Breath in through your NOSE and then HUMMMMMMMM…..
There is little to no doubt that breathing through your nose has a multiplicity of benefits. In fact, studies have shown that nasal breathing leads to a 10 – 15% higher oxidation of the blood (source)! At the same time, studies are now also showing that nasal breathing greatly increases the anti-inflammatory molecule called nitric oxide (NO – see more below). More interestingly, habitual singing, mantra chanting, and humming have also been shown to produce this same molecule, highlighting the importance of incorporating specific pranayama techniques into practice; meaning, Alternate Nostril Breathing and Bumble Bee Breath are the key players in in increasing Nitric Oxide and breathing your way to good health.
What is Nitric Oxide?
Nitric Oxide (NO) is a gas generated in the human body and is important in the regulation of the tone of the blood vessels and facilitates the flow of blood. Nitric oxide is an anti-inflammatory that reduces pulmonary artery pressure and vasodilates the blood vessels in ventilated regions, also having a modulatory role in inflammatory disorders of the airways.
The Karolinska Institute in Stockholm has proven that a lot of NO is normally formed in the sinuses of humans. The sinuses are in close contact with the nostrils via small openings, this means that the level of NO in the air of the nose is relatively high. More recent studies show that NO is involved in the health and function of the nervous system, having the incredible ability to kill bacteria and viruses. This means that ancient yogic nasal breathing techniques such as Nadi shodhana Pranayama (Alternate Nostril Breathing) and Bhramari Pranayama (Bumble bee breath) are wonderful for asthma and respiratory diseases, amongst other health benefits.
Studies have shown:
On inhalation, NO follows the air into the lungs, that is, when breathing through the nose. As NO is a blood-vessel dilator, the blood vessels coming in contact with the pulmonary vesicles (alveoli) are expanded. This means that greater amounts of blood that pass through the vesicles can be oxidised.
Humming, singing, mantra chanting and especially the breathing exercise Bhramari Pranayama, (the Bumble Bee) increase the production of Nitric Oxide (NO) in the sinuses, and gives a healing effect.
The data presented here indicate that humming is an extremely effective means of increasing sinus ventilation. In fact, in our model system, almost the entire volume (96%) of a normal maxillary sinus (20 ml) was exchanged in a single exhalation during phonation, as compared with less than 4% during quiet exhalation. It will therefore be of great interest to study whether daily periods of humming can reduce the risk for sinusitis in patients susceptible to upper airway infections. We conclude that humming causes a dramatic increase in sinus ventilation and nasal NO release.
Practices to Increase NO
Bhramari relieves stress and cerebral tension, alleviates anger, anxiety and insomnia, and reduces blood pressure. It speeds up the healing of body tissue and may be practised after operations. It strengthens and improves the voice and eliminates throat ailments.
Sit in a comfortable meditation asana. The spinal cord should be erect, the head straight and the hands resting on the knees in chin or nana mudra. The ideal posture for this practice is padmasana or siddha/ siddha yoni asana. The position of nadanusandhana asana, which is used in nada yoga, may also be utilised as follows. Sit on a rolled blanket with the heels drawn up to the buttocks. Place the feet flat on the floor with knees raised and elbows resting on the knees. (For full details refer to Bihar School of Yoga publication Yoga and Kriya).
Close the eyes and relax the whole body for a short time. The lips should remain gently closed with the teeth slightly separated throughout the practice. This allows the sound vibration to be heard and felt more distinctly in the brain. Make sure the jaw is relaxed.
Raise the arms sideways and bend the elbows, bringing the hands to the ears. Use the index or middle finger to plug the ears. The flaps of the ears may be pressed without inserting the fingers.
If the position of nadanusandhana has been assumed, plug the ears with the thumbs, resting the other four fingers on the head.
Bring awareness to the centre of the head, where ajna chakra is located, and keep the body absolutely still.
Breathe in through the nose. Exhale slowly and in a controlled manner while making a deep, steady humming sound like that of the black bee.
The humming sound should be smooth, even and continuous for the duration of the exhalation.
The sound should be soft and mellow, making the front of the skull reverberate.
This is one round.
At the end of exhalation, breathe in deeply and repeat the process. Perform 5 rounds.
Awareness: Physical – on the humming sound within the head and on making the breath steady and even. Spiritual – on ajna chakra.
Duration: 5 to 10 rounds is sufficient in the beginning, then slowly increase to 10 to 15 minutes. In cases of extreme mental tension or anxiety, or when used to assist the healing process, practise for up to 30 minutes.
Time of practice: The best time to practise is late at night or in the early morning as there are fewer external noises to interfere with internal perception. Practising at this time awakens psychic sensitivity. However, bhramari may be practised at any time to relieve mental tension, providing the surroundings are peaceful.
Contra-indications: Bhramari should not be performed while lying down. People suffering from severe ear infections should not practise this pranayama until the infection has cleared up. Those with heart disease must practise without breath retention.
Advanced practice: Once the basic form of bhramari has been mastered, jalandhara and moola bandhas may be incorpo- rated into the practice in conjunction with internal breath retention (for details of these practices refer to the section Bandha). Do not strain when performing kumbhaka, one or two seconds is sufficient at first. The duration may be increased gradually as the technique is mastered. When the head has returned to the upright position and the ears are plugged, slowly exhale producing the humming sound. As an alternative practice, contract the throat while inhaling as in ujjayi pranayama, only more strongly. In this way a humming sound can be produced on inhalation as well as exhalation.
Practice note: Bhramari pranayama induces a meditative state by harmonising the mind and directing the awareness inwards. The vibrations of the sounds create a soothing effect on the mind and nervous system. It is also an important aspect of nada yoga which uses subtle sound vibration to attune the practitioners with their true nature.
