Chapter 3: The Importance of Pranic Breathing

Margie Ramsey is a nurse in a busy Los Angeles hospital who uses the Nine Energizing Breaths to keep her going throughout a hectic day. She estimates that her energy “almost doubles” after performing the routine only one time, and she reports that “even my sense of physical balance improves” as she practices them. Margie also finds them “easy and fun to do” and says, “It’s an exercise that anyone can do at any age.” Whenever she performs the Nine Energizing Breaths, she says, “I can feel the results right away.”

We all understand how important breath is to life. Most people have heard some variation of the following: a person can live ten days or more without food, and about three days without water, but only four to five minutes without breathing, before nerve cells begin to die and there is a loss of brain and organ function that may be irreversible. This is all true. Yet notice how we usually understand the importance of breathing only as a biological process—that is, oxygenating the blood and expelling carbon dioxide. There is actually another aspect to breathing besides the physiological, and that’s the energetic; for breathing is our primary means of drawing in not only oxygen but also prana or life force. As you read in the previous chapter, our body extracts this vital life force automatically as we breathe. But in order to boost your energy, to increase the quantity of your life force and move your energy exchange level from unconscious and passive to conscious and active, you need to learn to breathe “properly.”

Most people would be surprised if you told them they weren’t breathing properly. After all, breathing is instinctive. Why would you need someone to teach you how to breathe “properly”? Your body knows how to breathe quite well. Well, yes, breathing is performed unconsciously, the same way drawing in a baseline amount of prana is carried out unconsciously. But the truth is, most people do breathe inefficiently and improperly—at least in regard to the type of breathing needed to draw in great quantities of prana to energize themselves. In fact, learning to breathe properly is the first and easiest step you can take toward increasing your overall energy level. Simple to learn and master, proper breathing will quickly deliver numerous benefits. Among the physiological benefits, to name just a few: an increase in lung capacity, more efficient oxygen exchange, improved endurance, better cardiovascular functioning, diminished musculoskeletal tension, physical relaxation, mental relaxation, and anxiety reduction. Among the energetic benefits: a cleaner energy body, straightened health rays in the aura, an increased capacity to take in and utilize large quantities of high-quality prana, and release of negative emotions held in the body.

Rather than breathing properly—that is, drawing in a full, slow, silent breath down to the bottom of their lungs—most people breathe “high” and “shallow.” This means they breathe not by moving their abdomen out and in but by moving their chest and ribs out and in and their collarbones up and down. Additionally, most people breathe too quickly. The average breathing rate is twelve to sixteen cycles (inhalations and exhalations) per minute—which is actually on the verge of hyperventilation. When your breathing is high, shallow, and rapid, you reduce the amount of oxygen you draw into your lungs—and the amount of prana you take in. Additionally, this “self-manufactured” oxygen shortage will trigger, in many people, the body’s fight-or-flight reflex, which causes a whole cascade of physiological, biochemical, and energetic changes: your body releases a flood of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol that prepare you to physically defend yourself or run away. This, in turn, increases your muscle tension and anxiety, which also decreases your energy. (Technically, the fight-or-flight impulse increases your energy, as the body prepares to defend itself against a perceived assault or danger. However, this isn’t relaxing energy; it’s a high-tension spike of nervous energy that is inevitably followed by an energy crash, similar to the crash following a couple cups of coffee. That’s why you feel so exhausted after going through an emotionally taxing ordeal. Your body has had a hormonally driven surge of energy that can’t be sustained.)

Thus the cycle of poor breathing, tension, and low energy is established. We breathe improperly, which creates tension, which leads to the body releasing stress hormones. And of course when we are tense, we either hold our breath or breathe more shallowly or irregularly, which leads to greater tension, more stress hormones in the bloodstream, and in time, an establishment of the fight-or-flight reflex as our normal condition. With poor breathing, we create our own feedback loop to keep us in a state of constant stress and low energy, and thus poor breathing reduces both our physiological and our energetic potential.

Now, we don’t start out breathing improperly; in fact, it’s learned behavior. Every baby breathes instinctively from the abdomen, which you can see if you watch small children and babies when they’re asleep.

As we get older, however, tension and the effects of stress on the body inhibit our natural breathing process. As discussed in the introduction, we are prone to holding negative emotions such as fear, stress, and anger, plus limiting beliefs and traumatic memories, as tension in the musculature of our bodies. And the muscles throughout the torso are one of the main places we store that tension. This includes the diaphragm, the tough, flat, oval muscle that lies under the lungs and that is drawn down when the lungs inflate fully; the intercostal muscles, which are the small, thin muscles between and supporting the ribcage; and the smooth muscle of the lung tissue itself. Tightness in any of these areas, as you can imagine, makes it difficult to draw a full breath.

