"Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.”
― Thich Nhat Hanh, Stepping into Freedom: Rules of Monastic Practice for Novices
“At this moment, you are seamlessly flowing with the cosmos. There is no difference between your breathing and the breathing of the rainforest, between your bloodstream and the world’s rivers, between your bones and the chalk cliffs of Dover.”
― Deepak Chopra, The Book of Secrets: Unlocking the Hidden Dimensions of Your Life
“The Tantric sages tell us that our in-breath and out-breath actually mirror the divine creative gesture. With the inhalation, we draw into our own center, our own being. With the exhalation, we expand outward into the world.”
― Sally Kempton, Awakening Shakti: The Transformative Power of the Goddesses of Yoga
What is Pranayama and why is it important?
Pranayama is a Sanskrit term referring to the regulation of the breath through certain techniques and exercises. Prana means energy or life force, while yama means to control. Ayama means to set free. Therefore, pranayama can both control your life force energy and set it free. Pranayama is a freeing of the breath and of the spirit. What sets yoga apart from other forms of physical exercise is its emphasis on the breath. Without the breath, there is no yoga. In fact, breath control, or pranayama, is the fourth of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga.
Pranayama can reduce stress, improve our health and improve our quality of life. Scientific research is showing that mindful breathing—paying attention to your breath and learning how to manipulate it—is one of the most effective ways to lower everyday stress levels and improve a variety of health factors ranging from mood to metabolism.
Manipulating the breath can alter how we feel, accounting for as much as a 40 percent variance in feelings of anger, fear, joy, and sadness, according to findings in the journal Cognition & Emotion. Yogic breathing practices increase levels of leptin, a hormone produced by fat tissue that signals the brain to inhibit hunger, according to research from Shirley Telles, PhD, director of the Patanjali Research Foundation in Haridwar. A cardiologist at the University of Pavia, Italy, a group of mountaineers who practiced slow breathing an hour a day for two years before attempting to climb Mount Everest to a group who didn’t. The breathing group reached the summit without needing the supplemental oxygen the other group did, and their blood and exhalation samples showed they were using 70 percent of the surface area of their lungs, an amount that maximizes the O2 taken in.
Just one session of relaxing practices like meditation, yoga, and chanting influenced the expression of genes in both short-term and long-term practitioners, according to a Harvard study. Blood samples taken before and after the breathing practices indicated a post-practice increase in genetic material involved in improving metabolism and a suppression of genetic pathways linked with inflammation. Since chronic inflammation has also been associated with such deadly diseases as Alzheimer’s, depression, cancer, and heart disease, it’s probably fair to say that better breathing may not only change your life but may also save it.
How does it work? Basic breath physiology
The autonomic nervous system governs the body’s sympathetic (fight-or-flight) and parasympathetic (rest-and-restore) responses, regulating heart rate, respiration, and digestion up or down as necessary in response to potential threats. Breath changes in response to emotion: You’ve probably observed in yourself, when you feel panicky and anxious, your breath becomes shallow and rapid. We now know from a number of studies that actively changing the breath rate can actually change autonomic function and mood state.
With each breath, millions of sensory receptors in the respiratory system send signals via the vagus nerve to the brainstem. Fast breathing pings the brain at a higher rate, triggering it to activate the sympathetic nervous system, turning up stress hormones, heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, sweat production, and anxiety. On the other hand, slowing your breathing induces the parasympathetic response, dialing down all of the above as it turns up relaxation, calm, and mental clarity.
Sit up tall. Begin by noticing where you already are with your breath. Where do you feel it in your body? Often just becoming aware of your breath tends to slow it down. Breathing through your nose, observe the inhalation and exhalation. Which happens faster? Which is longer? Don’t manipulate them and don’t judge. Just watch. Continue for 2–3 minutes.
If you or your family members ever feel stressed, try this simple “take five breathing” exercise appropriate for all ages (kids and adults too). Trace your hand slowly with your finger while breathing in and out. Breathe in as you trace up starting at your thumb, breathe out as you trace down. Do this for a few minutes and notice how it makes you feel.
Want to practice with a teacher? Join us on Saturdays at 7am for our Meditation Practice or come to any yoga classes at NiMaSte Yoga to learn more.
The Namaste From NiMaSte Blog is written by the Nimaste Yoga staff.