More than ever, people are realising how peace of mind can make a profound difference to their health and wellbeing. In yoga lies an ‘ancient technology’ that holds the key for balancing our body-mind chemistries and achieving a state of pristine peace within.
by Sindar Kaur
We experience life mostly through our five senses, yet we rarely attend to the fundamental principle that governs our body, mind and life…the humble breath!
We breathe from the second we are born, 24/7 until we die. It is the most natural thing, and it is an immediate connection to ourselves and to the world around us.
Most of us understand respiration (breathing) to be an instinctual process of inspiring oxygen from the air and expiring carbon dioxide to the air. This vital process fuels all sensory and motor functions of the body. However, there is another process of respiration, that takes place internally, and by which oxygen, glucose or other small molecules are oxidised by each cell in the body to produce energy for every muscular contraction, glandular secretion and mental process.
Breathing is controlled by the medulla oblongata and pons, the lower division of the brain. Inspiration is regulated by the apneustic centre in the lower and mid pons; expiration by the pneumotaxic centre in the rostral or uppermost part of the pons. The pneumotaxic centre essentially adjusts our rate of breathing. It is extremely sensitive to any changes in the blood pH (acid/alkaline balance) and the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide. This balance is disturbed when an oxygen deficit occurs through lack of oxygen going to muscles as a result of production of lactic acid (decreasing blood pH), and when oxygen can’t bind to the blood due to high pressure levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide (increading the blood pH – Bohr Shift)
The medulla oblongata, via the hypothalamus, mediates with the involuntary nervous system (our wiring system) by sending neural impulses or chemical messengers (neuropeptides, neurohormones and neurotransmitters) through the spinal cord into the diaphragm to trigger the lungs to expand for breath. The body, including glands, organs and cells, then respond by modifying its chemistry.
When the nervous system receives an excitory impulse from the brain, communicated through excitory chemicals (acetylcholine and catecholamines), the sympathetic nervous system or ‘stress response’ is aroused. This increases the rate of breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, blood pH and body temperature. Conversely, when the nervous system receives an inhibitory impulse from the brain, communicated through inhibitory chemicals (serotonin and gamma amino butyric acid-GABA), the parasympathetic nervous system or ‘relaxation response’ is aroused. This decreases the rate of breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, blood pH and body temperature.
Hence, from a modern science perspective, respiration is a purely organic function of the body and nervous system. Breath serves as an involuntary self-regulating mechanism that calibrates the body chemistry to maintain homeostasis in the body.
Science of Yogic Breathing
The ancient yogic disciplines, however, afford a more exhaustive explanation of the connection between our breath, brain, and state of mind. Yoga tradition teaches that breath is the governing principle of life and holds the key to our physiological, psychological and spiritual chemistries. It is a unique ‘technology’ (Johari, 1989) that heals our body, mind, emotions and spirit.
According to swara yoga – the ancient study of body rhythms and nasal cycles – human physiology is composed of three interacting forces:
• (i) life force (prana) – vital force needed to create and sustain physical life.
• (ii) mental force (chitta) – totality of awareness, mind, intelligence and consciousness
• (iii) spiritual force (atma) – self, spirit around which human physiology is organised.
Prana binds the mind and body which are connected to the brain and nervous system. Through prana, the spirit is interwoven with mind and body. Therefore, prana is the nexus of the body, mind and spirit. It is found everywhere in the environment, food and water. For human beings the main source of prana is breath. Since breath is the medium for prana, it is intimately linked to every other aspect of our human experience.
By deliberately regulating or modulating the breath through pranayama (yogic breathing) practices, it is said that one can master the mind and achieve a pure state of being. Pranayama is the art of skilfully ‘stretching’ the breath (and prana) through sophisticated protocols that regulate the four phases of a breath cycle (inhalation, exhalation, retention, suspension) to benefit the mind, body and spirit.
Elastic Nervous System
Yoga states that ‘thinking’ or conscious breathing, gives control over the involuntary rhythm of our breath. When the mind is directed into the process of breathing, it affects the activity of neural impulses (brain waves) and makes it possible to intercept the ‘triggerresponse’ processes of the body. Mindful breathing acts like a neurofeedback system that ‘wires’ our brain states to a more appropriate or stable state, and removes unwanted emotional and psychological states.
