From Neuroscience to the Nose. A Scientific and Yogic Perspective on the Breath.
Breathing continues twenty-four hours a day. Whether one is aware of it or not, it is man’s most valuable treasure, one cannot exist for more than 3 minutes without breathing. It is the only human function that we perform both consciously and unconsciously.
Hatha yogis recognize that the life force in our system is a kind of energy they call prana, this energetic force is activated by one of our most powerful and natural healing tools, our breath.
The Yogis also suggest that the first place to affect change in our psychophysiological make-up is by regulating our breath, the breath sends many messages from your brain to your body and back again by the activation of the voluntary nervous system and the autonomic nervous system, each having profound effects on the internal organs and our conscious connection with emotional states.
Researchers have found that most people use less than 20% of the surface area of their lungs. The optimal rate for adults to breathe is between 3 and 6 breaths a minute. In our stressful fast paced lives, we typically take an alarming 12 to 20 breaths per minute.
Astonishingly, 95% of our energy comes in from the breath; 70% of what the body eliminates goes out through the breath. On a daily basis we typically pass 35 thousand pints of blood through our lungs, and if a sufficient quantity of fresh air reaches the lungs the waste products then do not return to the body as toxins compromising our immune system. In fact our body becomes weakened when we have an imperfect breathing pattern.
The Ancient Chandogya Upanishad proposes that, “To open up to your breath is to open up to your own natural wisdom."
“The breath is clearly this entire creation every thing there is. So, when I said, “turn to the breath”, it was to this that I thereby turned for protection.”
The general action of breathing is primarily initiated through the repetitive contraction and relaxation of the diaphragm, the dome-shaped muscle that separates your chest cavity from your abdomen and functions as a pump that draws oxygen-rich air into your body on the inhalation and expels the waste products of respiration on every exhalation.
Our breathing is also regulated by a bundle of neurons in the respiratory center of the brain. The action of this center is so powerful that even if peripheral nerves are severed, the mechanism that instigates breathing deep in the brain stem will continue for some time. This phrenic nerve has sensorimotor association with the diaphragm as well as fibers that innervate the lungs and heart.
Pranayama the yogic breath is mostly fixed through the nose, and the flow of the breath patterns and durations are systematically regulated through the abdomen and at the glottis between the trachea and larynx next to the vocal cords.
We also use Kryia’s or actions that cleanse and tone the internal organs by pumping the belly with repeated vigorous exhalations, this strengthens the digestive system, tones the abdominal muscles, and stimulates the heart pump to return purified blood back into the lungs.
In ancient Himalayan yoga asana practices, slow systematic movement is matched precisely to prolonged inhale/exhales using the yogic (Ujjayi) throated breath, this action influences our brain activity at the vegus nerve, prompting the parasympathetic nervous system and regulating blood sugar levels, innervating the liver, spleen, kidney, stomach, intestine and colon.
In modern terms, we also now know that these messages from the vegus nerve stimulate peptides like serotonin, dopamine, and opiates that influence our moods, regulate the effects of the immune-modulators, which are also antidepressants.
The whole micro-biome is affected by the traffic between the brain your breath and your body’s organs, it is bi-directional.
The Yoga Makaranda another ancient yogic text declares that if one wants a cure from some disease, even if there are many medicines, that it is essential to maintain an unobstructed flow of energy/prana in our bodies.
By attending to the flow of their breath the great Indian masters use the breath to increase their vital reserves and in a more metaphysical sense trust that the breath is the gateway to harnessing the mind while heightening the spiritual quest that expedites our consciousness and contemplation of our own true nature.
Change your breath change your life!
Pam Johnson is the owner/founder of the Heights School of Yoga and Artistic director of Breath the Pulse of the Universe. She is a breath coach and master teacher of the Himalayan Vinyasa Krama yogic techniques. Recently Pam facilitated a study of the breath on the brain by using the fMRI to measure the activity of her brain while breathing in real time. “There is a profound change of brain perfusion and oxygenation."
The first slide corresponds to a repetitive task Pam performed in the scanner (30 seconds breathing followed by 30 rest) repeated four times. The second task is a subtraction of a 5-minute cerebral blood flow measurement during breathing compared to rest.
Both show qualitatively the same results: Decreased flow to the frontal lobes of the brain and increased flow to the sensory cortex, in particular the visual cortex. The first task also shows increased functional activation to areas in the insula (body awareness).