In normal breathing the average person will breathe about fifteen times per minute: in total that means about twentyone thousand six hundred times per day. Mostly the breaths use less than the maximum capacity of the lungs, and this we can call `shallow breathing`. In yoga the use of Diaghramatic, Abdominal, or Ujaii Breathing helps to deepen the breath without strain, using a greater proportion of the available lung capacity. The effect of this apart from the healthy use of the lungs, is to slow the rate of breathing
We are told that when we are born we have a certain number of breaths to take before we die. Slowing down the breathing may seem the obvious way to achieve longevity but we should realise that for all round health the body needs stimulation which will entail faster deeper breathing, during exercise and other activities.
Focusing on the breath is one of the most effective methods to practise meditation. As we breathe in we create the sound `soh` or `sah`, and on the exhalation the sound `ham` (midway between ham and hum). In some traditions this is reversed i.e. ham on the inhalation and soh on the out breath. This natural mantra is repeated unconsciously with every breath, awake or asleep. This natural mantra is known as the Ajapa-japa or Ajapa-gayatri. When repeated as Soham the meaning is given as `I am He`. The mantra can be repeated with the focus in three places, Muladhara chakra, Anahata and Ajna chakras.
The body is ninety-six digits long (six feet) as a standard. The ordinary length of air current from the body on expiration is twelve digits (nine inches): in singing it becomes twelve inches, during eating fifteen inches, when walking eighteen inches, during sleep twentytwo and a half inches, during copulation twentyseven inches and even further during active physical exercise.
When we slow and control the breath using pranayama exercises, the flow from the body is shortened, less pranayama is lost from the body and longevity is increased. Rapid shallow breathing (which may be caused by stress, tension or just bad habits) may cause a shortening of life expecrtancy. By decreasing the length of the expired current there is therefore much to be gained.
Holding the breath between inhalation and exhalation and after exhalation are known as kumbhaka. By these retentions and literally slowing down the flow of air especially out of the body breathing may be slowed to three or four breaths perminute. At these speeds we are also aware of the calming effect in the brain where the electrical waves go into the deep slow rhythms associated with yoga nidra. Finally the yogi may be able to suspend breathing for long periods of time – hence their ability to be buried in sand, or sealed in closed containers. This is known as Kevala Kumbhaka.
These breathing techniques are best practised under supervision, and should not be practised if there are any adverse effects.