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The physiological benefits of pranayama

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The physiological benefits of pranayama

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The physiological benefits of pranayama

  1. 1. The Physiological Effects of Breathing THE PHYSIOLOGICAL EFFECTS OF PRANAYAMA by Aoife Brennan Pranayama is a sanskrit word composed of the words ‘prana’ meaning vital life-force and “ayama” meaning restraint. The word pranayama thus translates as the regu-lation or control of life-force. The word prana has been trans-lated as many things including air, breath, spirit, life-force, en-ergy, subtle energy, vital energy, soul and principle of life, all es-sentially trying to convey the all-pervasiveness and vastness ofthe life-sustaining energy of the universe which the word pranarepresents (Apte, 1965). Prana is a concept central to the prac-tices of yoga where it is believed to flow through channels inthe body called nadis. In relation to yogic practices pranayama Fig 1. A drawing from an an-is usually translated more directly as breath control (Feuer- cient parchment showing thestein, 1998). An alternative root of the word is given by Rama- main nadis of the body. The artist has drawn some outsidemurti Mishra who says that “Expansion of individual energy the body for purpose of clarity but they are all located withininto cosmic energy is called pranayama” which gives a deeper the bodyinsight into the purpose of pranayama to a yoga practitioner.Pranayama channels the prana in the body to calm, rejuvenate and uplift the mind. Itserves as an important bridge between the external, active and highly physical practiceof yoga asana and the subtle internal practices that lead the yogi into deeper states ofmeditation. The ancient practice of yoga was composed into a darshan (philosophy) by Patan-jali in his book Patanjali Yoga Sutra. In this book he formulated yoga as an eight-limbed path, of which pranayama is the fourth limb. Chapter 2, sutra 49 describepranayama as “Tasmin sati svasaprasvasayor-gitivicchedah pranayamah”, “Regulation of 1
  2. 2. The Physiological Effects of Breathing breath or the control of prana is the stoppage of inhalation and exhalation, which fol- lows after securing that steadiness of posture or seat” (Yoga Sutras, 2:49). Here, Patan- jali is stating that only those that have mastered their physical body through asana, such that they can comfortably sit for long periods of time, can progress to practicing pranayama. As a consequence, there are differences of opinion between the major yoga traditions on when a student should be introduced to the practice of pranayama. In the integral yoga tradition propounded by Swami Satchidananda, pranayama is incorpo- rated into every yoga class. A typical session starts with asana, moves on to pranayama and ends with seated meditation butFig 2. A representation of only at advanced levels are techniques such as breath reten-Patangali. Hindu traditionstates that when all the mu- tion (Kunbacha) or the chin lock (jalandhara bandha) intro-nis and rishis approachedLord Vishnu for a means to duced. In Ashtanga ujjayi breathing is taught alongside mulacure illness (physical, mentaland emotional) he gave them bandha (root lock) and uddiyana bandha (abdominal lock).the serpent Adishesha with1,000 heads (the symbol of These concepts are introduced to beginners and carried alongawarness) who took birth inthe world as Maharishi and developed in conjunction with the asana practice. ThePatangali. practitioner is guided to some degree in this but, like that as- ana practice, the ujjayi breath develops with yoga practice and a deeper understanding of the asana. Seated pranayamas are also taught as part of this tradition but usually only after a practice of three to five years and the mastering of at least the primary se- ries of asanas. There are six different pranayamas taught as a series and each one is built on the previous technique and are practiced with the eyes open (Cummins, Yoga Journal). Iyengar yoga, like ashtanga, only introduces separate pranayama practices after a students has a strong asana practice but no specific breathing technique is not taught to beginners in conjunction with the asana. Ujjayi breath is taught but only as a sepa- 2
