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Pranayama - The Art of Breath

by Philip H. Farber

(originally published in The Journal of Hypnotism)

Some readers of this page may be familiar with the Ericksonian-derived NLP technique of "pacing" the breathing of a hypnotic subject. In this practice, a trance induction (or any suggestion) is intensified when the hypnotist matches some aspect of his behavior with the rhythm of the subject's breathing. The pacing might occur through the rhythm of the hypnotist's voice, by swaying or moving an arm or leg in that rhythm, or by actually breathing along with your client. The result is a feedback loop that enables the hypnotist to "lead" the subject into different breathing patterns and different states of consciousness.

One of several factors that makes the above practice so effective is that breathing is usually an autonomic function - it is unconscious behavior that everyone always exhibits. By matching the breathing rhythm of the subject, the hypnotist is directly accessing the subject's unconscious mind. No suggestions are necessary to create or stimulate some unconscious motion, ideomotor response, or unusual state for this phenomenon to be accessed - everyone is always breathing. Breathing can be a direct doorway to the unconscious mind.

The same applies to the personal, self-directed practice of meditation. There is an entire study of "breath control" in yoga called Pranayama, a practice reputed to quell anxiety, elevate mood, and create lasting peace of mind. Prana means both breath and "life force energy" and yama means "control." Almost every school of yoga has their own brand of pranayama, ranging from extremely simple techniques to particularly challenging. The common factor in all of them is that a pattern of behavior that is usually unconscious can easily be subjected to observation and control by the meditator.

By observing your breath, you enter into a rhythm that reflects a range of unconscious associations - your rate and depth of breathing is always affected by your thoughts, your level of stress, your posture, your present external sensory perceptions, how much sleep you've had recently, what and when you last ate, and quite a bit more, all of it usually outside of consciousness. All of that information is encoded in the pattern of the breath. The simple act of observation begins to merge conscious and unconscious elements. As one observes continuously, the pattern of breathing will begin to change, a change that is in turn observed, which creates new conscious/unconscious changes, and so on, an ever-deepening feedback loop.

Basic Breath-Observation Exercise:

Sit in a quiet place with your back straight and your muscles relaxed (a straight and vertical spine allows free movement of the shoulder blades, chest, and diaphragm, allowing your breathing to fully reflect unconscious factors, likewise for relaxed muscles). With eyes open or closed, simply pay attention to your breathing. You can count the breathing, "One" on the inhale, "Two" on the exhale and repeat - or you can imagine your breath as a swinging door, swinging in as you inhale, and swinging out as you exhale. That's it - just sit and observe. How does the breath feel in your nostrils? In your chest? Does your vision change as your body moves with the breath? How long does an inhalation or exhalation take? How far does the breathing seem to penetrate your body? As your mind wanders (if you are doing this right, believe me, it will wander!) just observe and acknowledge whatever the distracting thought was and return to your observation of breath.

As noted, observation is a form of breath "control" because the act of observation will influence the rate and depth of breathing. However, other forms of pranayama rely on more direct, conscious control. The basis is the Yogic Breath. Your lungs have three main areas: the bottom, which is controlled by movements of the diaphragm and is visible as a rising and falling of the abdomen ("abdominal breathing"); the middle, controlled by expansion and contraction of the rib cage; the top, controlled by rising and falling of the shoulder blades. Each of these different kinds of breathing are associated with different states of consciousness. For purposes of the Yogic Breath, however, the key is simply to fill and empty ALL three of the areas of the lungs. Fill and empty your lungs completely but smoothly, without halting or straining. This is not hyperventilation - it is proper and full breathing, at a relaxed pace.

To start your "control," you can simply practice the Yogic Breath - you can do this at almost any time during the day, when you are driving, walking, sitting, whatever (again, a straight and vertical spine helps). The result is often a state of alert relaxation that can be accessed quickly, any time. (If you are a smoker, chronically stressed out, or have some other respiratory challenge, however, your first experience with the Yogic Breath might be one of dizziness. That's a great indicator that you are habitually limiting your breath and allowing some areas of your lungs to go unused on a regular basis. It's your cue to take action. Quit smoking and start pranayama immediately!)

Once you are comfortable with the Yogic Breath, you can begin to slow it down a bit. Figure out your usual time for an exhalation or inhalation, then add one second to it. Let's say that you normally exhale a Yogic Breath for four seconds - you can now begin to practice pranayama by inhaling for five seconds, holding your breath in for five seconds, then exhaling for five seconds and holding your breath out for five seconds. Five in, five hold, five out, five hold - and repeat. Ten minutes of this is usually sufficient to get a strong trance state or deep relaxation. Longer times of pranayama meditation can add to the lasting effect that it has on your life, the sense of peace and freedom from anxiety staying with you throughout the day.

There are many, many, many more variations on breath control. They come from every school of yoga and Zen meditation, as well as from martial arts, bodywork, and certain schools of psychology. The benefits of pranayama are nearly unlimited and have not been fully explored in a scientific context. Okay, take a deep breath!

© copyright 2006 Philip H. Farber