On a recent trip to India, I encountered a unique case of attention deficit disorder or, more frankly, a case of a scattered mind. I was staying at the Himalayan Institute’s campus in Allahabad in North India, nestled on the bank of the sacred river Ganga. Its acres of flower gardens, mango groves, and forested ravines, as well as its flocks of songbirds, give those who come here a sense of ancient India, when the sages built their ashrams in the lap of nature. The gentle currents of the Ganga and the cool breezes dancing in the leaves of the Bodhi trees leave visitors feeling peaceful, focused, and naturally attentive.
A family lives here in this tranquil setting. I know Vivek, his wife, and two children well. They are orthodox Brahmins. They are vegetarian and live simply. Meditation is part of their family tradition.
Yet they were worried about the education of their eight-year-old son, who is still in first grade. They had enrolled the boy in one of the town’s best schools and a tutor came regularly to help him complete his homework, but he was unable to master his lessons. I began observing the boy and found that he ate well and slept well. He conducted himself quite well, too. For example, he sat with the teacher every day for an entire hour without being disruptive, even though his friends were laughing and playing nearby. When I read to him I could see he was listening sincerely, but it was clear that he was unable to retain what he heard. I found this puzzling—there was no obvious reason why he should be having a problem concentrating. But when I asked him to count to 50, I noticed something bizarre. He ran out of breath by the time he reached seven or eight and tried to inhale while still exhaling.
To get to the bottom of his problem, I started spending time with him. To make him comfortable I made up silly poems and recited them with him playfully:
A B C D E F G
Up from there sprang Panditji;
Panditji dug a lovely gaddha [pit]
Up from that sprang Gandhi buddha
[old man Gandhi].
The silliness of the rhyme loosened the boy. He relaxed enough to recite the poem in a manner that brought out his ingrained breathing habits. At each retroflex letter, further accentuated by an aspirate in the words gaddha and buddha, he put his exhalation on a short pause and went on to recite the next words. This was the cause of his impaired memory—he was holding his breath and trying to inhale before the outgoing breath had completed its cycle. These short pauses were putting his diaphragmatic muscles, lungs, brain, and mind on hold. Attempting to inhale when the respiratory system, driven by instinct, was trying to exhale, created an internal environment of panic.
Further, it was taxing to the system, as well as confusing to his body and mind. Due to his youth, good diet, healthy background, and peaceful surroundings, he was cheerful and energetic, but I could see that if something was not done to correct his breathing, he would eventually suffer from panic attacks. When I began observing him carefully, I saw that his attention span matched the span of his exhalation. Because there was a gap between his exhalation and inhalation, what he read during one breath was not connected to what he read during the next breath, and so on. I gave him a few breathing lessons and his concentration improved. Just yesterday, his father called to say he had passed his exams with satisfactory marks.
The Key to Concentration
The quality of the mind is tied to the quality of the breath. A shallow breath gives our consciousness access only to a shallow level of the mind. A noisy breath keeps our mind in a noisy state. Breath accompanied by shakes and jerks makes the mind shaky and creates jerks in the flow of our thoughts. A pause in the breath puts the mind on hold. Just as the body requires nutritious food, the mind requires a nurturing breath. A deep, smooth, and even breath—without noise, without jerks, and without pauses—nurtures the mind and enhances its ability to concentrate. In other words, the breath is the key to concentration. Losing this key results in a mind that is disturbed, distracted, stupefied, and confused. Such a mind is useful neither in spiritual endeavors nor in worldly pursuits.
The ultimate goal of yoga is to attain mastery over the mind and its modifications. Mastery begins with cultivating a clear, calm, and tranquil mind. This clear, calm, and tranquil mind then needs to be trained to focus on a given object for a prolonged period. This training is called “concentration.” While attempting to concentrate, we confront distracting thoughts. Each thought creates a ripple in our breath. The more disturbing the thought, the bigger and more long-lasting the ripple. Negative external circumstances—an imbalanced lifestyle, an unhealthy family atmosphere, a stressful work environment—generate distracting and disturbing thoughts. If we go on living heedlessly, we end up forming unhealthy breathing habits: shallow breathing, chest breathing, noisy breathing, breathing punctuated by jerks and pauses.
