Breath and Stress

Notes On Yoga – Breath and Stress by Bob Fulkerson

Yoga is more than stretching or muscle building; it is in fact a spiritual practice. Scientific studies and centuries of experience have demonstrated profound physiological improvements of a regular Yoga practice.  These notes are just a very brief attempt to look at two major aspects of the power of Yoga in our lives: Breathing and Stress Reduction.

“What is God?  God is the breath inside the breath.” Rumi

Getting in touch with the breath at the beginning of each session prepares one to quietly and heartfully go inward, awakening body, mind and spirit to the asana practice that will follow. Following are some notes about the relationship between breath and spirit:

•  In Sanskrit, the word “prana” means life force, energy, and breath.

•  The Greek word for “psyche”, or soul, is related to “Psychein”, meaning “to breathe”.  From the Latin word for wind (“anemos” ) are derived the words for soul (“anima”) and spirit (“animus”).   In Hebrew, the word for breath (“ruauch”) also means “spirit”.

•  The word “Hatha” itself is loaded with connotations related to the breath.  The “Ha” is for inhalation and the “tha” for exhalation.  In Sanskrit,  “hatha” means “now”.  Reminds us to pay attention to the eternal moment of our current breath. (The type of yoga I teach is “Hatha Yoga”.)

•  The “Ha” of Hawaii also means breath or spirit.  The native people there first used the term “Howlie” to describe Captain Cook and the first white people they encountered.  It means “the people without breath or spirit.”

•  The Paiute word for prayer, blessings, or peace, is” Na-nish-na-heit” (spelled phonetically).  The “heit” is an aspirated sound to simulate the breath.  Similarly, the word “Shun-da-hai”, in Western Shoshone, means peace, blessings, or prayer.  The “hai” is also aspirated to motivate outward breath.  At the end of a prayer, you will see and hear Shoshone blowing (breathing) outward.

BKS Iyengar, likely the foremost teacher of Yoga today, in his commentaries on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, states:

“The wise yogis studied this connection between breath and consciousness and advocated the practice of pranayama to stabilize energy and consciousness…Prana is energy, when the self-energizing force embraces the body.  Ayama means stretch, extension, expansion, length, breadth, regulation, prolongation, restraint and control.” (Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. P.153.)

Yoga and Stress Reduction

The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is the “auto-pilot” of the body’s central nervous system. From moment to moment, the ANS is either winding up or winding down. When we’re winding up, the sympathetic nervous system takes over; the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in as the body gears down. (Note:  There is not consensus in medical science that we can influence the ANS, in spite of several studies to the contrary and centuries of experience of yogis through the ages.)

In the former, when experiencing perceived danger, excitement or fear (“fight or flight”), the messages go out to the body to prepare it for a critical situation. The heart beats faster, blood pressure increases, breathing increases, pupils dilate, adrenaline flows, the digestive system shuts down.  The parasympathetic nervous system is the other half of the ANS that allows us to rest between stressful “battles.” Digestive juices flow again, adrenaline secretion stops, blood flow to the muscles decreases (no reason to run) and blood flow increases to the reasoning centers of the brain.  This is why simply stopping to take a deep breath in times of stress sometimes allows us to think more clearly in a critical situation.

We all live under varying degrees of stress or anxiety. Most of our lives are full of stress from modern life’s seemingly endless list of stressors including bills, traffic (road rage), relationships, threats or anxiety over war and terrorism. Stress contributes to most major health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, diabetes and even cancer.   The good news is that research on the physiological effects of Yoga shows we can correct the chronic imbalance in the ANS that results from stress and alleviate many health problems.

By practicing yoga and reducing stress, we also

   •  Increase  “feel good” neuropeptides such as serotonin.
•  Improve circulation of lymph and tone the spleen, leading to more efficient removal of toxins and strengthening the body’s immune system.
•  Decrease harmful levels of cortisol hormones.

The body also produces cortisol in response to stress.  People who are wound up contain elevated levels of cortisol, also known as the “death or stress hormone”.  Elevated cortisol levels:

   •  Add to unwanted weight gain by stimulating the appetite.
•  Ensure efficient conversion of these calories to fat.
•  Ensure that fat tends to get stored in the abdomen.

Yoga reduces the body’s production of cortisol.  Yoga also helps with unwanted weight gain by increasing your sense of body awareness–from whether your cervical spine is ready for halasana (shoulder stand) to whether you want to eat even though your stomach is already full–which may of us with weight problems do.

In closing, Yoga is not simply about flat abs, looking good, or asana (postures) on the mat. The Eight-Fold Path (“Ashtanga”, meaning “eight”) of Yoga laid down in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (See BKY Iyengar’s Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali) is a 5,000-year old remedy to modern ailments that is in line with every religious and spiritual tradition I’ve come across, from the Buddhism to the 12 Steps to Christianity (“Be still, and know that I am God”; A merry heart doeth good, like a medicine.”)  It is not meant to supplant medical science or treatment for physical ailments—be sure to tell your doctor about your yoga practice.  At the root, Yoga (from “yoke”, or “union”) is about self transformation. We intuitively understand that we are united with the divine presence in our lives.

