Pranayama Isn’t Always About Breath Control

How Can We Practice Pranayama or Breathing Without Limiting Its Benefits

Pranayama, one of the core practices of yoga, is often translated as “control of life force” or “breath control”. This is so because ‘prana’ means life force or breath, and ‘yama’ means control or restriction. While this is probably the original historical meaning, it is worth noting that the original practice of pranayama was simply breath retention. In that context, the phrase “breath control” was simply descriptive.

However, over the centuries the number of pranayama techniques have expanded greatly. A worthwhile question to ask is whether thinking of all pranayama techniques as breath CONTROL aids us in deriving more benefit from the practices, or whether it actually may limit their benefits.

Expanding the practice and philosophy of Pranayama

One can actually interpret pranayama just as accurately as the contraction of ‘prana’ and ‘ayama’.  Ayama is the opposite of control, namely extension, though this is probably not the original meaning. This ambiguity has prompted yoga anatomy educator Leslie Kaminoff to call pranayama the ‘unobstruction of the breath’.

If this distinction seems like intellectual wordplay to you, it is not. If you think of pranayama as “breath control”, you are likely to approach its practice in a controlling, forceful manner that may actually be detrimental to fostering the effects that pranayama techniques are designed to create.

Pranayama is most beneficial when it stimulates and calms simultaneously

All the pranayama techniques I have looked at in terms of their physiological effects have simultaneous stimulating and calming effects. I am convinced that this balanced quality is essential to the practices’ beneficial effects. If you practice pranayama with a strong emphasis on control, the calming effects of the practice are likely to be shortchanged, and the pranayama practice can actually have detrimental effects, including anxiety, mood swings, nervous ticks, and aggressiveness.

How can performing pranayama with an emphasis on control contribute to such mental conditions as anxiety? The explanation is that the breath lies at the intersection of body, conscious mind, and unconscious mind, and thus has a direct effect on all three.

Pranayama is the connection between conscious mind, the subconscious, and the breath

To understand this connection a bit better, it helps to know some anatomy and physiology. Breathing is a physical act created by the contraction of skeletal muscles (primarily the diaphragm). In general, skeletal muscles are under conscious control. The body has two other types of muscle, smooth muscle (in the walls of internal organs), and cardiac muscle (in the heart). These latter two types are under subconscious control. What makes the breath special is that when you don’t think about breathing, your breath—and the contractions of the muscles that effect the breath—are under subconscious control, despite the fact that they are skeletal muscles.

The part of your nervous system that regulates your breath as well as the other body maintenance functions is called the autonomic nervous system (ANS), because it functions autonomously from the conscious mind. What is interesting about the breath is that you ARE able to influence your breathing consciously without much effort when you do remember your breath. (In contrast, influencing, for example, your heart rate consciously is quite challenging.) The ability to consciously influence the breath turns out to be the key to the power of the breath over the mind, because it allows us to use the breath to affect the unconscious mind.

How can we take advantage of this fact? Bear with me a bit longer. As part of its function of maintaining the body’s equilibrium (or homeostasis), the ANS is responsible for deciding when to up-regulate your nervous system (making you more alert, and in the extreme case triggering the stress response), and when to down-regulate (calming you, and in the extreme, triggering depression).

How we can use the practice of Pranayama and breath to influence the subconscious

What does this have to do with the breath? It turns out that the connection between the breath and the autonomic nervous system is a two-way connection: Not only does the ANS regulate the breath, but the way in which you breathe directs the ANS, either up-regulating or down-regulating your nervous system. Let that sink in for a minute. What this means is that through breath awareness and the conscious modification of the breath, you can use your body’s skeletal muscles to manipulate your autonomic nervous system, either increasing your alertness, or increasing relaxation, depending on your current needs.

How does that work in actuality? On the most basic level, a slower breath lower in the torso (i.e. a belly breath) has a down-regulating effect. A faster breath higher in the torso has an up-regulating effect. A breath high up in the upper chest is called a paradoxical breath, because it makes no use of the diaphragm, the primary and most efficient muscle of the breath. More to the point, breathing that way strongly and continuously triggers the stress response and thus chronically poisons your system with stress hormones. (In case it isn’t obvious, breathing this way habitually is a very bad idea.)

There are a large number of specific breath exercises in yoga that either down- or up-regulate the nervous system. At the same time, some intentionally create a sense of equilibrium between the two extremes (like Nadi Shodhana). But even the pranayama techniques that are specifically designed to up- or down-regulate do it in a moderated way. I assume they do this to avoid the negative side-effects of going too far in either direction. They avoid the depressive side-effects of too much down-regulation, and the chronic stress symptoms of too much up-regulation. (At least when done correctly.)

Up- and down-regulation are misleading terms in the understanding of Pranayama

How does that work? The terms up- and down-regulation are convenient descriptive terms that are easy to understand and remember. However, using these two terms gives the impression that we can only do one of these things at a time. The impression is that if we up-regulate, we can’t down-regulate, and vice versa. Western medicine text books still claim that this is accurate. But the ANS actually has two separate branches. One is in charge of up-regulation (the sympathetic NS), while the other is responsible for down-regulation (the parasympathetic NS).

Both branches do have an inhibiting effect on the other branch when they activate. Typically up-regulation means a decrease in down-regulation, and vice versa. But if you look at the physiology of pranayama techniques you notice that they have the interesting effect of always balancing one with a bit of the other. Put another way, pranayama techniques appear to stimulate the sympathetic AND the parasympathetic NS at the same time.

As I said, Western medicine does not generally acknowledge that this is possible. However, when you describe how you feel after a yoga class as “energised calm”, you are describing this dual effect. We also now have peer-reviewed studies that show that stimulating both branches of the ANS simultaneously is actually possible. (See for example N.K. Subbalakshmi, et al. “Immediate effect of ‘nadi-shodhana pranayama’ on some selected parameters of cardiovascular, pulmonary, and higher functions of brain.” Thai J of Physiol Sciences. 2005 Aug;18(2):10-16.)

What’s truly remarkable is that the yogis that created these pranayama techniques centuries ago were able to fine-tune them without an understanding of the underlying physiological connections. They did this by simply experimenting and carefully observing the effects of their experiments. They simply retained the techniques that were beneficial, and presumably discarded others that were harmful.

Pranayama doesn’t have to be complicated

It is valuable to remember that at its most basic, the practice of pranayama is simply becoming aware of your breath and making it more delicious. If it feels agitated, slow it down and move it into the belly; if you feel lethargic, move the breath higher in the torso through a gentle toning of your abs. In addition, coordinating your breath with your movement is a simple breath technique that deepens body-mind integration. It also increases serenity and wellbeing. This is true in your asana practice, but also while you go about the other activities of your life.

*This article is reposted with kind permission from the author himself. For Gernot’s personal website, click here.

About the Author

Gernot Huber has been practicing and studying yoga since 1996. While working in Silicon Valley, he learned Ashtanga vinyasa and pranayama during lunch breaks from a co-worker. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Modern Thought and Literature from Stanford University. He also has a master’s degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Cornell University. Gernot loves cooking, eating, reading, bicycling, and wilderness travel, and practices monkey acro yoga with his two young sons.

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