Prāṇāyāma & the science of breathing

Our breath is vital for our physical and mental health, something ancient yogis knew long before us. They considered the breath an essential bridge between physical and non-physical where controlled and conscious distribution of the breath supports energy and physical and mental clarity. The method for improving this quality is called Pranayama.
(reading time: 4:00 minutes)


Pranayama (or prāṇāyāma), is a combination of two Sanskrit roots: prana and ayama. Prana means “life force” and is a subtle and vital energy that flows within.  It is the force that gives us the ability to sense and develop physical and mental experiences. The second Sanskrit root Ayama means “to stretch” or “to extend”, and refers to the practice that enhances the distribution of prana throughout our body.  But, pranayama is not simply a spiritual practice. The physical and mental benefits of conscious breathing through pranayama have been established through multiple studies. It has shown to improve cognition, alertness, anxiety, stress and overall wellbeing.

Our body automatically breathes in and out through the respiratory centre of our autonomic nervous system: we literally do not have to think about it. The medulla, or brainstem, is the part of our brain involved in involuntary functions of our body. It does not only help to regulate our breath, it also supports other functions such as our heart rate, our digestion, sneezing and swallowing. Nerve cells in the medulla signal our diaphragm and intercostal muscles to contract and relax. The rate in which our body breathes is based on feedback signals. When oxygen concentrations in our blood are low, and carbon dioxide concentrations high, and vice versa, nerves signal the respiratory centre in the medulla to increase the rate and depth of breathing. Unlike our heart rate and digestion we can consciously control our breath. This is very helpful when we take a deeper breath before we dive into water, sing, or play an instrument.

Diaphragmatic breathing, also known as abdominal breathing, or belly breathing, uses a muscle called the diaphragm to pull and push air in and out of our lungs. It is a dome-shaped muscle that sits in the lower ribcage between the abdominal cavity and the thoracic cavity. During inhalation, the diaphragm and intercostal muscles contract and increase the volume of the chest. Breathing consciously and deep trains and strengthens the diaphragm. This does not only increase the capacity of the lungs to expand and take in oxygen, it also improves the ability to relax easier when we breathe out.

Deep diaphragmatic breathing increases the flow of oxygen to cells, which improves the quality and performance of every single cell in our body making our body more capable to stay healthy and do its work. This, for example, improves and strengthens our digestion, physical and mental performance, immune system, muscle strength, recovery, and tension, and detoxification.

Long before modern science, yogis understood the mechanism of conscious diaphragmatic breathing and its health benefit. There is only one difference: pranayama was seen as a spiritual and energetic process. According to yogic understanding, prana, “life force”, is present and distributed through an intrinsic network of rivers, called nadis. This network of about 72.000 nadis creates the link between our physical body and our mind and, if distributed well, helps us attain a higher state of vibrational energy and clarity. Pranayama often is wrongly translated as “breath control”. Even though, the breath is consciously controlled, this does not capture the actual reasoning behind pranayama. Yes, several breathing techniques are used as a method to improve the potency of prana, but here the breath is simply the vehicle that transports and expands prana energy throughout the body.

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika,
a compilation of yoga texts written around 1500 B.C by Yogi Swami Svatmarama, describes the practice of pranayama as a method to clear nadis from impurities, to steady the mind, and to extend life by controlling prana through breath.  In yogic physiology it is believed that blockage of nadis leads to reduced flow of prana and with that reduced purity and vitality. For example, less healthy dietary choices, poor posture, negative and hateful thoughts, or mental exhaustion, can manifest physical, mental or emotional difficulties. Pranayama therefor enhances restoration of the body’s physical and mental function by stretching the prana flow within nadis.

Physical and emotional stress influences our autonomic nervous system and changes our breath. Our autonomic nervous system consists out of two components: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. Our brain perceives stress as a threat leading to a fight-or-flight response. When this happens, physical and mental energy and alertness will be essential to help us getting rid of this threat. Our sympathetic nervous system will start a concave of biochemical reactions where adrenalin accelerates our survival response and cortisol helps to keep us going. As result, our heart beat increases pushing blood into the muscles, heart, and organs while energy supplies are pumped into the bloodstream. During the response our breath speeds up to stimulate oxygen supply to the brain.  Once the threat passes our parasympathetic nervous system will dampen the stress response and help us return back to balance.

Not all stress is bad though. Moderate exposure to stress, with recovery in between, can train us to become mentally and physically stronger, less reactive, and more skilful at coping with future stresses.
For example, exerting ourselves with physical exercise helps us train our nerves. Repeated “chronic” stress however, is related to high blood pressure, cardiovascular risks, obesity, and diabetes. It affects our brain and can contribute to anxiety, depression, insomnia, and addiction. Conscious diaphragmatic breathing calms the nervous system and increases focus and concentration. Here, the vagus nerve is the key player of our parasympathetic nervous system.

The vagus nerve forms the connection between our brain, heart and lungs. It sends out messages to the body and brain to counteract the sympathetic nervous system. We can train this nerve through deep, controlled, and conscious diaphragmatic breathing and, with that, effectively improve and fasten our parasympathetic nerve response. By training our vagus nerve we are more capable in calming our body and mind during stress and reduce the risk of stress related conditions.

Even though ancient yogis did not know the anatomic existence of the vagus nerve, improving the vagal tone actually “stretches”, and “extends” our ability to calm down and increase our alertness: something we do through pranayama. This has been described around 400 B.C in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, one of the most significant yoga texts. It is a collection of 196 verses (sutras) that discusses the theory and practice of yoga through eight steps, or limbs.

Ultimately these steps will lead to union of body, mind and spirit. Patanjali’s work describes moral behaviours and virtues, the effects of practising yoga, and the continuously deepening states of awareness, concentration, and meditation. Here pranayama is described as the method that helps us remove obstacles to reach clear perception. It is the step that connects the physical practice of yoga with the deeper stages of higher awareness. Asana is a method to prepare the body by improving physical and mental posture, resilience, and flexibility.
Pranayama is the step towards deeper breath awareness to help calm the mind, improve energy and increase clarity. When mastered, body and mind are ready to move into concentration and meditation. Yogis such as Patanjali must have been scientists.
As today’s research shows that vagus nerve stimulation will have an overall effect on our mental and emotional wellbeing. It increases our alertness, cognitive function and empathetic ability and brings us more in touch with the perceptions of our emotions. No wonder pranayama helps us gain clarity and deeper insights in our psyche.

Conscious deep breathing through pranayama works like a brush and helps us clear and focus the mind. It sweeps and cleanses our body and mind releasing us from tiredness, fogginess, poor attention and stress. Incorporating pranayama in a yoga practice improves awareness and prepares us for deeper meditation. It is an essential element to help create space for energy, clarity, calmness and concentration.

At Upāya Samantha Belyea offers Rebirthing Breath work. This is a gentle form of breath work that allows you to dive deep into your soma and subconscious to move energy, unravel tension and trauma and liberate yourself from old stories, conditioning and beliefs. Find out more about Rebirthing Breathwork

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