Parts of the Brain
(i) Lower/Vegetative Brain: includes the brain stem (pons and medulla oblongata) and mesencephalon; is auto pilot centre for involuntary functions such as the heartbeat, vasomotor activity and respiration.
(ii) Mid/Limbic Brain: includes hypothalamus, thalamus, amygdale, pituitary; maintains homeostasis (constancy); is centre of emotions, motivations and fear reactions.
(iii) Higher/Neocortical Brain: includes cerebral cortex (hemispheres); processes sensory information as threat or non-threat; centre of cognition and consciousness.
For example, have you noticed that when you are angry, anxious or stressed, the rhythm of your breath becomes rapid, shallow and irregular, resulting in over-breathing or hyperventilation? The heart races and the increase in neural impulses triggers the sympathetic nervous system, which creates scattered, excitable sensations. However, if we consciously direct the mind to our breath and slow down the breathing, the heart rate and activity of the brain impulses also slow down. The brain then registers this change and triggers the parasympathetic nervous system. Subsequently a shift from ‘stress response’ to a ‘relaxation response’ takes place and mental agitation is curtailed. Prolonging the breath (anuloma krama) coupled with holding the breath momentarily after exhaling (kumbhaka) have the effect of further widening the gap between the neural impulses.
Therefore, the next time you find yourself in a stressful state, make a conscious effort to tune into your breath and practice deep breathing (dirgha swasam). Lie or sit comfortably and elongate the spine, widen the chest, relax the shoulders but keep the heart lifted upwards. Begin to breathe in fully, slowly, deeply and effortlessly, feeling your lungs inflating like soft balloons. Hold the breath momentarily. Then, as you begin to exhale slowly and evenly, softly contract the lower abdominal muscles in towards the spine, gradually pulling the belly button up and back towards the spine to squeeze out all the stale air. Use the diaphragm as a guiding force with other abdominal muscles following closely. Contracting these muscles influences breathing and mind states (via the vagus nerve). Continue this slow, undulating method of breathing for about a minute, modulating each inhale and exhale without creating strain. Feel your whole body breathing and moving like the gentle swell of the ocean. Allow the calmness to permeate and soothe your whole body.
Deep breathing also increases the microcirculation and oxygen supply to organs and tissues. Various other pranayama techniques applied in the management of stress and psychosomatic diseases indicate reduced pulse rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure, blood cholesterol and blood sugar, decrease in acetylcholine and increase in catecholamine and cortisol (Udupa, 2000).
Of particular significance in pranayama practices is the nose itself. By virtue of its connection with the brain and nervous system, the nose serves as a ‘cortical switch’, selectively altering the pattern of cortical or cerebral activity.
The nose is closely connected to the hypothalamus and olfactory lobe. The hypothalamus in turn is connected to the structures of cerebral cortex, thalamus, limbic system, pons, and medulla. Running a short distance from the olfactory lobe is the olfactory nerve, which is composed of neurons that originate in the nasal mucosa. The nasal mucosa is directly innervated (stimulated) by opposing ‘bipolar forces’. The right nostril (pingala) is innervated by a solar force that produces an excitory quality, and the left nostril (ida) by a lunar force that has an inhibitory quality, much like the sympathetic and parasympathetic responses.
Although it appears we are breathing through both nostrils all the time, our breath flow (swara) actually alternates from one nostril to the other at regular intervals, so as to maintain proper function of the physiological and psychological processes. This rhythm of nasal cycle, regulated by the bipolar forces, is tightly coupled with a rhythm of alternating cerebral (cortical) dominance. For example, when engaged in physical activities such as talking or walking, the left brain hemisphere and right nostril are dominant. When engaged in mental activities such as planning or worrying, the right brain hemisphere and left nostril are dominant. Experimental research on brain wave recordings validates that there are higher rhythms of cerebral hemisphere activity corresponding to opposite nostrils (Frissell, 2005).
Yoga maintains that these cycles can be manipulated by selectively altering the natural phase of the nasal cycle so as to shift emphasis in cerebral patterns. Pranayama techniques of forced single nostril breathing can be used to switch sympathetic or parasympathetic dominance in response to the activity engaged in. For example, the next time you set out to drive, close your left nostril with your thumb, and breathe only through the right nostril for about a minute. This is to activate the left thinking brain, which is more conducive to driving and keeping alert, thus maximising output of activity.
