water. She has developed a 2-level teacher training program in the water. For more details check out or she can be emailed at to host training events.

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