Pranayama

Breathing is what we do all the time without any regard on how exactly it works. Imagine, if you had to consciously inhale and exhale every time, you’d have make yourself breath faster if you run, or make yourself breath slower if you sleep. Conscious breath control 100% of the time is just impossible, it won’t be time to actually live! Although, conscious birthing or breathing exercises can be very beneficial for health.

I feel that it is important to open up further discussion and analysis of breathing exercises, alternate nostril breathing exercise in particular, because this exercise can be useful for anyone who experiences stress or want to feel more relaxed and even more happy.

Breathing, as well as heart beating, food digesting, cells dividing and many more process are all controlled by our autonomic nervous system: system that keeps us alive. Autonomic nervous system can be divided into tow parts: sympathetic and parasympathetic. Sympathetic nervous system usually associated with our “fight or flight response, it speeds up the heart and respirations in response to danger or stress. Parasympathetic nervous system acts the opposite way – slows down the heart, relaxes the muscles and puts us into “rest and digest” mode. Sympathetic and parasympathetic systems are complementary, for example, with each inhale the heart rate speeds up a tiny bit (sympathetic response) and each exhale the heart slows down a tiny bit (parasympathetic response).

Vagus nerve (or wandering nerve) is a largest nerve in the body and composes 80% of parasympathetic nervous system (Stern, E., 2019). Vagus originates in the brain stem’s areas that control breathing and digestion, emotion and communication and connects to almost all internal organs, including the heart and digestive system. In other words, vagus nerve connects and relaxation (parasympathetic response) and breathing.

Life is very stressful for many people. Constant stress in life tends to accumulate and leads to overdrive of sympathetic response and constant “fight or flight” mode. Sympathetic system in this situation suppresses the function of vagus nerve and weakens its ability to send information between internal organs, the heart and the brain (weak vagal tone, Stern, E., 2019). In the long term, the body is trying to compensate the weak vagal tone by activating inflammation response, elevating blood pressure, causing anxiety and various imbalances.

The human body has a tremendous potential for self-healing, but it happens in relaxed state (parasympathetic response). Hence, stress activates sympathetic response and hinders the ability of the body to self-regulate and self-heal. Therefore, practices which promote relaxation and support parasympathetic system help the body to overcome imbalances. One of the such practices is conscious birthing exercises.

Breathing pattern can be consciously controlled for some period of time. Slow equal inhales and exhales balance sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. From the yogic point of view, breathing is the vital energy (prana) and breathing exercises help the vital energy to flow smoothly throughout the body.

I’d like to explore why such a wonderful, almost miraculous, tool as breathing exercises is not so widely spread. It seems very ironic that with widespread popularity of yoga, practicing yoga postures (asanas) is more popular then breathing exercises (pranayama).

First of all, breathing exercise is seemingly simple. In our capitalistic society simple things are overlooked as not worthy attention. For example, taking an expensive pill might seem more productive then taking couple of breaths.

Second, breathing exercises require great regularity. They don’t give fast results.  Regularity is the key to success. For example, it’s harder to practice breathing exercise every day for months to improve depression then just take an antidepressant. Although, in the long run, the breathing exercise give more stable results and don’t produce addiction.

Additionally, yoga and pranayama is often mistaken as a religious practice. True, that yoga is historically rooted in Indian religious tradition, but it does not apply any religious context to doing yoga or pranayama.

People need to be aware of this simple yet effective tool to promote health, reduce stress, feel more relaxed, increase the quality of life.