With gratitude to Patanjali, Gyandev McCord at The Expanding Light Yoga School at Ananda, Dr. Timothy McCall, MD, of the Yoga Journal, and the long line of yoga teachers and students I’ve been blessed to know.

Bob Fulkerson
March 5, 2005

“By your stumbling, the world is perfected.” Sri Aurobindo

Practical Hints For Meditation

1. Regularity: Set aside the same time or times each day for your meditation. Recommended are dawn (just after awakening), twilight, high noon, and midnight. Another time is in the evening, just before bedtime. It’s also easier to meditate on an empty stomach (2-3 hours after meals).

2. Exercise: If you have time, exercise a little before you meditate. Yoga postures are an excellent way to relax the body and mind before meditation. Paramhansa Yogananda’s Energization Exercises are also highly recommended.

3. Location: Set aside a room, or small part of a room, just for meditation. Try to find as quiet a spot as possible; if this is difficult, try using foam earplugs or headphones to block out the noise. Be sure the room is not stuffy and a little on the cool side; a blanket or shawl to wrap up in is nice

4. Sitting: Protect yourself from the downward pull of earth currents by sitting on some natural fiber, like a wool or silk blanket or piece of cloth placed on your meditation chair, bench, or cushion. Sit Erect! Whether you sit on a meditation bench, pillow or on a chair, keep your back straight, chest raised, head erect, eyes closed, and hands resting palms upturned in your lap, preferably at the juncture of the thighs and abdomen.

5. How long? Do not set unrealistic goals for yourself. It is better to meditate 5-15 minutes and be very consistent with your practice, and then increase your time as you can. One longer meditation each week can be very helpful. It also helps to meditate with other people, especially with those who have been meditating longer than you. You’ll find that group meditations will often help you to meditate longer than you normally would on your own.

6. Begin your meditation by saying a prayer either out loud or inwardly to God and the Masters, asking them to guide and help you. Do some chanting if you can, using a cassette tape of chants can be helpful. Then practice the breathing exercises to relax: Inhale, tense the whole body, then throw the breath out and relax (do this 2 or 3 times). Then do some measured breathing: inhale, hold, and exhale, then begin again. Do this 6-12 times. Choose a count that is comfortable for you; anywhere from 6-6-6-6 to 12-12-12, or higher. Afterwards, relax and breathe normally, and become aware of your breath.

7. You should feel more relaxed now. Remember to hold the body still. You can mentally check it from time to time to see that no part becomes tense again. Physical tension is a great deterrent to calm and deep meditations. Be very silent and relaxed, yet aware.

8. Meditate with joy, with devotion. Don’t wait for God’s joy to make you joyful, be joyful first yourself! Meditation will help you to remember, on ever deepening levels, of who and what you truly are. You are a child of God, and one with the Infinite Light.

Props Make It Possible – Yoga For Every Body

YOGA for EVERY body
“Props make it possible”

By Kathy Randolph, Certified Practitioner

A common misconception is that you have to be flexible to begin a yoga practice; the truth however, is that flexibility is a result, not a prerequisite – a very important distinction. You also gain strength, balance and coordination from the physical poses, and improved circulation and stress relief from the breathing exercises. Yoga really is for people of all ages, sizes and physical condition.

Many beginners benefit from the use of props. Props help with proper alignment, and provide support to the muscles, minimizing strain. A strap, a folded blanket, a block or a chair can allow a new student to do the poses safely and correctly right from the start. Here are some examples of the use of props in forward bends.

A classic pose is seated, legs straight out in front, bending forward from the hips (Figure 1).

This pose, with the addition of a folded blanket and a strap is easily accessible to the beginning student (Figure 2).

• The folded blanket is placed so the sitting bones are right on the blanket’s edge, tilting the pelvis forward and protecting the low back.
• The strap is looped around the feet with the ends held in each hand, providing the same tension as holding the feet directly. Stretch gently, then release and move up on the inhale.

If there are special low back concerns, a safe approach to the forward bend is lying on the back, either on the floor or on a bed, and stretch one leg at a time (Figure 3).

• Start by lying on the back, both knees bent and soles of feet on the floor.
• Bring the right knee toward the chest and put the strap around the arch of the foot, ends of the strap in each hand.
• Straighten the right leg, and draw it closer while exhaling. Release gently on the inhale and repeat with the breath. After gentle stretching, release and repeat on the other side.

If getting up from the floor presents problems, use a block or a chair, and do the pose standing (Figures 4 and 5).
• Stand in front of the prop and bend forward from the hips on the exhale.
• Place both hands on the block or chair and breathe, relaxing further into the stretch on the exhalation. After gentle stretching,bend the knees and inhale to move up to standing, lifting with the legs, not the back.


By design, yoga poses help us to achieve and maintain a full range of motion. The use of props will allow you to practice this ancient discipline while you gain the wonderful flexibility, strength, coordination and balance yoga can provide – for anybody!