  3. 3. The Physiological Effects of Breathing rate practice after the yogi has first been guided through a supine breath awareness practice which is done lying down with the chest and head supported to allow com- plete focus on the breath and very precise directions are given to develop breathing awareness. The Physiology of Breathing and Respiration The lungs by themselves are immobile, sponge-like organs consisting of a microfine network of tiny air-sacks called alveoli. The alveoli sit at the end of a series of branch like tubules that spread out from the trachea (windpipe) in the chest. The lungs are encased in a the thoracic cavity which is formed by the ribs, spine, diaphragm and an array of muscles both big and small. It is the concerted action of the muscles that brings about Fig 3. Structure and blood supply the process of breathing. Unlike many other inter- of the alveoli of the lungs nal processes of the body, such as pumping blood and moving of food through the digestive system, breathing results from semi- conscious and habitual contraction of muscles that can be brought to conscious awareness if desired. It is the cultivation of this awareness that is the foundation of all pranayama practices and it is the choice of muscles that we choose to move the lungs that determines the type of breath we take. At the end of a nor- mal exhale, the thoracic cavity is at equal pressure with the out- side of the body. The contraction of the diaphragm and/or otherFig 4. The thoracic cavity isencased in the ribs, dia- muscles of the thoracic cavity increases the space in the cavityphragm and surroundingskeletal muscles 3
  4. 4. The Physiological Effects of Breathingand therefore decreases the pressure causingair to rush into the lungs from outside. Whenthese muscles relax, space in the cavity de-creases causing the pressure to increase. Thisforces the air out of the lungs until the pres-sure is yet again equal with that of the exter-nal environment (Fig 4.). Therefore, in normalbreathing, inhalation is active as muscle con-traction is required and exhalation is passive Fig 5. The role of the diaphragm in chang-as no energetic input is needed. ing the pressure in the lungs in breathing. On a cellular level, breathing is the body’s way of absorbing oxygen and excretingthe carbon dioxide (CO2) produced by the body when sugars are metabolised to pro-duce energy. The body is capable of detecting oxygen levels in the blood but the pri-mary determinant of the breathing urge is CO2 levels. These levels can profoundly af-fect the physical and mental states of the body in many ways. CO2 is a primary regula-tor of the acid-alkaline balance of the body which determines the rate of activity ofother biochemical processes. Breathing that is too slow or shallow can cause respira-tory acidosis (acidic blood) resulting in headaches, confusion and anxiety. Rapid shallow breathing patterns are often associated with people living withstress where the depleted oxygen levels aggravate the mind further in a vicious cycle.This is largely due to the fact that, unlike the other organs, the brain need a constantoxygen supply in order to maintain it’s functional and structural integrity. Long-termrapid shallow breathing (often caused by poor posture or weak muscles) can result inthe rib cage and surrounding muscles becoming stiff causing inhalation to becomemore difficult and deeper breathing almost impossible. Less elasticity and weak mus- 4
  5. 5. The Physiological Effects of Breathing cles leave stale air in the tissues of the lungs, preventing fresh oxygen from reaching the blood stream. The resultant poor oxygen supply can cause respiratory disease, de- crease mental alertness, sluggishness or heart disease. Rapid deep breathing, or hy- perventilation, is usually caused by anxiety and causes low blood CO2 levels. This shifts the body’s pH to- wards alkaline, weakening the im- mune system. CO2 helps dilateFig 6. The anatomy of an asthma attack. smooth muscle tissue and insufficient CO2 can cause spasms throughout the body including the brain and bronchi.. Good examples are the spasms that take place during asthma attacks and migraines. Therefore, it is evident that the quality and depth of the breath can have profound and varying physiological effects on both the body and mind. The Consequences of Breath Regulation Too much CO2 and not enough oxygen creates sluggishness and depression and can contribute to anxiety and panic attacks. Long, deep inhales raise oxygen levels to rebalance the blood oxygen levels. Examples of pranayama techniques that involve ex- tended inhalation include ujjayi breathing and the yogic breath. Too much oxygen and not enough CO2 can create an agitated state. Controlled, long exhales conserve CO2 , rebalances the system and ensures the complete elimina- 5
