Mindful Breathing: Practicing Pranayama

It’s as natural as breathing.

It’s that old adage that compares the things that require the least effort to the practice of breathing. If breathing is supposedly the easiest thing in the world then why complicate it by incorporating a practice such as pranayama into your daily ritual?

Pranayama, when broken down into it’s root components comes from the Sanskrit terms “prana” which means fundamental life force or breath, and “yama” which refers to exercising control. When put together, Pranayama literally translates to “breath control.” One might view the practice of controlled inhalations and exhalations, and extending that period over long counts as unhealthy or unnecessary. However, the practice of controlled breathing may not be as unnatural as it sounds.

How many times have you found yourself in a stressful situation that became so overwhelming, and suddenly found yourself trying to take deep breaths to calm down? How often do you find yourself taking a long inhale, and a forceful exhale during a frustrating altercation with another individual or task that has consumed more of your time than you’d like it to? While it’s easy to understand the idea that breathing changes depending on the situation, the reverse also appears to be true in that we change our breathing to alter other physiological reactions. It’s a common misconception that putting the term “controlled” in front of an action makes it unnatural, but controlled breathing is anything but – altering the rhythm of our breathing cycle has long been a natural coping mechanism to various stressful situations.

Anand Shetty, from the department of Physical Therapy at the University of St. Mary indicates that the practice of pranayama can be “beneficial to people with cancer, sleep disturbance, high blood pressure, anxiety and cardiovascular disorders”. Shetty states that pranayama has the potential to enhance the “function of [the] oxygen delivery system to the tissues by way of improving structural and functional changes in the nervous system, specifically the medulla oblongata.” The medulla oblongata is a structure found at the lowest part of the brainstem and contains control centers for the heart and the lungs. Whether this occurs as a permanent structural change to these centers, however, remains to be determined.

Pranayama can help with development of muscles involved in the inspiratory and expiratory phase of breathing which include the diaphragm and intercostal muscles (muscles found between the ribs).

By enhancing the function of these muscle groups, the work of breathing is reduced and requires less energy. Shetty also cites the role of controlled breathing in “enhancing the parasympathetic response”, also known as the system that is responsible for our “rest and digest” response. Acting as a counterbalance to the sympathetic nervous system, whose role in stimulating activities pushes for a “fight-or-flight” response, the parasympathetic response helps to achieve a state of restfulness.

As mentioned earlier, to state that pranayama breathing can alter the structure and function of the brain completely is still naïve, as the research in this area remains in its infancy. While we can experience the benefits of pranayama on calming our thoughts, and achieving a rested state, it has yet to be determined if this translates into permanent changes in the brain centres of the medulla oblongata. However, we know that controlled breathing can enhance oxygen uptake. It’s a practice used by elite athletes to maintain a steady state heart rate during high intensity events, and on the opposite spectrum, used by respiratory and physical therapists in populations with breathing disorders to decrease the work of breathing and improve the efficiency of oxygen uptake.

The beauty of pranayama as a practice is that it can be easily incorporated into our lifestyle.

It requires no equipment or specific time of day. As performed in a yoga class, begin by taking a deep inhalation through the nose for a consistent count (usually a count of 4 or 5), pausing when your lungs feel saturated, and then exhaling for an equal or longer count than you inhaled with. There’s no prescription for how many times you need to do this. Instead let your mind and body guide you. Continue the cycle until you feel the pranayama practice has achieved the goal you set for it, which may be decreased stress, improved mental clarity, or a regulated heart rate on a run. 

Give it a try the next time you find yourself in a high stress situation. See how effective controlled breathing can be in mitigating the side effects of living in a fast-paced environment, and allow yourself some time to slow things down using the breath.

To read Anaand Shetty's article in full, titled "Pranayama Breathing is Better for Brain Function" please follow the link below: