Benefits of Pranayama (Breath-work)
The next time you lie down, take a moment to place one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest. Take a long, conscious inhale and notice what you feel. Did your chest and shoulders rise on the inhale? Did your stomach move inwards or not move at all? If you answered yes to both these questions, your breathing is reversed.
If your breathing is reversed, take a moment to relax the shoulders and take a deep inhale, visualizing your breath inflating a balloon in your stomach and then deflating it on every exhale. Do this a few times and notice the difference in how you feel.
If your breathing is normal, time yourself for a minute and count how many breaths you are taking. Then spend 5 minutes being aware of your breath. Time yourself again and notice how many breaths you are taking in a minute. Did the number of breaths change? If it did, notice how this has changed the way you feel.
These simple exercises are potent reminders of how the breath impacts our existence at a fundamental level. Reversed and shallow breath are often indicators of some kind of physical disease and/or emotional distress. Our breath normally becomes shallow during periods of stress and anxiety when the body’s sympathetic nervous system (SNS) or ‘flight or fight’ response is stimulated, and conversely when the SNS is active, the breath becomes shallow, leading to a vicious cycle that can be effectively broken through deep breathing.
In addition to lowering the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, deep breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, making you feel calmer. ECG and EEG measurements of the brain have shown that deep breathing increases theta waves in the brain (which generally occur during periods of rest and relaxation) and reduces alpha waves (which occur during periods of intense mental activity).¹
Breath work techniques such as those existing in ancient yogic traditions take these benefits one step further. These techniques do not just lengthen the breath and improve its quality but harness the power of controlled breath to induce long-lasting changes to the body and mind. Pranayama practices have been found to take the mind beyond theta waves into a state of increased gamma waves which generally occur during dream states.² Regular breath work practice has been found to reset the autonomous nervous system, acting as a brake on the body’s stress response.³ It does this by regulating the respiratory and cardiovascular systems thereby improving and preventing lung and heart-related disease.
Breathing exercises that focus on diaphragmatic breathing (contraction of the abdominal area) have been found to increase metabolism in resting adults.⁴ An increased metabolism helps in burning excess fat in the body and makes you feel more active and energetic.
Almost all practices in the yogic tradition emphasize breath control as the foundation of the spiritual path. For millennia, yogis have manipulated the breath to bring the mind, body and soul into harmony. The breath has been used as a diving board to enter higher states of consciousness and union with the Infinite. If we can truly learn to harness the power of the breath, we can raise the quality of our individual and collective existence in an unimaginably beautiful way.
1. Komori, Teruhisa. “Extreme prolongation of expiration breathing: Effects on electroencephalogram and autonomic nervous function.” Mental Illness Journal (2018).
2. Jerath, Ravinder, et al. “Physiology of long pranayamic breathing: Neural respiratory elements may provide a mechanism that explains how slow deep breathing shifts the autonomic nervous system.” Medical Hypotheses (2006): 566-571.
3. Russo, Marc A., Danielle M. Santarelli and Dean O’Rourke. “The physiological effects of slow breathing in the healthy human.” Breathe (2017): 298-309.
4. Yong, Min-Sik, Yun-Seob Lee and Hae-Yong Lee. “Effects of breathing exercises on resting metabolic rate and maximal oxygen uptake.” Journal of Physical Therapy Science (2018): 1173-1175.