Exhalation: A Versatile Force

Prashant Iyengar (with Rebecca Lerner and Chris Saudek)

When you are not paying attention, the exhale is happening automatically. It is taking place for your subsistence, for the autonomous system to work, for the involuntary system to work, for you to breathe, and for you to live. Unconscious exhalation is just aiding the carbon dioxide, it is making you live. Apart from that, the breath is not doing anything, and if it is doing something, it is for the involuntary system to function.

But when you are doing asanas, then the breath has multiple roles to play. It is a body supplement, it is a mind supplement, it is supplemental to every aspect of you: ego, intelligence, mind, thought process, deliberation, action, sensory actions, body actions. So it is going to be a major component for you to do, think, see, feel, understand, execute. As you read this, the breath is not playing a specific role. It is not playing any extraordinary role, but when you get into Marichyasana or Sirsasana, it is going to play a different role, a specific role.

So the breath altogether is not the breath. I have said that the breath gets the body aspects and factors into it. The breath gets the mind aspects into it. If you want to activate the body, suppose I plaster your entire body, all limbs are plastered, what kind of activity can you carry out? So we want the mind to be active. If the mind has to be active, the mind must have joints, the mind must have muscles. The body requires muscles, joints, and joint mechanisms to activate or be in an activity. Similarly, for the mind to be active, it requires similar such things like joint mechanisms, muscles, etc. The breath, too, should be active, so the breath needs to have joints and mechanisms, etc. There are body–mind aspects, which are transmitted into each other, transforming each other. I have expressed it this way, that the breath is bodyfied, the breath is mindified; the body is breathified, the body is mindified; the mind is bodyfied, the mind is breathified. So it becomes a composite material.

Exhalation means the expiratory act of the breath. There is an exhalative body, there is an exhalative mind in an asana, that will not be taken into perspective if you say that exhalation means gaseous emission from the lungs or the abdominal cavity through the nostrils out. There is something like an inhalative body in an asana, an inhalative mind in an asana, also. Try to watch and understand your body in an asana, how the muscles, bones, joints are, exhalatively and inhalatively. In Tadasana, you don't just stand by your biomechanical actions. The exhalation and inhalation are going to contribute for transformations in it. There is an exhalative body and tissue culture which is different from the inhalative body.

The breath is not merely an element of air going in and coming out. In an asana, the exhalation has a different role because it has body aspects and factors and mind aspects and factors.

Can exhalation help us overcome the klesas? The exhalations in the postural positions work marvelously because you have a quiver of exhalations, you don't have just one exhalation. There are several confinements, modifications–volume, velocity, density, and aerodynamics–because you are going to relate your breath to your actions. So somewhere you are hardening, tightening, stretching, straightening, bending, extending, elongating. Everywhere the breath is going to work differently. And therefore you will be using the breath as a versatile force. And therefore it will play a marvelous role, and the exhalation does so many important things. That is why I stress so much on the exhalation.

Now supposing tomorrow morning when you start your practice you want to overcome the stiffness, you realize you are stiff, resistant. When you start making a sharper, deliberate exhalation, you will drive away the sloth, inertia, dullness, resistance, and you get prepared. You develop better energies and better empowerment and potency in the body. The exhalation does wonderful work to release, which you require in the beginning to release the tension, but also to release the obstacles that are in the form of sloth, dullness, indisposition, unpreparedness, lack of motivation. You get the motivation if you breathe consciously in full arm balance, which you do for the first time as a starter pose. So a sharper exhalation will work as a release phase, release the body and mind. Then you want to exercise.

The exhalation can become a major component for you to release, activate, exercise, and treat. If you have a nagging problem, then you will feel like having a treatment, before proceeding further in asanas. Suppose you have sprain in the shoulder blades and you are doing twistings, so you want to overcome that sprain, overcome the painful condition, so it is overcoming a nagging condition, an acute condition, or chronic condition, which is a kind of treatment. It may be temporary or clinical or cosmetic. The exhalation process speeds up the healing. So it will work as a remedial force also, for body aspects and mind aspects.

I often stress in class to exhale more in your postural activity, biomechanics. What happens is that it addresses the body and also takes you beyond body. Even now we are exhaling. Exhale with supplements further and further, and you will invariably touch your mind. Try that. Exhale more and more. You will go to your awareness. The exhalation is going to take you further beyond the body. You have the access beyond body. If you want to do something beyond body, exhalation is an important vehicle to address the body and go beyond. You will not bypass the body. You will address the body and go beyond.

