The Case for Yogic Breathing

1st of Mar 2010

The mind has a terrible time telling itself what to do. Fortunately, science is catching up with yogic breathing wisdom. Since the time of Descartes (“I think, therefore I am”), modern science has tended to divorce the body from the mind, embracing the paradigm that we are — above all — cognitive creatures who must use mental discipline to control our feelings. Certainly, this is possible when faced with a mildly upsetting situation. If you return to your car and find a $30 parking ticket, you can soothe yourself with thoughts of how grateful you are that your car was not towed. However, you need only encounter a more highly emotional situation — you realize your car has been towed, you have a $500 fine, you’re late for an important job interview, and you’ve spilled coffee on your suit — to realize that attempting to use the mind to change your emotions is useless or makes you feel worse.

Daniel Wegner, psychology professor at Harvard University, has shown in several studies that the intention to control the mind often comes with thoughts that evaluate the success of that intention. Under stress or mental overload, this evaluation process actually triggers the unwanted thought, undermining our best intentions. In short, the mind is telling the mind to relax often creates more stress. Common expressions, such as “take a deep breath,” evoked when someone is overly excited or anxious, suggest a solution. Indeed, we have a natural understanding of the breath as a way to regulate our mind and emotions. However, because it happens automatically, many of us don’t give the breath much thought.

Even students of yoga are puzzled as to why their teachers place such importance on the breath, and beginning meditation practitioners wonder about the instruction: “When your mind wanders, come back to the breath.” Many find it boring. Why all the talk about breath already? Common expressions, such as “take a deep breath,” evoked when someone is overly excited or anxious, suggest a solution. Indeed, we have a natural understanding of the breath as a way to regulate our mind and emotions. However, because it happens automatically, many of us don’t give the breath much thought.

Researching the Yogic Tradition Yogis have been studying the breath as a way to calm the mind for millennia. They often compare the mind to a monkey that restlessly jumps from branch to branch (i.e., thought to thought), unable to settle down. The yogis noticed that when the mind wanders into the past and the future, it elicits a whole range of emotions, often negative. Thoughts of the past can bring feelings of regret, anger, or sadness. Thoughts of the future often arouse anxiety and fear.On the other hand, positive emotions, such as happiness evoked by connection with others, are mostly experienced when our focus is on the present moment — which is experienced when we bring our attention to the breath. “The mind is like a kite, flying here and there,” explains Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (awarded the title of Yoga Shiromani, or “Supreme Jewel of Yoga,” by India’s president), “and the breath is like the string of the kite, gently bringing the mind back into the present moment. The breath brings the mind, which is all over the place, back to its source, a natural state of peacefulness and joy.” Over the past 30 years, many studies have confirmed the connection between breathing and emotions.

Most basic is research showing that different emotional states are associated with distinct respiration patterns. For example, rapid, shallow breathing occurs when one is anxious, while deep, slow breathing is associated with a state of relaxation. Laughter and sobbing are other obvious examples of how the breath accompanies emotional states. We also know that the breath is unique among autonomic functions of the body, in that it can happen automatically (like digestion and heartbeat), or it can be controlled of one’s own volition. For this reason, the breath does not automatically accompany an emotional state but can be used to change one’s state.Other studies have demonstrated, for example, that purposeful, rapid breathing will create anxiety, while deep breathing will create relaxation. While this may seem obvious, take a moment to experiment for yourself right now. Given the fact that it is so difficult to change one’s emotions using thoughts alone, learning to use the breath becomes a very powerful tool. The Benefits of a Practice Yogic breathing is a sophisticated practice aimed at rapidly reducing anxiety and arousal by bringing the body to a physiologically relaxed state. Yogic breathing techniques involve not just the rate and volume of breathing — the major correlates of emotional control — but also use more complex exercises, including from which nostril you breathe.

Choosing the right or left nostril effects the dominant brain hemisphere and how we think. Several studies suggest that controlled yogic breathing has immediate and positive effects on psychological well-being, as well as on physiological markers of well-being, such as blood pressure and heart rate. Within minutes you will feel better and place your body in a significantly healthier state. The long-term effects of a daily breathing practice are even more pronounced. By activating the part of our nervous system associated with “resting and digesting” (the parasympathetic nervous system), breathing practices may “train” the body to be calmer.For example, preliminary studies have found that regularly practicing breathing exercises lowers one’s level of cortisol — the “stress hormone.” Having lower levels of this hormone may be indicative of an overall calmer state of being, which may translate into less reactivity in the face of inevitable life stressors and less risk of heart disease. Although substantial studies of yogic breathing and the brain have yet to emerge, preliminary brain studies of meditation and the breath suggest that they activate brain areas involved in the control of the autonomic system, such as the insula cortex.

