We are lucky enough to have breath expert Tracy Elner as a student at Yoga West. Tracy and his colleague Dr Anthony Soyer deliver workshops and lectures on Breath, Stillness, Movement and Modern Medicine throughout London. Tracy agreed to share some of the findings of his and Dr Soyer’s research in this month’s newsletter. Please let the studio know if you would be interested in arranging Tracy and Dr Soyer to come and talk about this topic at the studio in the future.
Anthony: As a medical student–yogi, I became fascinated how the breath signals the beginning and end of life. In much in the same way as Einstein related Energy and Matter; Krishnamurti, a ‘physicist of yoga’ stated that “breath transfers the electrical energy of the Cosmos into the manifest physical world”. Thus Yogis perform breath work as a pathway to revelation: the union of Breath and Body and the union of IN breath (Sun– active) and the OUT breath (Moon – passive). In breath practice I am always reminded of (my teacher) Satyananda's suggestion, that it should be as light as a feather and as the preparation for deep contemplation as a prelude, to meditation.
So how can we use breath for balance and healing? Paradoxically to treat illness and heal ourselves we should increase the rate of breath as a short-term response to stress, autoimmune illness or infection. Whereas for spiritual purposes and development of mental equanimity, we should do the opposite: slowing and extending the breath. In modern life we need both skills to improve the flexibility in our breath capacity and extend our comfort zone as well as choosing our environment carefully to ensure best quality air. We must also moderate our effort levels to stay safe. Breath moderates powerful force.
Hyperventilation increases the elimination of carbon dioxide and thus blood carbonic acid levels decrease, due to a reversible chemical reaction, H20 + CO2 ~ H2CO3 ~ H+ + HCO3 which is shifted to the left by rapid breathing. The blood becomes alkaline, thus neutralising lactic acid and even the pain response.
In tests, when Yogis practice meditation their breath rates reduces to 4 or less breaths per minute and the long-term effect of slowing the breath and reduced ventilation is to increase carbon dioxide levels making the blood more acidic. Acidic Blood encourages the body's tissues to build alkaline buffers for balance. The tissues also respond to high levels of carbon dioxide in the blood by releasing more oxygen from haemoglobin and by dilating the airways to compensate for perceived biochemical stress. Thus breath work increases the biochemical flexibility of the body to both extremes of acid and alkaline, building our biochemical resilience.
Each of the yogic Pranayama techniques such as a rapid breathing with Kapalbhati, and alternate nostril breathing, Nadi Shodhana have specific physiological effects; bringing the neurological and autonomic nervous systems under conscious control; which was previously believed to be impossible. In our seminar discussions we explore, in depth, how the biochemistry is adjusted and therefore the psychology.
Tracy: My first encounter with conscious breath control and the ability to 'soften' the mind and body came 35 years ago with the neijia practise of Zhang Zhong or standing like a post (Qigong). Neijia or 'internal arts' are the underlying body/breath principles of Taoist yogic/meditative practice and have many similarities with Indian Yoga. Their focus is on enhancing and circulating Qi or the bio-electromagnetic life force (prana) through correct alignment to promote health and extend life. As with Yoga, Neijia extends in to all aspects of life, including, seated meditation, standing practice, calisthenics and martial systems (Tai Chi et al).
In the standing practice, one engages the Psoas, the body's deepest muscles and the only ones which connect the upper and lower. This posture is a natural observation of children and animals all of whom use the Psoas to naturally hold the body in a dynamic Yin-Yang state. The practitioner must soften and give up to the posture and the mind – not an easy task– to allow the breath to become calm, allowing the release of the unnatural stressed body of modern life. At a later stage, once the breath and the posture are both relaxed and calm, specific techniques are introduced to enhance the practice, bearing in mind that Qi should not be led but 'blown' through the body with the breath. Properly taught, neijia nicely complements the asana practices of Yoga.
Anthony Soyer originally studied with Swami Satyananda Saraswati, a traditional Kriya yogi, in the 1970s and has continued extensive exploration into the health practices of Yoga and Ayurveda, Taoist and Tibetan pantheons.
Tracy Elner has been practising and teaching the Taoist neijia healing/martial arts of T’ai Chi Ch’uan (Tai Chi), Bagua Zhang, Yi Ch’uan and Qi Gong since the late 1970s.
For more information on their seminar Breath, Stillness, Movement and Modern Medicine please contact Yoga West or Tracy on firstname.lastname@example.org or Anthony on email@example.com