Breathwork and pranayama are having their moment in the sun right now. The practices of pranayama, which date back at least 5,000 years to the time of the Hindu Vedas and Upanishads, are being used to treat anxiety, depression, cardiac disease, and now COVID brain fog as well. Modern breathwork teachers such as Wim Hof, Dr. Konstantin Buteyko, and others, have popularized simple breath protocols that have proven to have very positive results, free from complicated jargon and without the need for fancy equipment.
Indeed, this is one of the beauties of pranayama and breathwork: we are already breathing every minute of the day, and breathing is in fact movement. Every time we breathe, we move. If we accentuate the breathing just a little, for a few minutes each day, we will maximize the life-sustaining effects that breathing confers on us, and also give a gentle workout to our internal organs.
What happens when we do breathing practices
Our bodies naturally change respiratory patterns all through the day. About once every five minutes we naturally sigh, which means our inhalation becomes twice as long as our exhalation. It does this in order to keep the alveoli in the lungs open, to maintain operating order. This is basically a breathing exercise that our bodies naturally do! If you can catch this sigh with your awareness when it happens, you can do an effortless breathing practice all through the day.
When we do breathing practices, we are stimulating, in a positive way, natural mechanisms of the body, such as the sigh. This is a good thing to keep in mind, because often when we are doing breathing practices we think the focus is on taking deep breaths, or on controlling the breath, but actually, the ancient Yogis were more interested in how our breathing affects the nervous system and the brain and used the breath to harmonize functions of the nervous system.
The four pranayamas that we cover in the Chopra App pranayama series, Breathwork for Balance, all use the breath in order to harmonize deeper physiological functions. Coherence Breathing helps to balance the equilibrium of the branches of our autonomic nervous system; the Rose Pranayama stimulates the olfactory nerves, which grow out directly from the olfactory bulb in the brain and are connected to memory and states of consciousness; Kapalabhati increases cerebral blood flow; and Bhramari is not only soothing for brain wave patterns but increases a substance called Nitric Oxide. Nitric Oxide is a mild bronchodilator (so it helps to open the lungs), an anti-microbial, anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and helps to modulate inflammation levels of the immune system. It is the first line of defense substance created naturally in the paranasal sinuses, and humming increases its production.
How the breath creates physiological changes in the body
It is in fact not all that complicated for science to measure physiological changes in the body that come from how we change our breathing patterns. As exciting as the new findings may be, the Yogis considered the greatest experiment to be their own selves. They studied the book of their body-mind-spirit complex and observed the changes that came from shifting the natural patterns in deliberate ways.
In Yoga, we find poses such as the headstand and shoulder stand. The Yogis perhaps said to themselves, “We are always upright during the day, and lying down when we sleep, what would happen if we turn upside down for a little while each day? What change would that bring about in our level of consciousness?” And we know from our own little experience with Yoga practice that yes, it does make a shift occur in us.
When the breath is still, the mind becomes still
With pranayama and breathwork, we are following along with that same concept. What happens when we take a natural pattern of the body and nervous system - our breath - and deliberately accentuate it? What happens when we form a new relationship with that very thing that gives and sustains our life and maximize it? The data so far, Yogic and scientific, shows that it can have profound benefits. The Yogis always emphasized one thing very clearly: when the breath moves, the mind moves. When you make the breath still, the mind becomes still.
For those of us who wish to have a quiet mind, a clear mind, and the ability to quiet our minds when things from the world stir it up, then conscious breathing is the ultimate link and practice that we can do to make our minds still.