An unhealthy breath fails to provide nourishment to our body and mind. For example, chest breathing and shallow breathing cause our lung capacity to decline. The movement of our diaphragm is compromised; the intake of oxygen and the output of carbon dioxide decline, and our blood is no longer as clean and well nourished as it should be. This in turn leads to a weakening of our immune system and a decline in vitality and stamina. The functions of our limbs and organs also become weak. Once this cycle is in motion, even a healthy diet and powerful tonics have little effect. The body remains undernourished. An undernourished body does not have enough strength to properly support the functions of the mind. In this situation the mind is more vulnerable to external sources of distraction and disturbance.
The body-mind connection is well understood by modern science, but the force that connects the body and mind is not. According to yoga science, this connecting force is prana. Prana is the power of consciousness, the force within us intrinsically accompanied by intelligence. The breath is the most visible and tangible manifestation of this life force. In this context, “breath” refers to the total function of our respiratory and circulation systems—the movement of the breath from the nostrils to the lungs, the movement of our diaphragmatic muscle and lungs, the absorption of oxygen by our bloodstream, the function of our heart, and the supply of blood to every cell of our body. Because most of the functions of our breath are outside our conscious awareness, we have no control over them.
However, the actual phenomenon of breathing is within the realm of our conscious awareness, and we do have a good degree of control over it. When we inhale, we know we are inhaling. When we exhale, we know we are exhaling. When we extend our exhalation for a prolonged period, we feel shaky and we know we have extended our outgoing breath beyond our capacity. Similarly, when we hold our breath for more than a few moments, we feel we are suffocating. These are clear indications that there is an intimate relationship between the breath and our physiology. Yet when we attempt to improve our health, most of us pay no attention to restoring a healthy breathing pattern.
Hundreds of years of continuous experiments led the yogis to understand the subtle effects of the breath on our body and mind. They concluded that prana is the primordial pool of the life force, and further, that intelligence is intrinsic to the life force. When prana unites with matter, that matter comes to life and we call it “body.” When prana unites with the apparatus of thinking, this apparatus comes to life and we call it “mind.” “Body” and “mind” simply refer to matter and energy infused with the pranic force. As long as the pranic force holds the body and mind together, we are alive. As soon as it disconnects itself from the body and mind, we die. More clearly, through its presence, prana brings us to life; when it is absent, we are dead. Similarly, when its movements are healthy and balanced, prana blesses us with good health. But when its movements are unhealthy and imbalanced, it opens the door to all sorts of disease. That is why in yoga mythology prana is depicted as Lord Rudra, who manifests simultaneously as peaceful Shiva, the giver of life, and wrathful Shiva, the destroyer of life.
Training the Breath
Because the breath is the most tangible manifestation of prana, a person with disturbed breathing is bound to be unhealthy, while a person with balanced breathing will have little or no room for disease. Breathing has a potent influence over the functions of our nervous system, brain, and thought process. To ensure a healthy body and a clear, calm, and tranquil mind, we must establish a healthy and balanced breathing pattern. That is the purpose of pranayama practices.
According to Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutra, pranayama is the mastery over the flow of inhalation and exhalation. The practice of pranayama begins with cultivating awareness of how our inhalation is followed by exhalation and how our exhalation is followed by inhalation in an uninterrupted flow; how an interruption in this flow disturbs our cardiac function; how a pause, jerk, or noise in the breath disturbs our thought process; and how chest breathing stresses our lungs. Before we attempt to gain mastery over our breath, we need to become aware of the distinction between a healthy way of breathing and an unhealthy way of breathing. In the initial stages, we have to make a conscious effort to cultivate this awareness. Through sustained practice we eventually reach a point where healthy breathing becomes automatic.
