Rewind to 1971, Sat Jivan Singh Khalsa moves to New York to share the teachings of Yogi Bhajan – the Kundalini Yoga leader. At this time, there were only two yoga studios in the city and Khalsa told The Huffington Post that “people confused yoga and yogurt, they were both brand new and nobody knew what either of them were.”
During the next 40+ years, yoga in America evolved from a niche activity for hippies to part of the cultural mainstream. Dozens of yoga variations can now be found, with students ranging from stressed-out young professionals, to CEOs and retirees, fueling a $27 billion industry with more than 20 million practitioners – and continuing to grow rapidly. In this blog, I discuss the secrets of yoga and what makes this practice so popular.
What makes yoga around the world so popular?
Well I believe the biggest secret of yoga to be the breath… also called pranayama.
Life without the breath doesn’t exist and yoga without the breath is just exercises on a mat. Science Direct (a website providing a large database of scientific and medical research) also agrees.
They have produced an interesting article called, “Effects of Yogic Breath Regulation: A narrative review of scientific evidence” – that concludes the beneficial effects of yogic breathing techniques in both physiological and clinical setups. Various advantageous effects of yogic breathing were found on the:
- Biochemical; and
- Metabolic functions.
Studies have also been conducted to understand the impact of yogic breathing in patients with:
- Cardiac arrhythmias
- Bronchial asthma
- Pulmonary tuberculosis
- Diabetes mellitus
- Mental retardation
- Stroke rehabilitation
- Withdrawal from smoking
- Anxiety and pain
The Art of Yogic Breathing – specifically Agniraj
So prior to my 300hr teacher training with Zuna Yoga, I had been introduced to other types breathing techniques, but was still primarily using Ujjayi for my personal practice and classes. I knew from my 200hr training that the postures were only a tool and that a full yogic breath was essential to deepening your practice, but this concept needed further exploration.
During the first couple days of training with Zuna Yoga in Bali, we were introduced to Agniraj, a tantric-hatha breathing technique that activates all 5 pranic currents / vayus within the body. It also engages mula and jalandhara bandhas – resulting in a natural lengthening of the spine. This technique aligned perfectly with their emphasis on the physical goal of the asanas to create length and space in the spine.
How to perfrom Agniraj
To perform Angiraj – you begin by establishing breath in the pelvis. In the training, we started by laying on our backs and placing one hand on the pelvis and one hand on the abdomen, so we could feel the difference of the two inflating.
Another great posture to practice this in is Apanasana – still laying on your back, you draw the knees up to the chest and breathe into the pelvic floor, as deeply as possible, directing the inhale to the tailbone, isolating it here and not allowing it to flood into the abdomen or higher just yet. The exhale begins with muscular contraction of the pelvic floor (or kegel exercises, different muscle for men and women), followed by lower, mid and upper abdomen and higher. The focus here is on lengthening or extending the spine on the inhale and muscular contraction of the pelvis on the exhale.
When we started practicing this, I was surprised to hear that I was reverse-breathing. Instead of inhaling – inflating my pelvis, and then abdomen, moving it up along the spine and exhaling, deflating my pelvis first before the abdomen – I was doing the opposite. Inhaling and deflating my abdomen and exhaling and deflating my lungs first, then inflating or engaging my abdomen.
This was very confusing and intriguing at the same time, so I did some research about reverse breathing and found out it’s just another breathing method used by yoga and Qigong – which can strengthen abdominal muscles, boost the immune system, and increase energy and lung capacity.
Experiencing yoga on a new level
With that figured out, I was determined to now master Agniraj. After a couple days of intense focus, I was finally starting to perform it more naturally without having to think as much. By the end of week one, I was hooked. It felt as if I had always been breathing this like. This type of breathing allowed me to experience poses on a new level and to be able to feel my breath and energy in a different way.
I really resonate with the concept – “when the cycle of breath is disturbed by our physical efforts, we are no longer doing yoga’ and ‘the breath is our guru”.
I believe that pranayama is one of the most valuable and essential tools we have as human beings and that the yoga or SUP yoga poses are just tools to ‘test’ or make sure we know how to continue a consistent, deep, long, nourishing breath through any type of distraction, drama or trauma.
The breath truly is our natural immune system booster, medicine, how we regulate emotions and our nervous system, how we control our thoughts and therefore our guide to relaxation, contentment, eternal happiness and freedom.
Want to learn more about the secrets of yoga and its breathing techniques?