Control of the breath appears to activate brain regions that guide the parasympathetic, or “rest and digest,” processes of the body, perhaps thereby inducing its calming effects. For those interested in meditation, breathing practices are traditionally used as preliminary exercises prior to meditation in both the Yogic and Tibetan Buddhist traditions. The breathing practices are thought to calm the thoughts and bring a state of ease and clarity to the mind that is essential for meditation. Breathing practices are also used as an opening for prayer — or even an opening for a business meeting. Whatever the purpose, the practice can be both powerful and healing.The Basics of Pranayama, yogic breathing exercises, are said to cool the mind and balance the emotions by increasing prana, Sanskrit for “life force” or “energy.” Prana is analogous to the Chinese word qi or the Japanese word ki. Yogis say that a state of high prana is reflected by dynamism and vitality in the body, as well as positive thoughts and emotions in the mind. On the other hand, a state of low prana is marked by feelings of lethargy and dullness in the body, and depressed or negative thoughts and feelings in the mind. Yogis over the ages have taught that light and nutritious food, like fresh vegetarian fare, can increase the prana in the system, as can proper rest. Yet the breath is considered the most essential source.

In fact, prana is interchangeably used to signify both breath and life force. A similar understanding of the link between breath and life also appears in Western spiritual texts. Genesis 2:7 states: “God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” — a phrase which, like the ancient Yogic texts, suggests the inextricable link between life, breath, and even divinity.Yogic breathing practices present little or no risk to a healthy individual, though practitioners may occasionally feel initial tiredness or fatigue, transient tingling sensations, lightheadedness, and feelings of euphoria or dysphoria. It is always advised to work with a trained and certified instructor. Alternate Nostril Breathing This gentle pranayama is said to cool the mind and emotions. You may notice that, at any given time, one nostril is dominant (that is, air flows more smoothly through one nostril and only partially through the other). The dominant nostril alternates throughout the day.

Preliminary research suggests that breathing through the right nostril oxygenates the left side of the brain, while breathing through the left nostril oxygenates the right side of the brain. One of the reasons alternate nostril breathing may induce its calming and balancing effects on the mind is that it gently allows for airflow through both nostrils.To practice, place the index and middle finger of the right hand on the center of the eyebrow, and place the thumb on the right nostril, and the ring finger and pinky on the left nostril. The left hand rests on the lap, palm facing up. Take a deep breath in and, closing the right nostril with your thumb, breathe out through the left nostril. Then take a deep breath in through the left nostril, close the left nostril with your ring finger and pinky at the end of the inhale, and exhale through the right nostril. Take a deep breath in through the right nostril and, closing the right nostril with the thumb, exhale on the left side, and start over. Do this with your eyes closed for about five minutes.

Notice the effects on your body and mind. Breathing Workshops for Personal Well-Being Yogic breathing practices can be learned in general yoga classes. Kundalini yoga classes, for example, place a particular emphasis on breathing practices. Check your local yoga studio calendars for yogic breathing workshops. For an in-depth experience of yogic breathing techniques, the Art of Living Foundation, a United Nations-chartered nonprofit organization, offers a comprehensive program called the “Art of Living,” a 24-hour course distributed over five or six days. During the program, certified teachers demonstrate a number of yogic breathing techniques, including sudarshan kriya, a practice built on the realization that for every feeling or emotion, there is a corresponding rhythm in the breath.

The course also includes yoga postures, guided meditation, group processes, and stress-reduction education. Graduates of this program learn a breathing routine that they can practice daily. Because the Art of Living course is short in duration, inexpensive, and non-religious, it has great appeal and has been completed by many people worldwide. The techniques have been studied in randomized trials in both healthy and clinical populations. Although more in-depth research is needed to validate the techniques, preliminary research suggests that they are helpful in reducing stress, anxiety, trauma, and depression and increase well-being. To learn more, see artofliving.org.The International Association for Human Values offers breathing-based programs (including instruction in sudarshan kriya and breathing practices offered in the Art of Living programs) to cater to the needs of a variety of populations suffering from stress:

  • Schoolchildren in schools across the country (yes.iahv.org)
  • Corporate environments (apexcourse.org) • Veterans returning from war (pwht.org)
  • Prisoners and prison staff (prisonsmart.org)
  • Individuals living with HIV/AIDS To learn more about work by the International Association for Human Values, see iahv.org.

Emma Seppala has a master’s degree in Buddhist studies and recently completed her Ph.D. in psychology at Stanford University. She currently does research at the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, as well as the university’s Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior. She regularly lectures on meditation and yogic breathing to the general public, most recently at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City, Google, Inc., and the National Science Foundation.