Diaphragmatic breathing is the foundation for a healthy breath. We inhale and exhale in response to the expansion and contraction of our lungs. Our lungs expand and contract in response to the movement of our diaphragmatic muscle. When the diaphragm contracts, it moves downward, filling the lungs with air. When the diaphragm relaxes and moves upward, the lungs deflate, causing us to exhale. In short, the movement of the diaphragm is the main cause of inhalation and exhalation. Our modern lifestyle—long hours sitting in cars, in chairs, and on couches, along with pervasive anxiety, fear, and stress—weakens our diaphragm and disturbs its natural cycle of movement. Establishing healthy breathing, therefore, begins with strengthening the diaphragm and restoring its natural movement. One of the best ways to accomplish this is the practice of sandbag breathing.
Lie on your back with a thin cushion under your head and neck. The legs are slightly apart. If your lower back is sensitive, bend the knees, place the feet hip-distance apart on the floor and let the knees rest against each other. Relax the body and feel the breath flowing in and out. Be aware of the abdomen rising and falling and let the breath flow without pause.
After a few minutes of relaxed easy breathing, place a sandbag weighing about 10 pounds on the upper abdomen. The weight will focus your attention on the abdomen. Let the bag rise and fall naturally with the breath. There will be some effort involved while inhaling, but there should be no strain. The inhalation and exhalation should be about the same length. Make sure you are breathing quietly through the nose.
After about five minutes, remove the sandbag (sooner if you feel tired or find the breath getting shallower). Now pay attention to the rise and fall of your abdomen as you inhale and exhale. Sit up after a few minutes.
You can start with three or four minutes a day and increase to 10 minutes. You can also increase the weight of the sandbag as your diaphragm gets stronger and the movement becomes more effortless. Eventually this will reset the natural cycle of your diaphragm’s movement, making your breath deep, smooth, even, and free of jerks, noise, and pauses. After a few months, you may want to add deep diaphragmatic breathing.
Deep Diaphragmatic Breathing
This practice is always done in a sitting pose. Make sure your posture is stable, comfortable, and well supported. Scan your body for tension and relax the legs, abdomen, lower ribs, shoulders, jaw, and face. Feel the movement of the breath in the lower ribs and solar plexus. Focus on the gentle expansion to the sides, back, and front on the inhalation, and the smooth release on the exhalation.
After a minute or two, you’ll find the breath has become slower and smoother, and it unfolds from a deeper place in the body with less effort. Refine your breath by equalizing the length of the inhalation and exhalation, smoothing out any jerks or pauses. Then exhale a little more deeply, contracting the abdomen toward the spine. Soften the lower back and abdomen to smoothly release as you inhale, filling the lower lungs and expanding the lower ribs to the sides and back, so the breath becomes a little fuller.
Start with a couple of minutes a day and build to 10 minutes. This practice will not only strengthen your diaphragm and regulate its movement but will also increase your lung capacity. Deep diaphragmatic breathing will help you tap into the inner reservoir of your pranic force, and enable you to progress to the practice of nadi shodhanam.
Nadi shodhanam, also known as alternate nostril breathing, is one of the most treasured and powerful yoga practices. It purifies your energy channels and nurtures both your body and mind. To practice nadi shodhanam, sit in a comfortable pose. Make sure your spine is straight and the weight of your body is equally distributed on your buttocks and legs. Close your eyes and relax the body and breath. Bring your focus to the navel center and let the breath become smooth and even.
When you are breathing smoothly and evenly through both nostrils, gently close the right nostril with your right thumb and exhale through the left nostril. Make sure your exhalation is smooth and without jerks and noise.
As soon as the exhalation is completed, close your left nostril with the ring finger and begin inhaling through your right nostril. As soon as this inhalation is completed, close your right nostril and exhale through the left. Then inhale through the right nostril as you did before. Repeat a third time, for a total of six breaths. Make sure that your diaphragm is moving without obstruction and that you are not short of breath. When you have completed six breaths, release the hand and take three relaxed breaths through both nostrils. Feel the touch of the breath in the nostrils and let the breath be subtle, slow, and even.
Now do a second round of six breaths of alternate nostril breathing, beginning with an exhale through the right nostril. Finish with three resting breaths through both nostrils and let yourself feel the stillness this practice has induced in your body and mind.
Sandbags are available from many yoga retailers; you can also substitute a 10-pound bag of rice for this exercise.