What is the #1 most important key factor to achieving and maintaining optimum health, energy, longevity, vitality, and wellness? Is it genetics, diet, exercise, hydration, sleep, mindset, environment? Certainly all of these factors are very important, but in fact they are all secondary to something most doctors and lay-people alike completely overlook. Think about this: what is the most important thing in your life? It’s so important that you do it all day every day and all night every night. You are even doing it unconsciously right now while reading this. It’s something so crucial to your health, longevity and wellness that ceasing for even a few minutes results in certain death! The one and only undeniable answer is Breathing. To breathe is to live and without breath there can be no life. All life, plant and animal, from birth to death, completely depends upon the air for health, well-being and continued existence. From microscopic mitochondria to macroscopic lungs, every living cell breathes and depends on the air’s life-giving properties for sustenance.
“Breathing may be considered the most important of all of the functions of the body, for, indeed, all the other functions depend upon it. Man may exist some time without eating; a shorter time without drinking; but without breathing his existence may be measured by a few minutes. And not only is Man dependent upon Breath for life, but he is largely dependent upon correct habits of breathing for continued vitality and freedom from disease. An intelligent control of our breathing power will lengthen our days upon the earth by giving us increased vitality and powers of resistance, and, on the other hand, unintelligent and careless breathing will tend to shorten our days, by decreasing our vitality and laying us open to disease.” -Yogi Ramacharaka, “The Science of Breath” (6)
Pranayama is the ancient vedic science of breathing practiced and perfected over several thousand years by Indian yogis. Shaolin martial monks and Taoists evolved and perform a similar discipline known as Qigong (Chi Kung). For the past several years I have been diligently learning, practicing, and teaching Pranayama / Qigong and I can say from daily personal experience that this kind of internal exercise is by far the most important, over-looked and under-appreciated, energizing, invigorating, strengthening, purifying, balancing, meditative, relaxing, revitalizing, immunity-boosting and longevity-promoting activity possible.
“Breathing and related exercises are one hundred times more effective as medical therapy than any drug. This knowledge is indispensable to man, and every physician should study it thoroughly.” -Taoist Shen Chia-shu
Everyone instinctively knows that breathing is absolutely unarguably the most important thing in their life, but how many treat it as such? How much attention do you give to your breathing? Have you ever learned or practiced methods of proper and effective breathing? Most people walk around on half-power their whole lives, chronically starved for oxygen, wide open to disease, shallow staccato chest-breathing their way to early graves.
“Man has contracted improper methods and attitudes of walking, standing and sitting, which have robbed him of his birthright of natural and correct breathing. He has paid a high price for civilization. The savage, today, breathes naturally, unless he has been contaminated by the habits of civilized man. The percentage of civilized men who breathe correctly is quite small, and the result is shown in contracted chests, stooping shoulders, and the terrible increase in diseases of the respiratory organs. Eminent authorities have stated that one generation of correct breathers would regenerate the race, and disease would be so rare as to be looked upon as a curiosity. Whether looked at from the standpoint of the Oriental or Occidental, the connection between correct breathing and health is readily seen and explained. The Occidental teachings show that the physical health depends very materially upon correct breathing. The Oriental teachers not only admit that their Occidental brothers are right, but say that in addition to the physical benefit derived from correct habits of breathing, Man’s mental power, happiness, self-control, clear-sightedness, morals, and even his spiritual growth may be increased.” -Yogi Ramacharaka, “The Science of Breath” (7)
Regular deep breathing practice is absolutely the best holistic exercise and the ultimate preventative medicine. It detoxifies, oxygenates, cleans and purifies the entire bloodstream through the lungs, moves the lymphatic system, relieves general body aches, pains, stress, anxiety, and depression, increases stamina, lung capacity, abdominal muscle, core strength, mindfulness, mental clarity and focus, internally exercises and massages your organs, improves posture, poise and patience, promotes longevity and cellular regeneration, boosts energy levels, elevates moods, releases happiness endorphins, assists in weight control, improves digestion, assimilation, and elimination, strengthens the heart, lungs, abdominals and immune system, aids in deeper sleep and elicits the relaxation response in every cell of the body.
