A Beautiful Belly Means A Beautiful Mind: How Yogic Breath Control Works
By: Eric Shaw
What if the muscles in your abdomen controlled your life?
Many people want to avoid pot bellies and want abs of steel because it looks great, but yoga suggests other reasons for a washboard stomach.
In the Gheranda Samhita, a medieval text of yoga, it calls our practice Ghata Yoga, meaning the yoga of the pot. A key to this and all the old physical yogas was kumbhaka—holding the breath—and kumbhaka means pot too.
As we know, yoga keeps us fit in mind, belly and spirit. But its main focus in the old days was pot yoga, which meant making a smart, toned belly—not because it looked fabulous, but because it allowed practitioners to move energy in the body and mind.
The belly, yogis learned, was intimately connected to mind control—and therefore life control.
The belly bone is connected to the mind bone, which is connected to the life bone?
Ghata and kumbhaka refer to is the body’s working core—the ribcage and belly—and their enveloping muscles.
The belly “pot” (ghata) has all the subtle muscles that guide the breath and, when they are well-trained, they allow us to hold the breath in very specific ways (kumbhaka).
This training can go on for a very long time, and when it advances, we find that manipulating the belly in stressful situations directs the breath and keeps the mind cool under pressure. We find that, when we anticipate difficulty, taking a moment to do alternate nostril breathing can steady our nerves.
Pranayama (breath work) is a simple science, but it has far-reaching effects.
Today’s yoga workout trains our “pots” resulting in abdomen muscles looking great, but these do more than tease the thoughts of onlookers—they belong to a system of nerve, lung and muscle that train our minds and help our lives.
Yoga teachers say, “Breathe!” because it gets rid of tension, focuses attention, and develops concentration, but many yoga teachers do not know that the ancient aim of yoga was to stop breathing entirely!
I know that sounds absurd but working toward this aim is said to be key to long life and a clear mental focus.
We hear of “breatharians” who give up food and live off air. There are also said to be Swamis who give up air and live off prana—life force.
Swami Kripalu—the teacher of Amrit Desai (who founded Massachusetts’ Kripalu Center and who invented Kripalu Yoga)—breathed only forty times a day.
He lived under a vow of silence and sometimes, in the middle of a “talk,” he would write on his little, hand-held chalkboard: “I feel a breath coming…”
Swami K. was calm because he breathed so little. Calm breath equals a calm mind. And, incidentally, less breath equals long life.
Ancient lore says we get a limited number of breaths when we are born (a few gazillion, probably). When they are finished, we are finished.
Modern science tells us oxygen creates “free-radicals” in the system, i.e. oxidation. It eventually leads to a systemic breakdown of the body that we call old age.
Think of the USS Arizona sitting on the seafloor of Pearl Harbor. Think of rust. Even if you have abs of steel, your body will rust from all the glorious breathing you do.
If you want to optimize your years, use those abs to guide breath.
The old yogis taught themselves this and passed it down though their lineages.
They invented pranayama, the science of breath. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras was composed near the year 200 of our era (1800 years later, it became the “Bible” of modern yoga) and it makes breath science the third in eight steps to yoga mastery. But even in the very oldest Indian scriptures from three thousand years ago, we get references to yogi-like characters “mounting” and “churning” the wind (wind being a euphemism for breath).
It is said that breath moves the mind–and the mind moves the breath.
And maybe on a good day, it even leads to a yogi power (or siddhi) like mindreading, water-walking or walking on air (before we had airplanes to help us with this!).
Sure, controlling the breath can make you live longer but, more importantly, your whole life is improved if you learn to control your breath because of the miraculous and quasi-miraculous benefits it brings.
Pranayama is the ancient practice of breath control from the yoga tradition.
Not every yoga teacher offers it, but the ancient tradition qualified it as higher practice than mere posing. The ancient guidebook to yoga—The Yoga Sutras—plus lots of traditionally-schooled marquee teachers, like T. K. V. Desikachar, Rod Stryker and Gary Kraftsow, direct our primary attention to developing pranayama.
There are exciting reasons for this…
What if mind-control was a really a simple, practical affair?
Like, what if a beautiful belly meant a beautiful mind?
If the mind is controlled by the breath and the breath is controlled by all those sweet stomach muscles then, ispo facto, a beautiful belly makes a beautiful mind!
The belly rules the brain.
This is much more than “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.”
What we learn through pranayama is that the breath can remain steady no matter what. We also work (in the very long run) toward stopping the breath entirely.
This has long-term effects, of course.
One main reason cardiovascular exercise is good is that hard breathing in the workout leads to calmer and slower breaths outside of the workout.
When the lungs learn to work well, they work learn to work less.
Less breath = Longer living
Pranayama science is huge. The above-mentioned Swami Kripalu claimed to know over two hundred breath exercises (about the same number of poses the famous yogi B. K. S. Iyengar put in his “Bible” of poses, Light on Yoga).
Pranayama helps us get a handle on health and longevity—through our mind, breath and belly—but more importantly it makes a steady mind that is better-equipped to make itself happy.
Steady minds more readily make wise choices and that’s better for everyone.
So, work the belly! It is more than just an accessory to your bikini or boxer shorts.
Learn breath science! Because, ipso facto: a beautiful belly (rightly trained!) means a beautiful mind and a beautiful life.