Note: The word bhramari means ‘bee’ and the practice is so-called because a sound is produced which imitates that of the black bee.
NADI SHODHANA PRANAYAMA
Nadi shodhana ensures that the whole body is nourished by an extra supply of oxygen. Carbon dioxide is efficiently expelled and the blood is purified of toxins. The brain centres are stimulated to work nearer to their optimum capacity. It also induces tranquillity, clarity of thought and concentration, and is recommended for those engaged in mental work. It increases vitality and lowers levels of stress and anxiety by harmonising the pranas. It clears pranic blockages and balances ida and pingala nadis, causing sushumna nadi to flow, which leads to deep states of meditation and spiritual awareness.
Nasagra Mudra (nosetip position)
Hold the fingers of the right hand in front of the face. Rest the index and middle fingers gently on the eyebrow centre. Both fingers should be relaxed. The thumb is above the right nostril and the ring finger above the left. These two digits control the flow of breath in the nostrils by alternately pressing on one nostril, blocking the flow of breath, and then the other.
The little finger is comfortably folded. When practising for long periods, the elbow may be supported by the left hand although care is needed to prevent chest restriction.
Sit in any comfortable meditation posture, preferably siddha/siddha yoni asana or padmasana. (Those who cannot sit in a meditation posture may sit against a wall with the legs outstretched or in a chair which has a straight back). Keep the head and spine upright.
Relax the whole body and close the eyes.
Practise yogic breathing for some time.
Adopt nasagra mudra with the right hand and place the left hand on the knee in chin or jnana mudra.
Close the right nostril with the thumb.
Inhale and exhale through the left nostril 5 times. The rate of inhalation/exhalation should be normal. Be aware of each breath.
After 5 breaths release the pressure of the thumb on the right nostril and press the left nostril with the ring finger, blocking the flow of air.
Inhale and exhale through the right nostril 5 times, keeping the respiration rate normal.
Lower the hand and breathe 5 times through both nostrils together.
This is one round.
Practise 5 rounds or for 3 to 5 minutes, making sure that there is no sound as the air passes through the nostrils. After practising for 15 days go on to technique 2.
In this technique the duration of inhalation/exhalation is controlled. Close the right nostril with the thumb and breathe in through the left nostril. At the same time count mentally, “1, Om; 2, Om; 3, Om”, until the inhalation ends comfortably. This is the basic count. Breathe deeply with yogic breathing. Do not strain. Close the left nostril with the ring finger, release the pressure of the thumb on the right nostril and while breathing out through the right nostril, simultaneously count, “1, Om; 2, Om; 3, Om”. The time for inhalation and exhalation should be equal. Next, inhale through the right nostril, keeping the same count in the same manner.
At the end of inhalation close the right nostril, open the left nostril and exhale through the left nostril, counting as before. This is one round. Practise 10 rounds.
Ratio and timing: After a few days, if there is no difficulty, increase the length of inhalation/exhalation by one count. Continue in this way, increasing the inhalation/exhalation by one count as it becomes easy, until the count of 12:12 is reached. Do not force the breath in any way and be careful not to speed up the counting during exhalation to compensate for shortage of breath. At the slightest sign of discomfort reduce the count. After perfecting the above ratio, it may be changed to 1:2. For example, breathe in for a count of 5 and breathe out for a count of 10. Continue extending the breath by adding one count to the inhalation and two to the exhalation, up to the count of 12:24. This ratio establishes a calming rhythm for the brain and heart, assisting the treatment of cardiovascular and nervous system disorders specifically, and stress related conditions generally.
Advanced practice: Nadi shodhana pranayama may be practised in conjunction with jalandhara, moola and uddiyana bandhas (for details of these practices refer to the section Bandha). First practise jalandhara bandha with internal breath retention only. Once this practice has been perfected, combine jalandhara bandha with external breath retention. Then introduce moola bandha with jalandhara during internal retention, then external retention. When this has been mastered, apply uddiyana bandha on external retention only. It may be necessary to adjust the ratio of the breath to suit the individual capacity.
Breathing:Breathing should be silent in all techniques of nadi shodhana, ensuring that it is not forced or restricted in any way. As the ratio and duration increases the breath becomes very light and subtle. Increased ratios and breath duration should not be attained at the expense of relaxation, rhythm and awareness. The flow of breath must be smooth, with no jerks, throughout the practice. Always use the chest and diaphragm muscles and practise yogic breathing. If one of the nostrils is blocked, perform jala neti or breath balancing exercises before commencing.
Awareness: Physical – on the breath and counting. Mental – it is easy for the mind to wander during nadi shodhana. Simply be aware of this wandering tendency of the mind, continue the practice and the count. This will automatically encourage the awareness to return to the practice. Spiritual – on ajna chakra.
Precautions: Depending on the phase of the moon, one of the two nostrils usually becomes strongly dominant during the time of sunrise and sunset. This is a period of intense swara, ‘breath’, activity and it is not advisable to alter the flows at this time. Under no circumstances should the breath be forced. Never breathe through the mouth. Proceed carefully and only under expert guidance. At the slightest sign of discomfort, reduce the duration of inhalation/ exhalation/retention and, if necessary, discontinue the practice for the day. Nadi shodhana should never be rushed.
Practice note: Development of nadi shodhana is intended to take place over a long period of time. Each technique should be practised for a minimum of 6 months, except for technique 1 which may be practised for 2 to 4 weeks. Developing the ratios and timing of the breath in each technique may even take years. (For techniques 3-4 see p. 385 of Swami Satyanand Saraswati Asana, Pranayama, Mudra, Bandha 1996)