APNEAS AND RESPIRATION RHYTHM
One of the well-known characteristics of yoga is its work on the apneas. These moments of transition are often set aside in the body practices based on the information from anatomy and physiology, as if they were without importance. For a yogi, these moments are crucial. It is mostly at those moments that the mind can introduce a lever to master not only the rhythm and the volume of the external respiration but also the vegetative coordination that exists between the emotions and the internal respiration. By concentrating on these phases of transition, yoga facilitates the acquisition of a certain voluntary mastery of affect. It is at that moment that a yoga exercise becomes effectively a yoke that can master the body-mind connection.
Vignette on the mastery of the breath. In the Ujjyayi Pranayama, Iyengar proposes to explore what goes on when we breathe in as deeply as possible with the thorax, while pulling the abdomen back as close as possible to the spinal column. Once inspiration is complete, the pupil explores what is going on while holding his breath, keeping the air in the organism for a few seconds.
This is an example of respiratory retention, currently utilized in the practice of pranayama. Those who are following yoga classes in Europe will notice that they work mostly on the retention after inspiration. By contrast, those who practice tai chi chuan may spend more time exploring what is going on between exhalation and inhalation.
If we observe someone’s spontaneous respiration, we notice that these moments of transition take more or less time, varying from person to person and in function of circumstances. In a state of relaxation, my patients have the tendency to move rapidly from inhalation to exhalation (the release of the elastic), while the move from exhalation to inhalation spontaneously lasts longer. This moment of transition can be experienced as an end of respiration by a person who is not familiar with this kind of work. But the very reason that yogis work on these transitions is that these are moments of intense physiological and psychological activity.
One of the aims of pranayama is to slow down the rhythm of respiration by lengthening the four phases of the respiratory rhythm According to Iyengar,28 a person has about fifteen respirations per minute.29 This rhythm accelerates in the case of indigestion, fever, a cold or a cough, or in conditions such as fear, anger, or desire. Anxious people often have a restrained but rapid respiration. Certain yogis think that the number of respirations a person can have in a lifetime is determined; consequently, the slower the rhythm, the longer the person will live. Sensory and instinctual activity activates the respiratory rhythm, while detachment diminishes it. Finding a lifestyle that is in synergy with the requirements of metabolic dynamics allows one to live with an even slower respiratory rhythm. This analysis is compatible with those proposed in a text on physiology (Bonnet and Millet, 1971, pp. 305-306) for adults. For children, the younger a child the more rapid the respiration (forty-four breaths per minute on an average for newborns).
In my practice, persons who observe their respiration think spontaneously like yogis. When they lie down for a relaxation session, they sense that something is not well when their breathing is rapid, superficial, and brief. When the exercise begins to have effect, they sense that their breathing is spontaneously deepening and slowing down. At that moment the diaphragm relaxes and the person yawns, and sometimes stretches.30 In general, the people who come to see me have never found it useful to think about their apneas. To become attentive to what is going on within them during spontaneous apneas is often, for them, an amusing, even intriguing, discovery. Once they have learned to observe this aspect of the respiratory rhythm, they notice that during their relaxation, these moments also lengthen. For certain individuals, the slowing down is mostly marked during one of the two apneas; for others, it is during both.