Controlling the Breath for Well Being – Pranayama Part 1

Pranayama is the technique of breath control during yoga or meditation. The origin of the term is Sanskrit, literally translated as ‘control of the life force’. Pranayama is an incredibly powerful technique that can influence both the mind and body. If performed incorrectly however the influence can be negative. There are many ways of controlling the breath, including changing rate, depth, mouth shape and other variables.

But how can Pranayama work? How can changing the breathing have any impact on our body? We already instinctively know about this link without even studying yoga. When people get angry they ‘take a deep breath’, when they get anxious they hyperventilate, breathing fast and shallow. Young children sometimes ‘breath hold’ when they get upset, to the point of passing out in some cases.

The human breath cycle serves two purposes – it brings fresh atmospheric gas into the body which is rich in oxygen, and expels gas which has been depleted of oxygen but that contains carbon dioxide waste. As our lungs expand there is a complex series of physiological changes that take place with respect to the distribution of blood in the lung, to maximize this gas exchange, and the heart and blood vessels play a significant role in this.

The goal of the body is to match oxygen demands with waste production. When we exercise the oxygen demand goes up, which is sensed by the body. Reflexes and control circuits make the necessary changes to match this demand. One of the main sensors in this pathway is the blood vessels themselves, and in many tissues carbon dioxide accumulation or oxygen deficit results in dilation of blood vessels.

Consciously altering our breathing pattern outside of what is needed at that moment, will trigger many of these reflexes which can in turn affect blood flow to tissues. It is a well-known fact that if you start breathing fast and heavy unnecessarily so, then you may get light headed, largely because of the reduction of normal carbon dioxide levels in the body, resulting in reflex constriction of blood vessels, which can reduce blood flow to the brain.

The number of breaths we take per minute and the depth of these breaths is what is ultimately important to the body. Pranayama techniques involve methods of slowing or speeding breathing, increasing or reducing depth of breath, and pausing on the inhalation or exhalation. With careful thought, each of the techniques could be categorized as to whether they increase or reduce tissue blood flow. When you combine these effects with movement i.e. pranayama in conjunction with yoga asana, then many different effects can be triggered.

So Pranayama can alter blood flow to tissues and organs, impact physiological reflexes including activation of the autonomic nervous system, which can in turn impact our thoughts and feelings, and temporarily alter rates of cellular metabolism. Body-wide, you can create profound effects just from changing the breath. Pranayama has been shown to help with many aspects of our health including physical well-being, clarity of thinking, emotional well-being, weight loss, injury recovery, inner fulfilment, immunity and stress reduction.

Pranayama is an incredibly powerful part of the yoga experience. It has been practiced for thousands of years with some well appreciated effects, and these effects are clearly backed up by modern physiological science. In future blogs we will look at some of the specific techniques of pranayama and how they can impact our health.

Andrew Beaumont, M.D., Ph.D., is a neurosurgeon specializing in diseases of the spine, with a research background in Physiology. He has a deep interest in Yoga, Ayurveda and other traditional medicine systems. He holds a certification diploma as a 500 hour Viniyoga Teacher from the American Viniyoga Institute. He is currently studying Yoga Therapy with the American Viniyoga Institute. He teaches special programs at 5 Koshas Yoga & Wellness in Wausau, WI and is faculty with the River Flow Yoga Teacher Training School.