When we are relaxed our breathing is slower – each breath is long and relaxed. When we are stressed, anxious, worried, fearful our breathing is faster – each breath is short and sharp. This is common knowledge. Consider this:
- An average adult person breathes 16-20 breaths per minute – each breath is 3-4 seconds long.
- With just a few yoga lessons most people can easily bring that down to 8-10 breaths per minute – each breath is 6-8 seconds long.
- With consistent practice (weekly lessons) many people can bring that even further down to 4-6 breaths per minute – each breath 10-15 seconds long.
- With a personalized and consistent practice (~daily) practitioners can bring it down further to 2-3 breaths per minute – each breath 20-30 seconds.
- Given time (years of practice) that number goes down to 1-1.5 breaths a minute – each breath 40-60 seconds.
- … and this goes on
Now consider this:
“As per the traditional view, all human beings are endowed with a constant number of breaths. This is equivalent to living for one hundred years at the rate of fifteen breaths per minute. The total number of breaths per day is 21600. If one breathers more than 21600 times a day, his life span will obviously be lowered.
We all know that breathing becomes faster, when one is unwell or disturbed. This shows the importance of Yoga practice in regulating the breath and thus prolonging the life span.”
(Krishnamacharya commentary from “Nathamuni’s Yoga Rahasya” 1.35)
Assuming this is true, we are, as a species, under-performing. Krishnamacharya lived to 101 years old. My teacher tells a story that on Krishnamacharya’s 100th birthday he was asked to say something – so he uttered “Om” for one full minute (that would be a 60 second exhale). When asked how he managed to do it he replied that when he was 60 years old he could do 5 minutes.
“the pulse rate reflects whether a person is calm or has mental illness. A pulse rate ranging from 65 to 72 represents a calm mind. A pulse rate of more than 72 implies physical illness. If the pulse rate is more than 90, then the person has a combination of physical and mental illness”
(Krishnamacharya commentary on Visnu Purana 6.5.6
from “Nathamuni’s Yoga Rahasya“)
Your pulse (the number of time your heart beats in a minute) will provide you an additional perspective on the state of your body & energy. It is useful to familiarize yourself with it. To do this you will need to take it at regular times and similar circumstances (such as first thing in the morning, before lunch, etc.). In addition to counting your pulse, you may discover changes in its quality – it can be throbbing, gentle sharp, soft, steady, erratic,etc. This will give you a general reference point.
Then, there are numerous points in a Yoga practice in which you may want to measure your pulse:
- At the beginning of a practice.
- At the end of a practice.
- At a mid-point of your practice.
- After an intense sequence in your practice – before & after resting.
You may find that exercises that challenge your breath cause your pulse to rise, after which a short rest should bring it back down. Generally, your pulse at the end of a well-balanced practice should be equal to or less then your pulse at the beginning. You may want to make a list or a chart to write down your findings – so that you can observe change over time.
How to feel your pulse:
- Find a comfortable seated position where you can relax your arms.
- Turn one palm facing up.
- Use the index and middle finger of the other hand to feel the pulse.
- Trace the fingers along a path from your thumb – following the bone structure towards your wrist – until you reach a soft area into which your fingers can sink deeper.
- Use the tips of your finger (just before the fingernails) to feel your pulse.
- If you can’t find it you can apply more pressure, and then when you find it, release to a more gentle touch.
Practice finding your pulse. You should be able to find it quickly and without applying too much pressure (which may affect the pulse itself and give you an imprecise measurement).
To measure your pulse you will need a clock or timer that clearly shows seconds:
- Place your fingers in place and find your pulse.
- Look at the watch/timer and choose a round starting point to count.
- Count the beats of your pulse for 20 seconds.
- Multiply that number by 3 (to get the number of beats in a minute).
I find that taking the pulse can be both informative and meditative.
The morning after I decided not to push myself began with a special quality of practice. Seated postures (forward bends) had a long and soft quality which I usually manage only in evening practices; so was the Pranayama – I was able to practice a soft and refined Nadi Sodhana (which is usually not available to me in the morning). It led into a morning with a pleasant pace. I, again, witnessed, how doing less can sometimes be more.
Then some surprise physical work came my way. I enjoyed the work greatly but I lost track of time and I failed to eat and drink properly. By the time I realized this it was too late. I spent the remainder of the evening with a painful headache and bad digestion. I had to force myself to eat and drink to quiet and replenish my energy, against the wishes of my digestion. I woke up the next morning feeling better but close to the edge. I spent the next day mostly cooking and eating, barely able to focus on anything else. It took until the next morning (a total of 36 hours) to bring my system back to health.
“Living in this hut, free of all anxieties,
one should earnestly practice Yoga as taught by one’s guru”
(Hatha Yoga Pradipika 1.14 – translation by Brian Akers)
These past few days reminded me about a subtle, often overlooked, aspect of the relationship between Yoga and everyday life. People today often come to Yoga for relaxation, for relief from the stresses of life. But originally it was the other way around – a prerequisite for Yoga practice was a life free of anxieties. I spent 36 hours rejuvenating my system to a point where I could effectively practice again.
This also sheds light on the ideas of practice “on-the-mat” and “off-the-mat”. Usually I touch on this subject in asking how on-the-mat practice can reach out and extend off-the-mat. Here it is encountered the other way around: how can off-the-mat practice effect on-the-mat practice. My relationship with Yoga (as I think is the case with most people) started on-the-mat. I now believe that beyond a certain point, a practice on-the-mat cannot continue to evolve unless it resonates off-the-mat as well. At one point you will have to make changes in your life, to create conditions for your on-the-mat practice to continue evolving.