“The benefits of working with the breath are profound. The way you breathe directly influences the quality of your life. In fact, the way you breathe might be the most important factor in how you feel. Think about how people breathe when they are sad and crying. They inhale with short, shallow gasps and exhale with either long wails or choppy sobs. If someone is angry, in-breaths are usually constricted and out-breaths are long and forceful. During stress, the breath can actually become so shallow that it is almost nonexistent. On the other hand, when someone is feeling good, the breath is calm, deep, and even. The amazing thing about breathing exercises is that the relationship also works in the reverse; by changing the way you breathe, you can also change the way you feel. If you breathe deeply, down into the abdomen, this sends a message to the body to transform negative emotions into positive ones. Deep breathing moves chi and clears stagnant energy. It is almost impossible to breathe deeply and feel negative emotions at the same time.” -Mantak Chia, “Simple Chi Kung” (56-57)
Breathing is the mechanism through which lungs purify and detoxify the bloodstream, and blood is the substance which nourishes and sustains every cell in your body. Thus proper and effective breathing is of paramount importance in maintaining the health and integrity of every cell in your body.
Blood begins its journey in the heart, bright red, oxygen-rich and full of life-giving properties, then later returns from its journey dull blue, oxygen-starved, and devoid of life energy. Blood is pumped from the left auricle into the left ventricle then out of the heart through the arteries and into the capillaries where it reaches and feeds every cell in the body. On its return journey the blood is pulled from the capillaries through the veins and back into the right auricle of the heart. When filled the auricle contracts forcing blood through the right ventricle down into the lungs where it branches out and disperses into millions of hair-like blood vessels and air cells thick enough to hold the blood but thin enough to allow oxygen to penetrate. Upon inhalation oxygen comes into contact with the impure blood and a chemical combustion takes place oxidizing the bloodstream and releasing carbonic acid gas generated from the waste products and toxins gathered up during its arterial journey through the body. Upon exhalation carbon dioxide and other toxins are dispelled from the system and the newly re-purified blood, bright red and oxygen-rich is pumped back out to every cell in the body.
“Unless fresh air in sufficient quantities reaches the lungs, the foul stream of venous blood cannot be purified, and consequently not only is the body thus robbed of nourishment, but the waste products which should have been destroyed are returned to the circulation and poison the system, and death ensues. Impure air acts in the same way, only in a lessened degree. It will also be seen that if one does not breathe in a sufficient quantity of air, the work of the blood cannot go on properly, and the result is that the body is insufficiently nourished and disease ensues, or a state of imperfect health is experienced … A little reflection will show the vital importance of correct breathing. If the blood is not fully purified by the regenerative process of the lungs, it returns to the arteries in an abnormal state, insufficiently purified and imperfectly cleansed of the impurities which it took up on its return journey. These impurities if returned to the system will certainly manifest in some form of disease, either in a form of blood disease or some disease resulting from impaired functioning of some insufficiently nourished organ or tissue.” -Yogi Ramacharaka, “The Science of Breath” (11)
Put simply, blood is what feeds our trillions of cells and sustains our lives; from the tips of our heads to the bottoms of our feet, blood constantly circulates giving life energy to every cell. After just one cycle from heart to artery to vein and back to heart again, the blood collects various impurities which are taken to the lung capillaries for regeneration through respiration. Proper breathing fully re-oxidizes and replenishes the vitality of our blood so that the cycle of life may continue without slow deterioration. In fact as pranic breathing practice develops and lung capacity grows your ability to take in oxygen and expel carbon more efficiently results in a cumulatively building state of daily wellness.
“It is therefore necessary that a proper supply of oxygen be taken through the lungs. This accounts for the fact that weak lungs and poor digestion are so often found together. To grasp the full significance of this statement, one must remember that the entire body receives nourishment from the food assimilated, and that imperfect assimilation always means an imperfectly nourished body. Even the lungs themselves depend upon the same source for nourishment, and if through imperfect breathing the assimilation becomes imperfect, and the lungs in turn become weakened, they are rendered still less able to perform their work properly, and so in turn the body becomes further weakened. Every particle of food and drink must be oxygenated before it can yield us the proper nourishment, and before the waste products of the system can be reduced to the proper condition to be eliminated. And when assimilation is not normal, the system receives less and less nourishment, the appetite fails, bodily vigor decreases, and energy diminishes, and the man withers and declines. All from the lack of proper breathing. Lack of sufficient oxygen means imperfect nutrition, imperfect elimination and imperfect health.” -Yogi Ramacharaka, “The Science of Breath” (12-33)
Our lungs are situated in the pleural chamber of the thoracic cavity separated from each other by the heart, blood vessels and air tubes. Each lung is free and unattached in all directions except at the root where it is connected via bronchi, arteries and veins to the trachea and heart. When we breathe, air comes in through the nasal cavity where it is warmed and filtered through hairs and mucous membrane. The air passes through the pharynx, larynx, and trachea then into the bronchial tubes where it is subdivided and dispersed into the millions of tiny air cells in the lungs. Air is drawn into the lungs by the diaphragm, a long, strong, flat muscle stretched across the chest. When the diaphragm contracts, the size of the chest and lungs expand and air rushes in like a vacuum. When it relaxes, the chest and lungs shrink and air is blown out like a bellows. The diaphragm’s actions and contractions are involuntary like the heart’s, but through practice and the will yogis can transform them into a semi-voluntary muscle.
