What is Pranayama Breathing?
Pranayama breathing is often performed in yoga and meditation. It means the practice of voluntary breath control and refers to inhalation, retention and exhalation that can be performed quickly or slowly. As such, yoga breathing is considered “an intermediary between the mind and body. In many yoga stories and literature, the word ‘prana’ (part of the word ‘pranayama’ for breathing) refers to the ‘life force’ or energy. This has many applications, especially as it relates to the energy producing processes within the body. There is a direct connection between the ‘prana’ or energy of breathing and its effects on energy liberation in the body. Cellular metabolism (reactions in the cell to produce energy) for example, is regulated by oxygen provided during breathing. The yoga purpose of breath training is not to over-ride the body’s autonomic systems; although there is clear evidence that pranayama breathing techniques can affect oxygen consumption and metabolism. In fact, much of the aim of pranayama breathing appears to shift the autonomic nervous system away from its sympathetic (excitatory) dominance. Pranayama breathing has been shown to positively affect immune function, hypertension, asthma, autonomic nervous system imbalances, and psychological or stress-related disorders. Jerath(2006) and colleagues add that investigations regarding stress and psychological improvements support evidence that pranayama breathing alters the brain’s information processing, making it an intervention that improves a person’s psychological profile. Sovik notes that the main philosophy behind the yoga control of breathing is to “increase awareness and understanding of the relationship between cognitive states, physical functioning, and breathing styles.” According to Sovik, breath training includes the ability to sustain relaxed attention on the flow of breath, to refine and control respiratory movements for optimal breathing, and to integrate awareness and respiratory functioning in order to reduce stress and enhance psychological functioning.
It is interesting to also recognize that there are several different types of breathing common to yoga, including the complete yoga breath (conscious breathing in the lower, middle, and upper portions of the lungs), interval breathing (in which the duration of inhalation and exhalation are altered), alternate nostril breathing, and belly breathing to name a few (Collins, 1998, Jerath et al., 2006). It is also equally worthy to observe that breath awareness was originally developed to the movements being done by the yogi to achieve the joining of the mind, body, and spirit in search for self-awareness, health and spiritual growth (Collins). Collins points out that some of the breathing techniques utilized with yoga postures are more complex to learn (for some people) and often require independent practice outside of the postures themselves. Although numerous studies show clinically beneficial health effects of pranayama. breathing, some studies show that fast breathing pranayama can cause hyperventilation, which may hyperactivate the sympathetic nervous system, stressing the body more (Jerath et al., 2006). Thus, some breathing pranayama techniques may be contraindicated for those with asthma (See Side Bar 1 on asthma), leading to agitated bronchial hyperactivity.
Optional Breathing: Activating the Diaphragm
The everyday experiences of breathing for most untrained individuals is much more inconsistent than one would assume. Practices in yoga often first teach individuals to observe their own breathing to ultimately familiarize the student with the sensations of respiration. Thus, one meaningful aspect in learning breathing techniques is the awareness in the difference in smooth, even breathing to erratic breathing. Modifications in respiratory patterns come naturally to some individuals after one lesson, however, it may take up to six months to replace bad habits, and ultimately change the way one breathes (Sovik, 2000). The general rule, often noted in studies, and particularly observed by Gallego et al. (2001) was that if a voluntary act is repeated, “learning occurs, and the neurophysiological and cognitive processes underpinning its control may change.” Gallego et al. continue that while some changes can be made.
Although the diaphragm is one of the primary organs responsible for respiration, it is believed by some yogics to be under functioning in many people (Sovik, 2000). Thus, there is often emphasis placed upon diaphragmatic breathing, rather than the use of the overactive chest muscles. Anatomically the diaphragm sits beneath the lungs and is above the organs of the abdomen. It is the separation between cavities of the torso (the upper or thoracic and the lower or abdominal). It is attached at the base of the ribs, the spine, and the sternum. As describe earlier, when the diaphragm contracts the middle fibers, which are formed in a dome shape, descend into the abdomen, causing thoracic volume to increase (and pressure to fall), thus drawing air into the lungs. The practice of proper breathing techniques is aimed at eliminating misused accessory chest muscles, with more emphasis on diaphragmatic breathing.
With diaphragmatic breathing the initial focus of attention is on the expansion of the abdomen, sometimes referred to as abdominal or belly breathing. Have a client place one hand on the abdomen above the navel to feel it being pushed outward during the inhalations. Next, the breathing focus includes the expansion of the rib cage during the inhalation. To help a student learn this, try placing the edge of the hands alongside the rib cage (at the level of the sternum); correct diaphragmatic breathing will elicit a noticeable lateral expansion of the rib cage. Diaphragmatic breathing should be practiced in the supine, prone and erect positions, as these are the functional positions of daily life. Finally, the diaphragmatic breathing is integrated with physical movements, asanas, during meditation and during relaxation. Analogous to the seasoned cyclist, who is able to maintain balance effortlessly while cycling, the trained practitioner in diaphragmatic breathing can focus attention on activities of daily life while naturally doing diaphragmatic breathing. To summarize, Sovik suggests the characteristics of optimal breathing (at rest) are that it is diaphragmatic, nasal (inhalation and exhalation), smooth, deep, even, quiet and free of pauses.