This is the second of three posts unpacking the majesty of the Three-Part Breath pranayama practice.
“After a bird tied to a string flies here and there without finding a resting place, it finally settles down at the place where it is bound. Similarly, the mind, after flying here and there without finding a resting place, settles down in the breath, for the mind is bound to the breath.”
• Chandogyopanishad 6.8.2
In the first Breath of Life post, I highlighted aspects of Dirgha Swasam (Three-Part Breath), including breath and the nature of separation, the basic anatomy of breathing and the different approaches used within this practice.
In this second post, I will focus on the purpose of this practice and its deep impact on our inner awareness.
First, it is important to have a basic knowledge of your nervous system and its divisions, in order to understand the impact this practice has on it.
Your Nervous System: An Overview
Our nervous system is a specific collection of tissues and organs, including neural stem cells, neurons, the brain and the spinal cord. These tissues and organs are responsible for transmitting, collecting, processing and reacting to sensory stimuli.
The nervous system is also the seat of our conscious and unconscious awareness. It is responsible for our reasoning and reactions to our inner awareness and external stimuli.
This system is divided, for ease of understanding, into three distinct levels:
The Three Levels of Your Nervous System
The first level is the central and peripheral nervous system divisions.
The central division is the main axis of our nervous system from which all command channel communication is issued, and all sensory information is received. It consists of the brain and spinal cord.
The peripheral division is everything else outside of the brain and spinal cord, including all the nerve fibers and sensory organs such as the eyes (retina and optic nerves), ears (auditory nerves), nose (olfactory nerves), tongue (gustatory nerves and taste buds), skin (mechano and proprioceptors), etc.
The second level further splits this peripheral category into tissues that are:
- Voluntarily, which we can control. For example, blinking, swallowing, contracting and relaxing skeletal muscle, etc.
- Autonomic, or considered outside our conscious control. For example, the modulation of our heart rate and blood pressure, unconscious breathing, digestion, reflexes, etc.
The third level, the one you are probably most familiar with, further divides the above Autonomic branch into two reactionary states. These states stimulate specific tissues responsible for our experience of these divisions. These states are commonly known as:
- The Fight or Flight (Freeze and Appease) Division, also known as the Sympathetic branch of the Autonomic Nervous System.
- The Rest and Digest (Reproduce and Heal) Division, also known as the Parasympathetic branch of the Autonomic Nervous System.
A given situation and our perception of it will dictate the level of activation of the sympathetic and/or parasympathetic nervous system divisions.
A very common misconception is that we are either in one state or the other at any one time. In truth, the experience of the fight or flight and rest and digest divisions is not either/or. It is a balancing act of activation or upregulation to one or both based on the state of our mind, the health of our body, our awareness, and past conditioning factors, all of which impact our current understanding of the perceived circumstances and situation.
Because the sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions originate from the Autonomic nervous system, it has long been believed by Western medicine that we have little control over their up or down regulation.
Fortunately, the science of yoga has long been utilized to gain access to and mastery over the nervous system. The Three-Part Breath practice is one of the fundamental techniques that allows you to connect to and begin working with your nervous system to realize the ultimate purpose of the practice of yoga.
Purpose of The Practice
Three-Part Breath practice reduces stress, tension and anxiety. It also increases oxygen intake and promotes a sense of relaxed, increased alertness. Depending on how it is approached, this practice can highlight one division of our autonomic nervous system (sympathetic or parasympathetic) and then integrate or sync the other together into a state of coherence. This is the first step toward achieving the ultimate outcome of our practice of this breathwork and yoga.
Diaphragmatic or Belly Breathing
For instance, if we begin by softening the abdomen and inhaling into the belly, otherwise known as diaphragmatic or belly breathing, we begin the process of connecting to and emphasizing the parasympathetic division of our nervous system. Building on this, we focus on relaxing and expanding the belly, not only to the front, but also to the sides and across the low back as we inhale. As we do this, the diaphragm (the primary muscle of inhalation) contracts completely and drops down flat, similar to a flattened-out parachute being pulled tight.
This process of belly breathing mechanically stimulates the vagus nerve, the primary nerve of our parasympathetic division, by massaging the anterior and posterior vagal trunks as they enter into the abdomen through the diaphragm. The physical contraction of the diaphragm muscle as we inhale, squeezes and stimulates the vagus nerve directly, increasing the vagal tone, activating the parasympathetic division. This increases the state of overall relaxation and expanded awareness.
Chest and Shoulders Breathing
If, on the other hand, we begin the practice by focusing on expanding the rib cage and lifting the chest (chest and shoulders breathing), then we are activating the sympathetic or fight or flight division of the autonomic nervous system. This is due to the stimulation of the sympathetic nerve fibers exiting from the upper and midthoracic areas of the spine. These branches include the sympathetic nerve chains of the cervical, celiac and mesenteric plexus. A plexus is a grouping or nexus of nerve fibers that come together at one point. This practice increases activation and an alert state of mind.
Back Breathing and the Lungs
By focusing our awareness on belly breathing, we are expanding the lower compartment of our respiratory cavity more than the upper. If we build on this and emphasize the sensation of the inhaling toward or “into” our lower back, this naturally draws more oxygen into the lower back portions of the lungs where there are more alveoli and lung capillaries to transfer oxygen and carbon dioxide. From a neurobiological perspective, this is also where the majority of nerve endings connect to the lungs.
When this practice of posterior belly or “back breathing” is integrated with movement, for example in Cat Cow, it opens restricted tissues of the body and facilitates a deeper level of awareness of the practice and increased oxygenation.
In the upcoming final post of this series I will highlight the subtle power of integrating both belly and chest breathing patterns to draw us deeper inward and the ultimate experience of embodied yoga.
Until next time, breathe deep.