When we start we are always physio–cratic, body–cratic, because we are always going to start with the outer existence of the body. We will always identify with the body conditions: I am stiff, dull; I am unenergetic, indisposed, and unwell. So these are the nagging conditions that we are going to identify with. By exhalation you can go beyond that. Go past that. By exhalation you can work on a deeper plane beyond body. If the asanas are to take us beyond body, then this exhalation is indispensable.

As in Asana, in Pranayama the exhalation can help you get the electrification, the potency, the empowerment, the release, the activity. There is, however, a qualitatively different way of exhaling in Pranayama, different kriyas of exhalation in Pranayama than in Asana. That is the way it is a versatile force. It can help you to go for a meditative state. That is what Patanjali has said in the first chapter, if you want to overcome the "stasy" of the mind–the normal state of the mind–and go beyond. Further. For higher practices, future practices, meditative practices, you have to have a graduation and transcendence in your mind. Exhale more he says–pracchardana vidharanabhyam va pranasya (I.34)–and hold thereafter. So exhalative retention can elate your mind and take it above stasy. Stasy is a normal plane. Therefore they call it ecstasy, above stasy. So for you to go above stacy, exhalations are important.

The mind is agitated, the exhalation works to mitigate it. The mind is normal, and you want to have transcendence so exhalation will get you elevated. It will get you elevated to go higher. It can pull you from a ditch. If the mind is low, it can lift you up. If you are on normal plane terrain, it can take you above. So the exhalation is a versatile force, it will be handy for any condition of yours. Unprepared to very well prepared. Only it will be qualitatively changing. That's why it is a versatile force. It is a very rich river.

Inhalations are stressed for depressed people. But to start with you must ask them to exhale. Suppose you have a water container, and there is some residual water. However much pure water you put in, the water will get contaminated because the residual water will contaminate it. Therefore, exhalation is important to bring the residual level down so that when the fresh air comes in, there is less chance of it getting contaminated.

Exhalation has a very profound effect on both body and mind. So it comes handy right from your unprepared conditions to your totally prepared conditions. It is a major assisting factor.

Exhalation is related to santosa. It works on the mind so it will saturate the mind, it will give at least a cosmetic treatment of the mind. The mind is balanced, quiet, sublime, etc., so it can give a cosmetic treatment of the mind. If you want the mind to be activated, it can give you an activated force; if you want the mind to be pacified, it can give you a pacifying force. It can play diametrically opposite roles. If the mind is dull and tamasic, exhalation will work as a mitigator. If the mind is rajasic, it will work as a mitigator. That's why it is a versatile force. It will make you sattvic; if you are already sattvic, then it will increase the sattvic nature. The mind is serene, it will remain much more serene. So for all the idealistic principles of yoga, psychologically, mentally, the exhalation can all provide a vital substitution.

The exhalation works on the consciousness as well as the mind. Initially, we work on peripheral mind, then the inner mind. I have explained the mind like an onion, or a flower with so many layers of petals. Initially, you work on the outer petals. Then you will work on the second layer, third layer, fourth layer, which will take you to the inner layer of mind, which is infinite.

Now say you have a multivitamin tablet. Similarly, this will work for every aspect that you require in your body aspect and matter, mind aspect and factor. It will be a substitute. Like if you have calcium deficiency, you take a calcium substitute, a supplemental protein, supplemental vitamins, so it is an autogenic supplementation. The exhalation will give you an autogenic supplementation. I say, most often do exhalations, more often do retention, and often inhalations. I have used superlative degree, comparative degree, and positive degree. So superlative degree: use exhalation most often, exhale more and more in a pose. More often try to have postexhalative retentions and often have postexhaling inhalations. So if the inhalation is to be done, it should be done postexhalatively. Or postretentively so that by postexhalative, you will have exhaled deliberately and mindfully, you will have devised and customized, and therefore the inhalation can have more comparative effects.

Can exhalation help with abhinivesa (fear of death)? Yes. It takes you deeper into the mind, so that you will be able to face such conditions also.

Photo courtesy: Lindsey Clennell