  6. 6. The Physiological Effects of Breathingtion of toxins that can build up with inefficient exhalation. Examples of pranayamasinvolving extended exhales include viloma and brahmari breath. Breath retention or “kumbhaka” takes two forms in pranayama. Holding thebreath in (antara kumbhaka) and holding the breath out (bahya kumbhaka). This prac-tice increases heat in the body, improves concentration as mental activity is restrictedand increases lung capacity.Regardless of the pranayama technique employed pranayama should always followsome basic principles: Breathing exercises should never be pushed to the point of weariness or exhaustion. Exercises should not be repeated too often. They should not be merely mechanical. There should be no hurry or haste. Attention should be concentrated on the exercise while it is being performed. There should always be variety and change in the exercises. Exercise should always be gentle and nonviolent. Breathing should not be jerky or irregular, but smooth, steady and continuous.A selection of pranayama techniques and their physiological effectsAbdominal BreathingAbdominal or ‘diaphragmatic” breathing consists mainly of breathing deep down intothe abdomen by changing the position of the diaphragm. When you inhale the dia-phragm gently descends into the abdomen pushing the stomach forward with no strain.When exhaling you gently allow the stomach to return to its normal position. We oftenuse this low breathing when we are sleeping or hunched forward. Conscious diaphrag- 6
  7. 7. The Physiological Effects of Breathingmatic breathing is extremely relaxing to the autonomic nervous system (ANS) which isessential preparation for deep meditation. The ANS controlsheart rate, digestion, respiration rate perspiration and diame-tre of the pupils. With this breathing more air is taken intothe lungs than in chest breathing as the lower lobes of thelungs are larger that the upper lobes. The abdominal organsare also massaged by the movements of the diaphragm andthe celiac (solar) plexus never centre is stimulated. Abdomi-nal breathing has been shown to improve quality of life inbreast cancer patients after a mastectomy (Kim et al., 2005), Fig 7. Abdominal breathingreduce the occurrence of non-sleep bruxism (Ando and Sa-kurai, 2006) and relieve anxiety of women diagnosed with preterm labour (Shim andChang,, 2006). Abdominal breathing, combined with the rhythmical pumping of the dia-phragm helps turn on the parasympathetic nervous system - our “rest and relax” re-sponse.Dirgha pranayama or “yogic breath’Also know as the three-part breath, dirgha pranayama is done seated and involves takinga full breath in three separate inhalations, each with a short pause between them; thefirst deeply into the abdomen as far as the rib cage, the second into the rib cage expand-ing the ribs and finally all the way up to the chest and clavicles which actually lift slightlyas the lungs fill with air. The exhale is also done in three parts but in the opposite direc-tion, clavicles descending first, then ribs and abdomen, again each with a short pause inbetween. This is a slow deep breath that utilises all the alveoli in the lungs, flushing theentire lungs with fresh air and allowing for greater percentage of oxygen to be in halesmaking oxygen/CO2 exchange more efficient. 7
  8. 8. The Physiological Effects of BreathingUjjayi pranayamaThe ujjai breath (”victorious breath”) is best know for it’s use throughout the asana prac-tice in Ashtanga yoga but it is a separate pryanayama technique in itself involving thegently contraction and lifting of the uddiyana bandha and the mula bandha to lift thebreath up into the thoracic cavity. It can be practiced with or without kumbhakas. It isalso know as the ocean breath due to the sound made by the gentle engagement of thejalandhara bandha in the throat to create some resistance to the passage of air. Thissound should become more subtle as the practitioner advances in both asana andpranayama so that it is audible to only the practitioner themselves. In the yoga sutrasPatanjali suggests that the breath should be dirga (long) and suksma (smooth). It is a bal-ancing and calming breath which build up internal heat and increases oxygenation(Telles and Desiraju, 1991).Nadi shodhanaThis pranayama is also known as alternate nostril breathing