“Breathing in, be aware of your body; Breathing out, release all tension in your body. This is an act of love directed toward your body.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
Close your eyes and listen to your breath. What do you hear? Is it fast or slow? Shallow or deep? Notice the texture of air as it passes through your nostrils, swirls down your trachea, and into your lungs. How does it feel to breathe? Simply become aware.
Now, take a deep inhale through the nose and out of the mouth. Do it again but a little bit slower this time. Try to inhale on the count of 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and exhale for the counts 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Try that once more, but only breathe in and out of your nose. Continue this pattern until your entire focus has landed on your breath.
Re-read this paragraph however many times you need until you understand and embody this practice. It’ll only take a few moments I promise :)
So… Feeling better? Probably!
Before we dive in and discuss what just happened, let’s clarify some key concepts.
What you need to know:
Pranayama is the practice of controlling the breath to help unite the mind and body. It is the fourth limb on the 8-step path of yoga described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (an ancient text that describes the practice responsibilities of a yogi).
Autonomic nervous system is the branch of your nervous system that you are unable to control voluntarily. This branch controls the beating of your heart, the slow peristaltic waves in your digestive tract, the dilation of your pupils and much more.
Parasympathetic nervous system is a branch of the autonomic nervous system that controls your ability to rest, relax, digest, and absorb nutrients in order to heal and restore energy.
Sympathetic nervous system is the second branch of the autonomic nervous system that is responsible for your fight, flight, or flee mechanism to help protect the body from danger or harm.
Somatic nervous system controls voluntary muscle contractions. This part of your nervous system is activated when you consciously reach for a glass of water or lift your leg into Tree Pose.
Knowing this, when you took those first few moments at the beginning of this post to control your breath, you actually practiced pranayama. By slowing down the breath, you were able to manipulate the autonomic nervous system by down-regulating your sympathetic nervous system arousal and up-regulating the parasympathetic nervous system to promote relaxation and ease.
Both basic physiology and the practice of yoga teach us that breathing is much more complex than a simple inhale and exhale. It is a profound tool we have to access the autonomic nervous system and improve our ability to relax, rest, digest, restore and much more.
But what exactly happens when you breathe slow, long, and deep?
Try to remember a time when you felt stressed. This could have been during an exam period in school or when a loved one was sick in the hospital. During this intense period, can you remember breathing fast and shallow? Maybe it even felt like a heavy boulder wedged deep inside your chest? In times of stress we breathe fast - it's the body's natural way of telling us that something is wrong. Even though the warning signal is sometimes helpful and true, when your breathing rate stays very high for an extended period of time, less oxygen is able to successfully bind to the red blood cells swarming around your lung tissue, decreasing the overall nourishment provided to your muscles, organs, bones etc. When our blood has too little oxygen (aka hypoxia) from breathing too fast (aka tachypnea) your brain reads this as a problem and will alert the body to transition into a sympathetic, fight or flight, state. The simple switch "on" of the sympathetic nervous system increases the heart rate and breathing rate which can leave you feeling even more anxious, worried, or unsettled than how you started. Stress can lead to fast breathing, which leads to decreased oxygen absorption, which increases sympathetic arousal, resulting in a stressed-out body all over again. This is an endless cycle. And it's exhausting. But luckily, you have the power to control your breath and break the cycle through pranayama - an accessible tool you can practice whenever and wherever you might need it most.
Which pranayama techniques promote nervous system regulation?
Clinically, I’ve found that using simple pranayama practices like Dirga Pranayama or Sama Vritti Pranayama during a treatment session for people with chronic pain can actually decrease the patients subjective pain report. These two pranayama techniques are most effective when they are practiced at a slow cadence and over a 5-10 minute period of time with little to no distraction or stimulation. For example, I had a patient who came to physical therapy for chronic pelvic pain. At the beginning of the session she reported 7/10 pelvic pain (that means the pain was pretty high and unbearable). I noticed that she was breathing fast, shallow, and primarily from the upper chest. She told me that her pain was "stressing her out" and felt like she could not "escape" the experience. Before we moved into the bulk of the treatment session, we began with Dirga Pranayama in supported savasana. After a short while of slow and deep breathing in a low lit room with minimal distraction, the patient reported that her pain decreased to a 5/10. She stated that she felt "light" and "calm" after the practice. Not only did her pain decrease, but her entire autonomic nervous system shifted from a place of fight or flight to a state of relaxation and ease.
Pranayama is such a simple tool we can practice daily to manipulate the nervous system towards the direction of calm and peace. Recent scientific research studies support the hypothesis that long term pranayama practice can help reduce pain for individuals living with chronic pain. Now all we have to do, as the yoga practitioners and teachers, is find the discipline or tapas to practice pranayama daily.
Relaxing the body is truly both an art and science. Just like a painter will diligently perfect his brush strokes through hours of endless practice, we too need to find the discipline inside ourselves to study pranayama and practice it regularly. In this case, practice does not make perfect, practice (or simply our yoga practice) makes you feel relaxed, rested, and most importantly physiologically balanced and at ease.
Here are some great books I recommend that discuss the science and art of breathing:
1. Breath by James Nestor
2. Yoga and Science in Pain Care by Neil Pearson, Shelly Prosko, and Marlysa Sullivan
If you have more questions you reach out at any time. And make sure to check out my other recent posts about Pelvic Health Physical Therapy.