This is the third in a six-part series about the experiences of Sarvesh Naagari while he lived in a Yoga ashram in southern India for 6 months in a 2,000 hour teacher training program. The series focuses on what it was like to practice Yoga in a Gurukula environment and to learn about and experience one of the oldest and most respected lineages in the Yoga world, Gitananda Yoga. Sarvesh is the owner of Ripple Yoga in Seattle, WA and the author of the newly released novel, 20,000 Oms and a Cup of Chai, an inspirational true story of the spirit that follows Sarvesh on his journey in India while recounting his near death experience 7 years ago and the courage of the spirit to come back to life and flourish. Sarvesh was in India from October 2015 through the end of March 2016.
Expansion and the Lost Art of Pranayama
“You are a shallow breather; in fact, you are all shallow breathers.” Our teacher said this to us during our first week at the ashram in her thick Eastern European accent. I didn’t really know what to make of this statement. Am I a shallow breather physically? Physiologically? It turned out both. It was explained to us that through our social conditioning and basic physiological functioning of the body, we as a race of humans are shallow breathers. To put it another way, we breathe only enough to stay alive. This is because the old animal part of the brain that controls our breathing is not interested in anything beyond Abhinivesha, or the survival instinct. We only take in as much oxygen in each breath that we need in that moment.
My immediate thought upon hearing that I was a shallow breather was one of defiance. I am an athlete! I play ice hockey! I practice a lot of yoga! I teach yoga! How can I be a shallow breather? It turns out that even with athletics, yoga practice and prior teacher training, I was still a shallow breather. Tape measures do not lie, and as we had our lungs measured, I only had 2 inches of expansion in the low, middle and high parts of my lungs. Some of the fellow students had less. Learning that we have three parts to our lungs and that we can control them independently of one another was both beautiful and surprising. The only cure for shallow breathing is conscious breathing, or the practice of Pranayama and techniques that are designed, sometimes in combination with certain Asana, to expand the lung capacity.
The continued practice of these Pranayama techniques allows us to move beyond our breath and the conscious breathing eventually becomes the subconscious breath pattern. As I looked back at my experience with western Yoga, I was never taught Pranayama in any form in a class or in teacher training, with the exception of a teacher telling me to breath across the back of my throat and calling it Ujjayi breath, both the technique and the purpose being stated incorrectly. Pranayama is not part of the western practices except in very rare occasions. This is through no fault of anyone other than the evolution of western Yoga, which is almost primarily based in Asana. That is where the profit lies for Yoga as a business and it is a reality of our society, so that is what is taught.
Our culture is not yet ready for Pranayama except in small numbers because it requires the student to sit quietly for periods of time when our social conditioning is to do just the opposite. We as a society are conditioned to minute attention spans. In order to practice effective and useful Pranayama, we must first overcome both our social conditioning and shallow breathing.
As we practiced Pranayama daily and the lung expanding Asana practice, I could feel more space in my chest and developed independent awareness of the movement of the diaphragm, intercostals and accessory muscles that ultimately control the respiratory system and the space the lungs need to expand. My breath moved from shallow and mostly subconscious to long periods of conscious deep breathing. The benefits to my practice were astounding. I noticed an immediate change in metabolism and efficiency in digestion and lost 30 pounds of excess fat from my body, and more importantly kept that unhealthy fat off. I noticed that the mind was calmer and that there was less reaction to circumstances and more ability to respond. I noticed an amazing opening of the joints as they detoxified from the greater ability to exhale toxins from the body.
Most importantly, I took out a health insurance policy without the expensive premiums. By deep breathing, we are building in disease prevention and also preventing the atrophy of the lungs as we age. The primary cause of well over 90% of human disease is from acidosis, which is a carbon dioxide imbalance in the bloodstream which can effect anything that the bloodstream supplies. By supplying more oxygen to the body and expelling more toxins through expanded respiration, we are able to significantly decrease the occurrence of acidosis. Our respiratory system accounts for over 80% of our metabolic energy on the inhale and over 80% of the body’s purification on the exhale. And along the way we learned about 100 Pranayama techniques that have been handed down from Guru to student for hundreds and hundreds of years. These techniques range from lung expansion and physical, emotional and mental cleansing (Sauca) to Samyama (Dharana, Dyana and Samadhi) to higher level techniques used in Chakra and Kundalini management.
By the third month of lung measurements, my lungs had increased from 2” in capacity to almost 5” in capacity. What this means is that I was breathing about 250% more efficiently, taking in almost 3 liters of additional air with each breath. My rate of breath moved from 12-15 breaths per minute down to 6-8, resulting in a more relaxed body, mind and nervous system.
I became a deep breather!
If you would like to learn any of the practices outlined in this article, please stop by Ripple Yoga where Sarvesh teaches what he learned and practiced in India. Sarvesh is also the author of 20,000 Oms and a Cup of Chai, an uplifting true story of inspiration that follows Sarvesh through his 6 month journey in India and recounts his past brush with death and how his spirit found the will to live. Sarvesh is also a life coach helping people to reduce stress, anxiety and other negative emotions that tear at the fabric of our health and happiness. His proven methodology utilizes actions to change perception.