We also have tension throughout the chest and torso because we don’t stretch and exercise the area properly. Today’s emphasis on fitness and muscle tone is definitely positive. But many people place more importance on size and musculature than on flexibility. Bench presses, overhead presses, chin-ups, and other upper-body exercises create bigger and stronger muscles in the chest, arms, and shoulders, but they decrease flexibility in those areas if these exercises are not supplemented with regular stretching. And most people don’t stretch sufficiently and often enough. Surprisingly, the current desire for “washboard abs” also creates torso tension. When you exercise the abdominals and condition yourself to holding your stomach in to keep it flat, you are actually training yourself to be a chest rather than abdominal breather because you keep the lower abdomen pulled in and tight.

So that you’re clear on the difference between high, shallow, and rapid breathing, on one hand, and “proper” or, as we call it here, pranic breathing, on the other, let’s do a quick comparison. Lie down on the floor or any firm surface (just not a soft bed). Loosen your belt, if you’re wearing one. Place your right hand on your chest and your left hand on your abdomen, with your palm over your navel. Breathe normally for about sixty seconds, and be aware of the movement of your hands, chest, and stomach. For most people, their chests, rather than their abdomens, will move. This is high and shallow breathing.
Now, let’s learn pranic breathing.

Exercise 3.1 Pranic Breathing
1. You may close your eyes or keep them open throughout this exercise, whichever is more comfortable for you. Sit on the edge of a chair, sofa, or bed, but keep your back straight and away from the back of the chair or sofa. Place both thumbs on your navel and spread your hands across your lower belly.
2. Put your tongue on the roof of your mouth just behind the hard palate (the hard ridge behind your top row of teeth), and keep it there as you breathe. This connects the two major meridians, or energy channels, in your body and facilitates the flow of prana. One meridian runs down the front of the body from the palate to the perineum. This is called the “conception” or “main” meridian. The other runs from the perineum up along the spine, over the back of the head, down the forehead, and terminates at the top of the palate. This is called the “governor” meridian.
3. Exhale through your mouth until your lungs are comfortably empty, but don’t strain. Your stomach should move in, but try to keep your spine straight.
4. Begin breathing in slowly and silently through your nose. Feel your lungs filling up in three segments—first the top one-third, then the middle one-third, and finally, the bottom one-third. Your chest should not move as you breathe in, only your abdomen. As your lungs reach capacity, pause for a moment; then exhale smoothly and gently through your nose. This completes one cycle of pranic breathing. Try it again up to ten times. Rest for a few minutes; then do ten more breaths. If you feel dizzy or uncomfortable at all, stop immediately and just breathe regularly for a few minutes before resuming.

Most people master the coordination of pranic breathing in less than two weeks.

If you’re having difficulty getting the mechanics of pranic breathing down, there are a couple of exercises that may help. Each was designed by noted therapist and breathwork expert Gay Hendricks, PhD. The first will address any tension in your torso by helping you loosen up your diaphragm. The second will help you keep your focus lower in the abdomen rather than higher up in your chest as you breathe.

Exercise 3.2 Loosening Your Torso and Diaphragm
1. Lie down on your back on a firm surface, with your knees up and feet flat on the ground.
2. Take a full, deep abdominal breath (though don’t strain); then hold it gently.
3. While holding the breath in, suck in your abdomen, moving your navel back toward your spine. Your diaphragm will move up into your chest, and your ribcage will move up slightly as you do this.
4. Hold this position for a second, and while still holding your breath, relax and push your abdomen back out, allowing it to bulge.
5. Keep this position for a second, and while still holding your breath, repeat the suck in/bulge out sequence again. See if you can do a set of up to ten repetitions while holding your breath.
6. Eventually you will find it easy to do up to thirty repetitions of this movement during one held breath. What this exercise does is force the diaphragm to move up and down, increasing its mobility. It also allows some gentle stretching and relaxation of the muscles at the front and sides of the abdomen.

Exercise 3.3 Keeping Your Focus on Your Abdomen Rather Than Your Chest
1. Lie down on your back on a firm surface. Your legs can be bent at the knee or extended straight out.
2. Place a book on your navel. It should be heavy enough that you can feel its weight without being too uncomfortable. A heavy hardcover book without the dust jacket works best.
3. Now, begin pranic breathing as you learned in the previous exercises, breathing slowly, evenly, and deeply. The book should rise and fall with each breath. If the book does not move, try a heavier book until you can feel your abdominal area.
4. Take your time. When you can tell you’re getting your breath deep into your abdomen, do the exercise without the book. If, at any time, you lose the feeling, simply put the book back.

The mechanics of pranic breathing are simple to learn and even master with minimal daily practice. However, there are some nuances that you can add to your practice to make it easier and more effective. For instance, breathe in and out through the nose rather than the mouth. From a purely physiological perspective, this is more effective for you because nose hairs filter out small particles of dust and dirt. The baffles and channels of the nose also warm up the air, which makes it easier to assimilate the prana. But from an energetic perspective, when you breathe in and out through the nose, you not only cleanse the aura and physical body, you also keep the fresh prana you accumulate during breathing in the aura. When you breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth—and there are exercises for which this is appropriate—it has a stronger expelling effect, and you’re cleansing more than energizing the aura and physical body. Beginning students often ask about the level of effort they should put into their practice. Your breathing should be smooth and easy, almost effortless. As you start out, the muscles of your torso may prevent you from breathing deeply from your diaphragm, but simply stick with your practice, and they will loosen up. But don’t consciously try to slow down your breathing; let it happen. There is an ancient saying from chi kung practice regarding breathing that is instructive about the appropriate effort. Chinese masters said breathing should be “slow, slim, silent, and slender.” Breathing that is rushed or forced can be none of these. And finally, don’t practice on a full stomach. Within an hour or two after eating, your body is focused on digestion, and you may be a big groggy. It’s better to practice your breathing thirty minutes before or two hours after a meal.

