Decoding The Science Behind Pranayam

19 May 2020

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‘Breathe! Just breathe!’ This is what we all hear when we experience an emotion that is different from normal. Angry? Just breathe! Anxious? Just breathe! Scared? Just breathe! Upset? Just breathe! So, what is it about breathing that apparently calms us down? And why must one breathe consciously when the body does it for us? We’ll see! 

We breathe without giving it a second thought and often take this bodily function for granted. However, now there are studies showing that deep and conscious breathing can be beneficial to physical and mental health. It shouldn’t come to you as a surprise when we say that breathing is both a voluntary and involuntary action. It happens unconsciously and consciously – meaning, the body does it for you when you don’t pay attention to it, and when you do, you can control it all by yourself. 

Neuroscience says that the act of breathing consciously can pave a way to enhanced immunity, induces the state of relaxation, creates emotional stability, improves heart and respiratory health, is an antidote to depression, and these are just a few of many benefits that conscious breathing provides [1]. 

Now the question arises, how can one breathe consciously and how is it supposed to be done? And if there is a P-word lingering somewhere in the back of your mind when you read this, you are thinking right. The answer is Pranayam. It’ll help you breathe consciously and deeply, and has a number of scientifically proven benefits. 

What Is Pranayam? 

Pranayam is a Yoga technique that puts you in control of your breathing. The word itself means ‘extension of life force’. It involves various ways of controlled and conscious breathing, with the goal to detach oneself from the chaos of the outside world for the brief period during which one is practising Pranayam, and also to relax physically and mentally [1]. 

The Science Behind Pranayam

Pranayam uses the simple science of conscious breathing. It stimulates the vagus nerve in the parasympathetic nervous system that runs from the base of the brain all the way to the abdomen. Two of the most important things that this nerve does is manage the nervous system responses and reduce the heart rate. A neurotransmitter called acetylcholine is released in the vagus nerve that plays an important role in increasing focus and calmness. Therefore, the more you are able to stimulate the vagus nerve, the more acetylcholine is released, which in turn lowers the anxiety levels [1]. 

According to the age-old Yogic theories, there is an intimate relationship between breathing and brain function. Both the functions are, in a way, mutually dependent. We know that Pranayam uses one nostril to breath in oxygen at a time, so when one nostril has the dominant airflow, the opposite hemisphere of the brain is activated and helps awaken the less dominant parts of the hemisphere [4].  

Here’s a simpler way to understand this process. When we are stressed, nervous, anxious or scared our body dives into survival mode and changes all our physical and mental activities to make sure that we get out of the threatful situation alive. The most common changes you’ll see are increased heart rate that rushes blood to the muscles to prep them, increased breath rate and the release of stress hormones. Now, these changes or bodily responses are survival instincts and are crucial in times of life-threatening situations. However, these responses can occur even during minor stressful situations where it is simply unnecessary, but we as humans have the capacity to initiate an opposite response to help us calm down when we don’t need unnecessary stress, and that can be established with Pranayam. As mentioned earlier, it links the brain to the breathing process and hands us the leash to control the production and excretion of the hormone that is associated with stress. 

Benefits Of Pranayam

Pranayam has a number of other benefits apart from controlling stress. It mainly benefits the respiratory system in ways more than one. It also impacts specific health conditions like cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, cancer, and anxiety. There are several studies and reviews that contribute to the large body of researches that work as evidence showcasing positive health benefits of Yoga and Pranayam [3]. 

Reference: 

  1. https://www.moneylife.in/article/the-science-of-pranayama/39905.html
  2. https://kripalu.org/resources/power-pranayama-research-and-ramifications
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3415184/
  4. https://www.speakingtree.in/allslides/basic-science-behind-pranayama-and-stem-cells-activation/170454

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