Author: Bernie Gourley
Breathing is one of the body’s few semi-autonomous activities. That means that (like blinking, coughing, and swallowing) it can be done with or without actively thinking about it. This dual control allows us to talk, eat, drink, and play the flute — activities that would be difficult to impossible if the breath couldn’t be controlled. But, the ability to control one’s breath turns out to offer other benefits, such as improving emotional control, quieting the mind, and easing the discomfort of some physical ailments.
This article will examine what goes on in one’s body when one consciously breathes. These changes in the body are all interrelated, essentially we are looking at different facets of the same set of processes.
While there are many pranayama practices and they can be used for varied purposes, a lot of what one does with pranayama falls under the headings of calming, stimulating, or seeking a balanced state between being too groggy or too excited. As you’ll see, a number of secondary effects result from calming or stimulating the body.
So, let’s consider what happens when one practices pranayama.
1. Activation of the “Rest & Digest” functions:
Many readers will be familiar with the term “fight or flight.” Faced with a threatening situation, one’s body prepares one to either fight or flee (or — it turns out — to freeze, or play dead.) It does this in part by ramping up the heart rate and otherwise boosting our body’s preparedness for athletic activity. However, it also puts the brakes on the body’s maintenance functions like digestion, immune system activity, and healing. It does this so that one can use all available resources for survival activities, and so that the body isn’t interrupted by mundane needs in the middle of a life or death event.
The fight or flight response is useful when we face the occasional, short-lived threat. However, in our modern lives, we trade off not having to face terrifying situations like being chased by a tiger for nearly constant low-grade anxiety of work deadlines, family tensions, and community responsibilities. Because of this, once the fight or flight response is triggered it may not properly reset.
There is a reflex that counteracts the flight or flight mechanism. It’s sometimes called the “rest and digest” response because when this reflex is triggered our body not only rests, it also does all those essential maintenance activities such as digesting and healing. It turns out that controlled breathing is one means by which one can shift into this rest and digest mode. For example, the lengthening of the exhalation phase of the breath tips the balance in favor of rest and digest activity.
2. Stimulating the Vagus nerve:
The Vagus nerve (also known as, the tenth cranial nerve) is the longest nerve of the autonomic nervous system. It controls rest and digest functions for the heart, lungs, and digestive system. Both its role and the sizable area of coverage makes it an important part of the nervous system. When we activate this nerve consciously, we are exercising it and making it operate more effectively.
Breathing that activates the diaphragm, moving the stomach in deep breathing movements, is well established as a means to condition the vagus nerve.
3. Muscles of Breath Get a Workout:
The muscles used in breathing include the diaphragm and the intercostals. The diaphragm is a sheet of muscle at the bottom of the ribcage. When it moves downward it creates a vacuum to pull air into the lungs, and when it moves back up it presses air out of the body. The movement of the diaphragm is seen as the rise and fall of your stomach when you breath. The intercostals expand and contract the ribcage to draw air in or move it out, and this is seen as the ribcage expanding out to the sides as well as the chest rising up and out.
Like your skeletal muscles, exercising these muscles makes them stronger and more effective. Many people do not breathe deeply often enough and these muscles can become stiff and weak just like any other muscles without exercise.
4. Heart Rate Variability [HRV] Increases:
The crucial word is “variability.” That is, Heart Rate Variability is a measure of the degree to which the gap between heartbeats varies. Those with higher heart rate variability tend to be more resilient to stress and show reduced risk for a number of stress-related illnesses.
Preliminary findings suggest that practices such as bhramari pranayama increase heart rate variability. When we change the duration of exhalation relative to the inhalation, and when we hold our breath inside, we can observe how the gap between the heart beats increases.
5. Changing blood chemistry:
In rapid breathing practices such as kapalbhati and bhastrika, we clear out carbon-dioxide and our blood becomes temporarily more alkaloid. With that said, the body keeps the blood within a relatively narrow range. But even small shifts within that range can have an intense effect on the body.
This is one reason that some advanced practices must be done with care and supervision.
Changing one’s breath offers a toolkit to change what’s happening in one’s body. By mastering breath, one can have a profound effect on one’s emotional and mental states.
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