Breathing rhythm is just what it sounds like: the pace of your in-breath and out-breath.6 You can find breathing rhythms in activities such as tai chi chuan, meditation, self-hypnosis, martial arts, and breathwork, to name just a few. Each of these routines has its own unique breathing rhythms, but they all use them in similar ways. For instance, many forms of self- hypnosis advise the subject to sit quietly and relax the body one part at a time, while breathing slowly in and out at a certain pace. There are many meditations that begin with the subject directed to “watch” or “be aware” of the breath and its natural rhythm. And tai chi chuan practitioners are instructed to breathe normally but slowly, to establish a soft, easy rhythm. In these instances, and in many others, we see that one of the most universal attributes of a breathing rhythm is its power to induce relaxation, to calm and clear the mind. However, it isn’t widely known that some unique breathing rhythms actually can do more than relax you; they can boost the power of your breathing, enabling you to draw in greater supplies of prana.

You’ll learn several of those breathing patterns here. Breathing retention is pausing and holding your breath briefly at the end
of each inhalation and exhalation. Holding your breath after exhalation is called empty retention, and holding it after inhalation is called full retention. In yoga, breath retention is called kumbhaka, which means “vessel,” “pitcher,” or “pot.” When you hold your breath momentarily, you are filling up your vessel, your energy body, with prana. Empty retention is called bahya kumbhaka, and full retention is called antara kumbhaka. In yogic terms, the inhalation is called puraka, or “act of filling,” and the exhalation is called rechaka, or “act of emptying.” In Pranic Healing, we simply say that breath retention creates an “energetic bellows effect.” You pump a set of bellows rhythmically to strengthen the flame in a fireplace. In the same way, holding your breath for a moment boosts your prana generation.

The rhythm and retention patterns you will learn here act as “pranic turbochargers,” intensifying the prana’s healthful effects and driving the prana vigorously throughout your energy body. We often show Pranic Healing students a simple way to illustrate how rhythm and retention increase the power of pranic breathing exponentially. One person stands in the front of the room breathing normally, while others stand around the first student and scan, or actually feel the size, strength, and contours of the person’s aura. Before pranic breathing, most people who are healthy have an aura that extends out about six inches all around their physical bodies. But as the person begins pranic breathing, the scanners feel the aura grow stronger and even more solid. Many report that it feels like holding the north end of one magnet against the north end of another magnet; their hands feel resistance. It’s not unusual for scanners to feel the aura push out to twenty or thirty feet, or even more, if the person continues to perform pranic breathing.

Here’s why pranic breathing both invigorates and calms you. When you are under stress, your breathing becomes shallow and irregular, largely because the muscles of the torso—principally, the diaphragm—become tense and unable to move through their entire range. You breathe higher up in the chest and don’t draw breaths deep into the lungs. We are thus told to “breathe deeply” during times of stress in order to loosen the diaphragm and get it working through its full range. That’s the physiological explanation as to why deep breathing helps relax you. But there’s an energetic reason as well. Your energy is at its optimal level and your mind is calmest when your chakras spin in sync—that is, at a similar, though not necessarily exact, speed, spinning smoothly, alternating between clockwise and counterclockwise. When they spin clockwise, they draw in fresh energy; when they spin counterclockwise, they expel dirty energy. In a healthy person, there is a coordination or synchronization among the chakras as they perform these energizing and expelling functions; they work in a state of dynamic equilibrium, a delicate balance that’s constantly adjusting. However, this delicate balance can be disrupted for a variety of reasons. For instance, when you are stressed, you often hold the tension, as noted earlier, in the torso, which causes the throat, front heart, front solar plexus, and navel chakras to slow down and/or to spin erratically. If you are frequently angry, anxious, or fearful, these negative emotions will knock your chakras out of sync. And if you eat an energetically unclean diet (see chapter 4), your navel and solar plexus chakras are likely to be frequently congested and spin unevenly. When the chakras spin erratically or work out of sync, the smooth flow of prana throughout your energetic anatomy is disrupted, and you can have areas of energetic congestion and depletion. This makes the physical body more prone to physical and emotional ailments.

But slow, rhythmic pranic breathing helps remedy all these situations. It relaxes the muscles of the torso, restores flexibility to the diaphragm, and enables the chakras to become synchronized. The result is a calming effect, as well as a buildup of energy. Pranic breathing thus helps you both to relax and to energize, to stay tranquil and to stay alert—which is a pretty good way to go through your daily activities!