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! So, what is it about control breathing that helps calms us down? And why must one breathe “consciously” when the body does it for us anyway? Let’s find out.

The Science Of A Breath

There are several studies that show how deep and conscious breathing can be beneficial to physical and mental health. Breathing is both a voluntary and involuntary action – it happens unconsciously and consciously. This means that your body does it for you when you don’t pay attention to it, and you can also be mindful about it and control its speed, flow, etc. 

Neuroscience says that the act of slow deep breathing consciously can pave a way to enhanced immunity, induce the state of relaxation, create emotional stability, improve heart rate and respiratory health; and is also an antidote to depression [1]. 

Now the question arises – how does one “breathe consciously”? The answer to this question is mastering the practice of “Pranayam”. This practice helps breathe consciously and deeply, and has a number of scientifically proven benefits.

What Is Pranayam? 

It is a yoga technique that puts you in control of your breathing. The word “pranayam” itself means “extension of life force”. It involves various ways of controlled and conscious inhalation and exhalation, with a goal to detach oneself from the chaos of the outside world for the brief period during which one is practicing it [1]. 

The Science Behind Pranayam

Pranayam uses the simple science of “conscious breathing”. Our body has its own way of dealing with stress (both emotional and physical). Stressful situations tend to trigger our body’s stress reactions which, in turn, affects our mind and body in different ways. The system of ‘Fight or Flight Responses’ is automatically triggered when we are faced with emotional or physical stressors. Our first line of defence against stressors from the environment is the process that is initiated by the Parasympathetic Nervous System. The stressors stimulate 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 from the vagus nerve that plays an important role in lowering anxiety by 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 functions are, in a way, mutually dependent. [4].  

Here’s a simpler way to understand this process. When we are stressed, nervous, anxious or scared, our body dives into survival mode also known as the Flight or Fight Responses and diverts all our physical and mental activities towards the stressful situation and the corresponding reactions to make sure that we get out of the threatful situation unharmed. In these times you may experience an increased heart rate, faster breathing and a sudden release of stress hormones. These are the body’s natural way of reacting to the stressors or stressful situations and it also has its own way of calming the nerves as well. Now, these changes or bodily responses are survival instincts and are crucial in times of life-threatening situations. They determine how well-adapted we are to deal with the problems that we face in our daily lives and also make sure that once learned, we can do so the next time. 

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 the help of 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

The science of breathing has a very logical explanation as to why pranayam benefits our body and mind. Apart from controlling stress, it mainly benefits the respiratory system in ways more than one. With a soft humming sound playing in the surrounding, you can peacefully practice the pranayama techniques where you slowly inhale oxygen from the air through your nose and exhale carbon dioxide from the mouth. Among the several general pranayam advantages, this practice of yogic breathing 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]. 

With a range of scientifically proven benefits of pranayama breathing exercises, it must be added to your daily routine. It is recommended that you do it early in the morning in fresh air, and on an empty stomach (as far as possible).

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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