Fourth Limb: Pranayama
What is Pranayama?
In the ancient Indian language of Sanskirt, Prana means life force or energy. Yama means tuning or purifying, therefore Pranayama can be described as tuning the energy or the life force within us. The easiest way to access this energy is through our breath, hence why Pranayama is sometimes referred to as breathe practices.
It is however much more than this and we learn from doing these practices how they can penetrate our energy at the deepest level. There are classically three stages of our breath: inhalation (pooraka), retention (kumbaka) and exhalation (rechaka). In our Pranayamic techniques we can modify these stages of the breath to achieve varying effects..
I remember when I first started doing Yoga, which was mainly an asana practice, sometimes my teachers would introduce some Pranayama in class. I remember not ever feeling particularly connected to this practice and wishing that the teacher would just move on to what I had actually came to the class for, the movement aspect. This deeply highlights my ignorance at this time, as to the depth of what Yoga truly is. It wasn’t really until I did my teacher training that I opened my mind to Pranayama and was able to receive its profound benefits on both a physical and psychological level.
As a scientist by first “career path”, I was very intrigued as to how the Pranayama was causing the changes on a biochemical level which led me to further explore.
We know from both anecdotal and scientific experiments that Pranayama has a deep and profound relaxation response. In particular the long, slow, deep breathing such as the Yogic 3 part breathe. In this practice we inhale deeply for a number of counts e.g 5, hold for 5 and exhale for 5. Within minutes this has a very calming effect on the nervous system and this is related to the fact that when we breathe in this way our parasympatheic nervous system is switched on. This is what they like to call our “rest and digest” system where everything is calming down and entering a state of deep rest.
What is the science?
Our nervous system is made up of two parts, the central nervous system ( CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS). The CNS includes our brain and spinal cord. The PNS includes our nerves and ganglion. These systems are divided into their own separate parts. The CNS is divided in to the autonomic nervous systems. Meaning those things which automatically happen in the body, involuntary body actions, no direct control over this system but it changes depending on your needs e.g. temperature control, hear rate, bowel and bladder function. From here the CNS then breaks up into to parts: the parasympathetic (PSN) and the sympathetic (SNS).
For the purpose of this article we will focus on this Autonomic system. Breathing is one of the main functions which can impact our Autonomic nervous system. It is interestingly the only function of this system which we have voluntary and involuntary control of.
When we inhale our diaphragm contracts and moves down, our chest expands and blood pressure goes up, stretch receptors called baroreceptors are activated and our heart rate increases as your body wants to take in oxygen from the air. This process creates tension in the body and the SNS is activated.
When we exhale the diaphragm relaxes and moves up, the chest relaxes, the blood pressure goes down and our heart rate goes down, we release carbon dioxide. Our muscles relax and our body is told that we are not in danger and we can relax. Our PNS is activated. A longer exhale impacts on this PNS activity and there it is, why we experience deep relaxation when we use this type of breath in Yoga.
We are currently experiencing unprecedented times with COVID 19. We are being faced with a lot of uncertainty and many challenges. Yoga can truly support us to mange our fears and any anxiety.
The tools are right there in YOU, so get breathing!