The Psychophysiology of Yoga Regulated Breathing (Pranayamas)

The Psychophysiology of Yoga Regulated Breathing (Pranayamas)

Copyright: © 2018 |Pages: 18
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-2788-6.ch002
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The aim of yoga is to attain a mental state free from disturbance. Various yoga techniques have been prescribed for this in traditional yoga texts. The ancient yoga masters realized there was a close association between the functioning of the breath and the mind. Voluntarily regulated yoga breathing (pranayama) involves regulating various aspects of breathing of breathing: (i) breathing through one or both nostrils (ii) increasing the depth of breathing (iii) breathing with a period of breath holding (iv) exhaling with the production of a sound (v) breathing through the mouth and (vi) increasing the rate of breathing. The present chapter discusses these yoga breathing techniques. This chapter also discusses the psychophysiological effects of yoga regulated breathing based on the findings of scientific studies on the psychophysiology of yoga regulated breathing.
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Yoga is an ancient Indian science intended to help an individual to advance spiritually (Taimini, 1961). According to the eight limbs of yoga (astanga yoga) of the sage Patanjali (Circa 900 B.C.) the techniques prescribed begin with following certain ethical principles (i) yamas and (ii) niyama. After this a practitioner performs specific physical postures (iii) asanas which allow the practitioner to remain in the same posture without moving which is considered necessary prior to meditation, practices voluntarily regulated yoga breathing practices (iv) pranayamas, withdraws the mind from sense objects (v) pratyahara), practices concentration (vi) dharana and meditation (vii) dhyana. At this stage practitioner is suppose to attain a state of self-realization (viii) Samadhi or Nirvana in Buddhist philosophy.

The word, pranayama is derived from two Sanskrit words, namely, prana, which means “vital force” or “life energy” but can also be used to convey “breath”, and yama, which means “to prolong”. Hence, pranayama techniques involve voluntarily slowing down and prolonging breathing. The correct way of breathing according to yoga is recognized to be slow, deep, diaphragmatic and with inhalation and exhalation in a ratio of 1:2 (Singh, Wisniewski, Britton, & Tattersfied, 1990). Voluntarily regulated yoga breathing techniques or pranayamas are given special emphasis as ancient yoga masters realized the close association between the breath and the mind. This has been described in Hatha Yoga Pradipika (Circa 1500 B.C.) in this verse “When the prana (used synonymously with the breath) moves, citta (the mental force) moves. When prana is without movement, chitta is without movement. By this (steadiness of prana) the yogi attains mental steadiness and should thus restrain the vayu or airflow” (Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Chapter II, Verse 2).

Breathing is an important physiological process for survival as it is the only means to supply oxygen to the cells so that they can produce energy. It is also one of the important pathways to eliminate waste products from the body. 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. A recent study reported that the rhythm of breathing can enhance emotional judgments and memory recall (Zelano et al., 2016). The participants in this study were able to recognize a fear-inducing face more quickly and their ability to remember objects increased during inhalation compared to exhalation. These effects of breathing disappeared when subjects breathed through the mouth. From the findings of this study it appears that the influence of breathing on the brain depends on whether you are inhaling or exhaling and whether you breathe through your nose or mouth. This has been reported elsewhere as well (Shannahoff-Khalsa, Boyle, & Buebel, 1991).

In yoga, there are several techniques to consciously regulate various aspects of breathing, such as the rate and depth of breathing, the nostril breathed through, including a period of breath-holding, as well as other factors (Ramdev, 2005). Yoga techniques may include a period of breath holding following either inspiration or expiration. Still other methods include breathing through the mouth, which is not usually recommended.

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