“The internal organs also need exercise, and Nature’s plan for the exercise is proper breathing. The diaphragm is Nature’s principal instrument for this internal exercise. Its motion vibrates the important organs of nutrition and elimination, and massages and kneads them at each inhalation and exhalation, forcing blood into them, and then squeezing it out, and imparting a general tone to the organs. Any organ or part of the body which is not exercised gradually atrophies and refuses to function properly, and lack of the internal exercise afforded by the diaphragmatic action leads to diseased organs.” -Yogi Ramacharaka, “The Science of Breath” (34)
There is literally nothing whatsoever more crucial to your health, vitality, longevity and well-being than your breath. You may survive several months without food, a couple of weeks without water, but you won’t survive more than a few minutes without air. More specifically, it is the oxygen in the air that your body so desperately and consistently needs. Just a few minutes without re-oxygenating the bloodstream through regular respiration results in immediate and certain death.
Did you know 90% of our energy comes from oxygen and only 10% from food and water!? Centuries ago the Earth’s atmosphere was comprised of much more oxygen. Nowadays due to pollution, de-forestation and other environmental issues we’re breathing in only about 19-21% oxygen. Not only this, but research has shown that each decade of regular aging humans lose approximately 5% of their lung capacity and elasticity which directly translates to less oxygen. Considering how vitally important breathing and oxygen are to our lives and well-being wouldn’t it be a good idea to learn and commit to a daily practice of proper and effective deep breathing?
The Yogi Complete Breath or 3-Part Circular Breathing is one of the best Pranayamas to include into your daily routine as it trains the lungs to completely expand, completely contract, and utilizes the entire respiratory system properly and effectively. It improves concentration, alertness and sleep, digestion, absorption and elimination, reduces anxiety, stress, and anger, builds stamina, expands lung capacity, and fully oxygenates the bloodstream. Begin by exhaling every bit of air from your body then inhale through your nose completely filling up your lungs in 3 steps. 1) Fill up your lower lungs by inhaling slowly and deeply pushing your tummy outwards like you just finished a big meal. Imagine a string attached to your belly button slowly pulling out as you fill up the lower lungs. 2) Once the lower lungs are filled, the mid-lungs will begin to fill up which will expand your chest outwards while pulling the tummy back in. Imagine a 2nd string pulling on your sternum, expanding the rib cage, while the 1st string on your belly button has been released. 3) Once the mid-lungs are filled, the upper-lungs will quickly fill up like the top tapered part of a water bottle. Just lift your shoulders a little to get the last bit of air that you can, hold for a second (or several seconds if you can) then exhale through the mouth squeezing the abdominals to push out every last bit of carbon. Do this for at least 10 minutes a day every day and you will notice many substantial positive powerful effects!
Reverse Circular Breathing or “The Chi Cultivator” is especially good for strengthening core abdominal muscles and cultivating life force energy (prana/chi/ki/qi) in your lower dantian. First exhale all the air from your lungs and really squeeze your abdominal muscles forcing out every last bit. Begin slowly inhaling through your nose bringing the air as deep into the lower lungs as possible filling them from bottom, middle, to top. Now instead of letting your belly bubble up full of air as in traditional low-breathing, actually pull your belly inwards towards your spine as you inhale. There is a vacuum vortex point behind your belly button called the dantian in Chinese medicine, and that is the point that will be sucking in, the destination point for the air being inhaled, and the main storage point for life force energy in the body. Once the inhalation is complete relax your abdominals letting your belly bubble out full of air then exhale slowly out your mouth. As you relax, practice and lengthen the breath there will come a sound from your throat like a cat purring or Darth Vader’s mask. This is the sound of pranic/qigong ocean breathing which I’ve exaggerated a bit in the video to make it more audible.
Ujjayi Pranayama or Ocean Breathing is a very important deep breathing technique to master because it is so often used in conjunction with other breaths like the Yogi Complete Breath or Reverse Circular Breathing. Ujjayi Ocean Breathing warms and slows down the air being inhaled allowing for safe, full lung expansion and optimum oxygenation. The heat created helps release toxins and builds internal fire, enhances the digestive and nervous systems, elicits the relaxation response, and eliminates phlegm in the throat. The “ocean” sound comes from the glottis rapidly flapping against the vocal cords and acts as a regulator so you can drastically slow down and deepen your inhalations.