as the thumb of the righthand is used to close the right nostril and the ring finger of the same hand is used toclose the left nostril. One round consists of inhalingthrough one nostril for a defined length of time (varyingfrom person-to-person) and exhaling for the same lengthof time the same side. This nostril is then closed and thesame breath is repeated through the other nostril. In acontrolled study is was shown that breathing through the Fig 8. Alternate nostrilright nostril resulted in a significant increase of 37% in breathingbaseline oxygen consumption, alternately breathingthrough both nostrils showed and 18% increase while breathing through the left nostrilresulted in a 24% increase. The left nostril pranayama group showed in increase in volargalvanic skin resistance, the electrical resistance of the skin which is a measure of emo- 8
  9. 9. The Physiological Effects of Breathingtions in people that is part of the polygraph test. Fear, anger, startle response, sexual feel-ings are all among the emotions which may produce similar GSR responses. An increaseis interpreted as a reduction in sympathetic nervous system activity (Telles et al. 1994).These results suggest that breathing selectively through either nostril could have amarked activating effect or a relaxing effect on the sympathetic nervous system.Viloma pranayamaViloma means against the natural order of things. In viloma pranayama, inhalation or ex-halation is done with several pauses. It teaches the practitioner how to fully utilise theentirety of the rib cage and how to direct the breath into specific areas of the chest en-suring a deep breath. Viloma can also be practiced through alternate nostrils and iscalled anuloma viloma. Viloma aerates the lungs and improves the muscle tone of thebreathing muscles. Both anuloma viloma and viloma have been said to lower blood pres-sure, however the only controlled scientific study showed that there was an increase insystolic blood pressure probably due to cutaneous vasoconstriction as shown by the si-multaneous decrease in digit pulse volume (Telles et al., 1993). Both practices have alsobeen shown to increase oxygen consumption and therefore may be of benefit to theobese who are known to have a lowed resting metabolic rate than the non-obese (Dunaniet al., 1986).Brahmari pranayamaBrahmari means bumble bee. In this breathing practiceyour lips are shut, the ears and eyes closed with the fin-gers and you gently and smoothly make the sound like a Fig 9. Brahmari pranayama involves humming like a bumble-bee to cre-humming bee in your throat. The vibrations can be felt in ate vibrations.the throat, jaws and face and can be done by anyone re-gardless of age or fitness level. At the moment there are not detailed scientific studies 9
  10. 10. The Physiological Effects of Breathingconducted on brahmari pranayama alone but proposed benefits include invigoration ofthe thyroid gland increasing metabolism, curing migraine and triggering serotonin re-lease resulting in balanced moods although altered serotonin levels has been implicatedin causing migraines so caution must be observed.Sitali pranayamaSitali is also called tongue hissing due to the sound produced when practicing it. Thetongue is curled up into a tube and during inhalation the air passes over the moisttongue, cooling down and refreshing the throat. The tongues is drawn back into themouth and the lips are closed at the end of the inhalation and the exhalation takes placeeither through the throat or alternately through the nostrils. This is a cooling pranayamawhich is though to have developed from observation of how animals breath to cool downusing their tongues.KapalabhatiKapalabhati means skull shining breath and is one of the cleansing techniques of yoga. Ifthere is mucus in the air passages or tension and blockages in the chest it is often helpfulto breath quickly. In this practice the diaphragm and associated muscles are used to“pump” the air rapidly out of the lungs in a forced exhalation. This is followed by a rapidbut passive inhalation. “Bhati” means “that which brings lightness”. One must be carefulwith this technique because there is a danger of creating great tension with the breath orone may become quite dizzy when breathing becomes rapid. For this reason kapalabhatiis usually concluded with some deep slow breaths. One study showed that kapalabhatimodifies the autonomic status by increasing sympathetic activity (”fight-or-flight”) withreduced vagal activity (Vagus nerve innervates the lungs and stomach, increases heartrate and blood pressure) (Raghuraj et al., 1998). 10