Right Nostril (pingala)
masculine, solar, heat, agitation, extroversion, competitive, aggressive physical (prana) force
Left Nostril (ida)
feminine, lunar, cool, calmness, introversion, compassion, nurturing mental (chitta) force
Left Cerebral Hemisphere
active, analytical, linear, thinking, walking, talking, reading, eating, action organs – speech, hands, feet, reproductive, excretory/urinary
Right Cerebral Hemisphere
receptive, reflective, spatial, feeling, holistic, intuitive, artistic sensory organs – eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin
Pranayama techniques of forced nostril breathing also offer a profound way to restore disruptions in normal nasal and cerebral flows. According to yoga, the constant interaction of our five senses with the five elements in nature causes unceasing fluctuations and fragmentations particularly of opposites in our emotional and mental states. Like has the unique effect of merging the left ‘thinking’ brain with the right ‘feeling’brain to produce a ‘whole brain’ experience. In this state of cerebral balance, meditation happens easily and the spiritual (atma) force becomes most dominant. This gives rise to a spiritual chemistry that transcends our daily reactivity, preoccupations, obsessions and fixations, restoring us to a pristine state of being.
Try the following two practices sequentially as instructed below. Practice on an empty stomach.
Nasal Hyperventilation (Bhastrika)
CAUTION: Do not proceed with this technique if contraindicated with high blood pressure, hot flashes, lung/heart disease, pregnancy, menstruation, post surgery, stroke, gastric ulcer, hernia, vertigo, ear/eye complaints or epilepsy.
1. Begin by emptying your lungs completely. Take a long inhale and slow exhale, three times.
2. Then using your right thumb to close off the right nostril, begin to inhale and exhale rapidly through left nostril only, for 40 to 70 rounds (one round is an inhale and exhale) or no longer than one minute.
3. On your last round, inhale vigorously and deeply, hold the breath as long as possible, then exhale forcefully. Remove thumb and release the right nostril.
4. Breathe normally through both nostrils several times while focused on the area between your brows
5. Repeat steps 2, 3 and 4 on the right side.
Refreshes the brain; specifically, clears the toxins and waste matter that can cover the centre of nurturance and rejuvenation (pushti-kendra), which directly affects mental clarity (Tigunait, 2005).
Purifying Breath (Nadi Shodhana)
1. To begin, use right thumb to close off the right nostril, and begin to inhale slowly and uniformly through the left nostril. Hold the breath in momentarily.
Then close the left nostril with your ring finger as you release the right nostril and begin to exhale through the right nostril. Hold the breath out momentarily. Then inhale through the right nostril and hold the breath in momentarily. Close the right nostril with your thumb as you release the left nostril. Then exhale through the left nostril and hold out momentarily. This constitutes one round.
2. Continue to alternate the breath between left and right nostrils for 12 to 24 rounds (or for 10 to 20 minutes).
3. Maintain focus on keeping the breath smooth and even throughout the practice.
4. This technique can be done with an equalising breath ratio: inhaling for up to four counts; holding in for up to four counts; exhaling for up to four counts; holding out for up to four counts (4:4:4:4).
Caution: Do not hold the breath if you have high blood pressure or a heart condition.
5. Finish the practice by sitting quietly and enjoying the ensuing stillness.
Purifies the mind; balances the cerebral hemispheres; induces meditation. This practice can be done without breathing ratios. With the ratio, the benefits are enhanced.
Hence, from a yogic perspective, breath is not just a bio-energy; it is a medium of prana. Prana is not just a physical force, but a ‘gateway’ of higher consciousness. Pranayama practices offer a way to skilfully maintain optimal brain function, lubricate the nervous system, improve peak performance, increase physiological stability, emotional control, mental calm and spiritual awareness, and have many therapeutic applications. Only a few minutes daily of attending to our breath can make all the difference in our lives!
Udupa, K.N. Stress and its Management by Yoga. Motilal Banarsidass, Varanasi, 1978.
Cardiff, C. Y. Breath Management is Stress Management. BBC Action Network, 2007.
Johari, H. Breath, Mind, and Consciousness. Destiny Books, Rochester, Vermont 1989.
Frissell, B. Cerebral Breathing, www.bobfrissell.com, 2005
Muktibodhananda, Swami. Swara Yoga: The Tantric Science of Brain Breathing. Yoga Publications Trust, Bihar School of Yoga, Munger, India, Revised edn. 1999
(First published 1984).
Tigunait, Rajmani. Breathe your obstacles away. Yoga International, May 2005.