The Nadi Purification Breath or Alternate Nostril Breathing is one of the best ways to clear your sinuses if you have allergies, cold, stuffy/runny nose, snoring, asthma or other breathing problems. Inhale slowly and deeply into the abdomen through the left nostril while plugging the right. Then plug the left nostril and fairly forcefully exhale the entire breath out your right nostril. Squeeze your core muscles to expel every last bit of air, keep the left nostril plugged, inhale through the right then exhale through the left, and continue alternating back and forth like this. Alternate Nostril Breathing reduces stress, boosts energy, clears the sinuses, cleanses the lungs, increases oxygenation of blood, improves sleep, calms the mind/emotions, and has been scientifically proven to improve brain function. When used in conjunction with a Neti Pot cleansing it’s like a complete enema for your head/sinuses!
The Yogi Cleansing Breath is the perfect detoxification breath for cigarette smokers and anyone with chronic respiratory issues or halitosis. I personally smoked cigarettes from approximately age 18-26 and beginning daily pranayama practice is what helped easily and effortlessly ween me off cigarettes forever. All addiction experts will agree that you need a new positive hobby/activity to replace your old destructive habit, and with smoking addiction (an unhealthy respiratory activity) what could be more relevant and advantageous than a new healthy respiratory activity like deep breathing!? Within weeks of starting my daily practice I became sensitive enough to feel the negative effects of smoking even just 1 cigarette per day. I slowly ramped up my pranayama and cut down my smoking, consciously improving my health, expanding and detoxifying my lungs, until the act of smoking became so counter-productive that I truly haven’t wanted to smoke another one. To perform the Yogi Cleansing Breath first sit, stand or lay with your spine straight and inhale slowly and deeply through the nose until your lungs are filled. Make an “O” shape with your mouth and force the exhale out in 3 or 4 quick bursts pushing every last bit by clenching your abdominals.
The Pranayama Breath of Fire detoxifies and purifies the entire bloodstream which in turn feeds every cell in our body. It improves digestion, helps regulate the pituitary, glandular, and nervous systems, increases vital energy and lung capacity, expels carbon dioxide and other stagnant toxins, and is an excellent abdominal workout for increasing core strength. To perform Breath of Fire, first sit, stand or lay with spine straight, and exhale all the air from your lungs. Then in forceful 1 second bursts tightly squeeze your abdominal muscles and exhale out your nose. A slight vacuum effect will automatically and involuntarily inhale a tiny bit after each exhale allowing you to continue breathing like this for several minutes with practice. Start by doing 1 second exhales for about a minute and work your way up to faster breaths and longer sessions. If you feel nauseous, dizzy or light-headed stop momentarily and take several deep breaths.
Shitali Pranayama or The Cooling Breath, like all mouth-inhalation techniques, is only to be used sparingly in situations where the body feels over-heated. By rolling your tongue and inhaling through the mouth as shown in the video you will feel the air being cooled as it passes. Breathing like this for several minutes will cure heat exhaustion and cool the body down from the inside out. It is very important to note that mouth-breathing is something to be completely avoided except in extreme circumstances where the nasal passages are blocked or you’re gasping from lack of oxygen. Mouth breathing is directly responsible for the contraction of many contagious diseases like colds and catarrhal infections. Experiments have been performed on hundreds of soldiers and sailors showing that those who slept with their mouths open were much more likely to fall ill and contract contagious diseases than those who breathed properly through their nostrils. During one of the Navy experiments a smallpox epidemic broke out resulting in many deaths among the mouth-breathers, yet not a single nose-breather suffered.
“The organs of respiration have their only protective apparatus, filter, or dust-catcher, in the nostrils. When the breath is taken through the mouth, there is nothing from mouth to lungs to strain the air, or to catch the dust and other foreign matter in the air. Moreover, such incorrect breathing admits cold air to the organs, thereby injuring them. Inflammation of the respiratory organs often results from the inhalation of cold air through the mouth. The man who breathes through the mouth at night, always awakens with a parched feeling in the mouth and a dryness in the throat. He is violating one of nature’s laws, and is sowing the seeds of disease. On the other hand, the nostrils and nasal passages show evidence of the careful design of nature in this respect. The nostrils are two narrow, tortuous channels, containing numerous bristly hairs which serve the purpose of a filter or sieve to strain the air of its impurities, etc., which are expelled when the breath is exhaled. Not only do the nostrils serve this important purpose, but they also perform an important function in warming the air inhaled. The long narrow winding nostrils are filled with warm mucous membrane, which coming in contact with the inhaled air warms it so that it can do no damage to the delicate organs of the throat, or to the lungs.” -Yogi Ramacharaka, “The Science of Breath”