  11. 11. The Physiological Effects of BreathingConclusion Due to the semi-conscious nature of breathing we rarely observe our breath butsince out state of mind is reflected in the way we breath, it follows that by controllingour breath we can learn to control out state of mind. A calm, peaceful mind is contentand non-violent and more receptive to the sense withdrawal (pratyahara) and deepconcentration (dharana) that bring about states of meditation. The health benefits arescientifically proven with researchers reporting that pranayama is beneficial in treatinga range of stress related disorders (Brown et al., 2005), improving autonomic functions(Howorka et al., 1995), relieving symptoms of asthma (Cooper et al., 2003; Vedanthan etal., 1998), and reducing sigs of oxidative stress (Bhattacharya et al., 2004; Jerath et al.,2006). Anecdotal evidence from practitioners report that the practice develops a steadymind, strong will-power and sound judgment (Light on Pranayama, 6th ed.) and alsoclaim that sustained pranayama practice extends life and enhances perception (AsanaPranayama Mudra Bandha, 2002). Will all the far-reaching benefits to the mind andbody, pranayama is something that cannot be ignored as part of a solid yoga practiceand should be practiced regularly by yogis of all ages and abilities. Word count: 3000 11
  12. 12. The Physiological Effects of Breathing ReferencesApte, Vaman Shivram (1965). The Practical Sanskrit Dictionary. Delhi: Motilal Banarsi-dass Publishers. ISBN 81-208-0567-4. (fourth revised enlarged edition).Feuerstein, Georg (1998). Tantra: The Path of Ecstacy. Boston: Shambhala Publications.Mishra, Ramamurti S. (1963). The Textbook of Yoga Psychology. Monroe, New York: BabaBhagavandas Publication Trust. ISBN 1-890964-27-1. Reprint edition, 1997.Cummins, C. Prescriptions for Pranayama. Yoga Journal.Kim KS, Lee SW, Choe MA, Yi MS, Choi S, Kwon SH. (2005). Effects of abdominalbreathing training using biofeedback on stress, immune response and quality of life inpatients with a mastectomy for breast cancer. Taehan Kanho Hakhoe Chi. 35(7), 1295-1303.Ando, T. and Sakurai, K. (2006). Effects of Abdominal Breathing on the Occurrence ofNon-Sleep Bruxism. Prosthodontic Research Practice. 5(4), 189-194.Joung Ohn Shim, Soon Bok Chang. (2006). Effects of Abdominal Breathing on PretermLabor Anxiety. Korean J Women Health Nurs. 12(2), 106-114Telles, S. and Desiraju, T. (1991). Oxygen consumption during pranayamic type of veryslow-rate breathing. Indian J Med Res. 94, 357-363.Telles S, Nagarathna R, Nagendra HR. (1994). Breathing through a particular nostril canalter metabolism and autonomic activities. Indian J Physiol Pharmacol. 38(2), 133-137.P. Raghuraj, A. G. Ramakrishnan , H. R. Nagendra and Shirley Telles. (1998). Effect oftwo selected yogic breathing techniques on heart rate variability. Indian J Physiol Pharma-col. 42(4), 467-472.Brown RP, Gerbarg PL. (2005). Sudarshan Kriya Yogic breathing in the treatment ofstress, anxiety, and depression. Part II--clinical applications and guidelines. J Altern Com-plement Med. 11(4), 1-7.Howorka K., Pumprla J., Heger G., Thoma H., Opavsky J., Salinger J. (1995). Computer-ised Assessment of Autonomic Influences of Yoga Using Spectral Analysis of Heart RateVariability. Proceedings RC IEEE-EMBS 8 14th BMESI. 12
  13. 13. The Physiological Effects of BreathingCooper S, Oborne J, Newton S, Harrison V, Thompson Coon J, Lewis S, Tattersfield A.(2004). Effect of two breathing exercises (Buteyko and pranayama) in asthma: a random-ised controlled trial. Thorax. 58(8), 674-679.Vedanthan PK, Kesavalu LN, Murthy KC, Duvall K, Hall MJ, Baker S, Nagarathna S.(1998). Clinical study of yoga techniques in university students with asthma: a controlledstudy. Allergy Asthma Proc. 19(1), 3-9.Bhattacharya S, Pandey US, Verma NS. (2002). Improvement in oxidative status with yo-gic breathing in young healthy males. Indian J Physiol Pharmacol. 46(3), 349-354.Jerath R, Edry JW, Barnes VA, Jerath V. (2006). Physiology of long pranayamic breath-ing: neural respiratory elements may provide a mechanism that explains how slow deepbreathing shifts the autonomic nervous system. Med Hypotheses. 67(3), 566-571.Iyengar, B. K. S. Light on Pranayama, Sixth Edition, Crossroad Publishing Co.Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha, 2002. 13

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