Psychophysiological Effects and the Applications of Yoga Breathing Practices

Psychophysiological Effects and the Applications of Yoga Breathing Practices

Niranjan Kala (Patanjali Research Foundation, India), Dipak Chetry (Patanjali Research Foundation, India) and Shirley Telles (Patanjali Research Foundation, India)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-3254-6.ch001
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Yoga is an ancient practice that originated in India and aims at purifying the mind for spiritual progress. In modern times yoga is widely practiced for general health and well-being as well as for therapeutic reasons. Voluntary breath regulation or pranayama has been given significant importance in traditional texts as well as by yoga masters. Research has shown beneficial effects of yoga breathing practices or pranayamas on neurocognitive, metabolic, respiratory, and autonomic functions, which are discussed in the chapter. The chapter also discusses the applications of these practices for the management of various clinical conditions as well as for alleviating psychological problems associated with particular illnesses. The beneficial effects of yoga breathing practices demonstrate the importance of these safe and cost effective non-pharmacological interventions for general health as well as for prevention and management of various diseases.
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Yoga is an ancient science which originated thousands of years ago in India primarily for spiritual progress and self-enlightenment. Though the origin of yoga is difficult to trace, its presence can be found in the Indus valley civilization, one of the world’s oldest known civilizations which dates more than nine thousand years back (Sarkar et al., 2016; Dhyansky, 1987). Archaeological seals, such as that of a deity sitting in a yoga-like position suggests that yoga may have been practiced at that time (Dhyansky, 1987). The written descriptions of yoga can be found in the Vedas which are among the oldest written texts (Bhavanani, 2012). Though the Vedas were not in the written form originally, the compilations today date from Circa 10000 B.C. (Bhavanani, 2012). The Rigveda contains a number of verses describing yoga as a practice to control the mind (Bhavanani, 2012). The Atharvaveda talks about prana, the vital energy and the chakras, the energy centers in the pranic body (Bloomfield, 1897). After this the sage Patanjali wrote the yoga-sutras in which he systematically and exclusively compiled the wisdom of yoga in the form of aphorisms (Circa 900 B.C.) (Miller, 1996). This work remains as the most fundamental manual for yoga scholars as well as for yoga enthusiasts in the present time. There are 196 aphorisms in four chapters which define yoga as a means of self-enlightenment through the course of eight limbs (Miller, 1996). This is also known as the eight-fold path or astanga yoga and consists of the ethical precepts (yamas and niyamas), physical postures (asanas), breathing practices (pranayamas), control of the senses (pratyahara), deep concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana) and the highest state of consciousness (samadhi).

Out of the eight stages of yoga, voluntarily controlled breathing or pranayama, the fourth stage is the topic of this chapter. Etymologically, the word pranayama (in Sanskrit) means voluntarily slowing down and prolonging breathing. Ancient yoga masters realized the close connection between the breath and the mind hence these pranayamas or voluntarily regulated yoga breathing techniques are given special emphasis. This can be understood by a verse from the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (Circa 300 A.D.) which states “when the prana (used interchangeably with breath) is irregular, the chitta (mind) is unstable, when the prana is without movement the chitta is stable” (Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Chapter II, Verse 2) (Muktibodhananda, 2002).

The relationship between the breath pattern and health is well established (Lieber & Mohsenin, 1992). Apart from this, breathing has been associated with higher brain functions. Zelano and colleagues (2016) found brain activity to be synchronized with the act of breathing during voluntary breath regulation measured through the recordings of intracranial electroencephalography (iEEG) in patients with epilepsy. In a separate study by the same authors and reported in the same article, nasal inhalation was found to facilitate recognition of facial expressions and recall of the objects shown (Zelano et al., 2016). When participants were instructed to breathe through the mouth these effects were not seen. Hence breathing can influence the brain and this is modulated by several factors such as nasal versus mouth breathing, inhalation in relation to exhalation and the nostril which is patent.

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