This week I made the discovery that simply blocking the ears during a particular breathing pose had an almost opposite result to the same breathing pose done without blocking the ears. The pose is Brahmari, a breathing pose where we repeatedly hum on the outward breath. The traditional Brahmari is to inhale, block the ears and then hum on the exhalation. The simplified version is the same but we don’t block the ears, we simply hum on the outward breath. And the perceived outcomes are so different.
After practicing Brahmari with blocked ears participants experienced heightened energy and a clarity of mind. One person who has chronically low blood pressure particularly liked this energy lift because she felt less sleepy, more alert and her mind was a little sharper and cleared of its habitual brain fog. The general feeling for everyone was one of calm alertness. They all reported feeling the vibation of the hum high in the head.
After trying Brahmari without blocking the ears everyone reported feeling more grounded and more relaxed, with the vibration of the hum felt in the throat and chest.
So Brahmari alters the way we feel in two ways according to the way we practice it. The latter simplified version where the ears don’t get plugged, is a wonderful way of relaxing the nervous system and great to practice at bed time if the stress or simply the stimulation of the day is preventing us from nodding off. Similarly at any time, day or night, if we have experienced some stressful situation and our heart is pounding, mind on full alert and our breathing tense, we can calm down and relax simply by focused humming. In times of an acutely stressful reaction where we are on the verge of hyperventilating this version of Brahmari will help us to ground, calm down and regain control.
The wonderfully soothing outcome works not only on the energy level of grounding the energy down from the head and centering us, but also on the physical level. We relax because we are stimulating the vagus nerve. This very special nerve passes down the back of the throat and travels right down the front of the breast bone to the abdomen and its main responsibility is to bring our nervous system into a calm and neutral state (homeostasis). Normally the vagus nerve just operates at a low level of activity to keep this state of equilibrium but when we become excited, stressed or tense this reaction is over-ridden by our fight, flight or flee reflexes. After the threat has gone and we need to calm down again the vagus nerve kicks in. But if we are holding onto our stress we may need to do something extra to invite this calming nerve to work its magic on us.
The vibration in the voice box caused by humming stimulates the part of the vagus nerve which is in the throat to perform its soothing actions. The humming also vibrates into the chest causing another stimulating effect of the vagus nerve. These vibratory effects can be felt if when you hum you place your fingers lightly on the throat or the chest.
The vagus nerve is also stimulated by the pressure of the diaphragm pressing down into it as we bring the breath to the deepest part of the lungs to facilitate the long humming outward breath.
Stimulating the vagus nerve with Brahmari breathing is an easy and pleasurable way of calming down.
Now blocking the ears is another story. Even though we are still humming in the same way, because the ears are blocked the sound of the hum projects into our head, and we become very, very aware of the vibration around the ears, eyes, the upper part of the head, inside the skull and the upper parts of the brain. The interesting thing in this connection is that energy follows the direction of the mind. In fact, it has been documented that practiced yogis (you know, the ones who sit up in the Himalayan caves in the snow!) can focus their attention and affect bodily processes which are normally beyond our control. Although in this case we are not consciously trying to do anything simply by feeling and hearing the humming in our upper head, our attention and energy lifts. After a few rounds of this humming with the ears blocked and the subsequent stimulation of energy in the upper head we will experience more clarity of mind and sharpened eyesight and hearing.
This is a great breathing tool to use regularly. In fact, 5 to 10 minutes every day is ideal and it is especially useful to practice before meditation as the mind becomes clear, the body relaxed and our attention focused inwards.
You can find out how to perform Brahmari breathing here.
By Vrndavan Dasi
Founder and Principal of Veda Yoga Teacher Training