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Bhastrika. The Effects and Mechanisms of Health Improvement

Olena Akhramieieva

Kharkiv, 2010

Part 1. Bhastrika and Musculoskeletal System

When practicing Yoga long enough one starts to understand the profoundness of the practices offered. Thus, the articles become more extensive and require more time. On the other hand, we have the desire to continuously share the new discoveries with the readers. What shall we do in this case?

Look for compromise.

 Thus, in terms of our site, we are launching a new form — publishing the articles as separate posts. In this way the information will always be updated while the reader will be able to witness the origination of the new article.

 Let us start from Bhastrika. We will try to understand the effects of this pranayama and the mechanisms of its effects on one’s body.

Bhastrika (भस्त्रिक, bhastrika) –

is a pranayama or a breathing exercise in Yoga. The term “bhastrika” means “blacksmith’s bellows” that this pranayama actually resembles. It is a rhythmic breathing performed by abdominal muscles at the rate 90-120 breaths per minute. The inhalation to inhalation duration ratio is 3:1 (A.G. Safronov. Yoga: Physiology, Psychosomatics, Bioenergetics; D. Brahmachari. Yoga Sukshma Vyayama).

 Bhastrika exerts the effect of conditioning on many systems of the body, in particular: muscular system and the system of external respiration Cardiovascular system Gastrointestinal tract ORTorgans.

 Let us consider the effects and mechanisms of Bhastrika from the perspective of every separate system.

The musculoskeletal system

 1. Normalization of functional accuracy in the spinal column extensors abdominal muscles (flexors and rotators) diaphragm system.

 When performing Bhastrika we involve the whole aggregate of the abdominal wall muscles — rectus muscle of abdomen, transverse and oblique muscles. We involve basic respiratory muscles — the diaphragm and intercostal muscles.

 Besides, in the course of long-term performance of Bhastrika a person with inharmonious muscular body type may report dragging (as an option) sensation in his lower back. It means that the act of breathing also (reflectively) involves the extensors.

 Classical Bhastrika is done at a quick rate — 120 breaths per minute (A.G. Safronov. Yoga: Physiology, Psychosomatics, Bioenergetics). In such circumstances the muscles shall be slightly lengthened; yet setting the required rhythms 3:1 (inhalation to exhalation duration) requires a fairly sophisticated sensing of muscles and their coordination. Thus, it means that the main parameter trained shall be the conscious, fine intramuscular coordination of this group.

 While training the coordination the state of the muscles shall be also recovered. The tone of the spinal column extensors shall gradually come to normal as well, this been evidenced by sensations in ones lower back. Total restoration of muscular balance requires a comprehensive set of exercises containing asanas and extensive pranayamas (abdominal breathing, diaphragmatic, full yogic breathing).

2. Training the diaphragm fine sensing and control.

 As it has been mentioned earlier, when we do Bhastrika, the muscles of the anterior abdominal wall are slightly stretched. This is understandable while it is only under conditions of extreme economization of movements that the proposed temporhythm can be ensured. Thus, the act of breathing essentially involves rectus and transverse muscles of the abdominal (in case the pranayama is performed when seated), intercostal muscles of lower ribs and diaphragm.

 Since the exhalation in done very quickly — its duration is 1 time to 3 times of the inhalation — the minimum of muscles is involved. As a rule, it is the diaphragm that takes the main load on.

When performing Bhastrika we master fine sensing and control of a truly royal muscle of the human body the diaphragm.

diaphragm in bhastrika

The diaphragm (from Greek διάφραγμα — partition), or phrenic barrier, is extremely important. Its movements ensure:

 the spread of the lungs (in medicine it is considered to be the main muscle of inhalation);

 the blood flow through low tension circulation to the heart (venous pump) and consequently — the sound state of the cardiovascular system;

the blood flow through the liver.

 It is interesting that in medicine the opinion of the diaphragm to be the human body muscle that is subjected to voluntarily control either never or very poorly still prevails. (Campbell, 1958; De Troyer, 1982).

 Manipulations with ones body done in the course of Yoga testify to the opposite. There is a whole range of exercises meant for mastering the diaphragm: bandhas, mudras (Uddiyana and Tadagi Mudra, Uddiyana Bandha Kriya) and pranayamas (abdominal and diaphragmatic breath, full yogic breath, Bhastrika). The diaphragm is also involved when performing asanas — actively, albeit indirectly.

 When speaking of Bhastrika, it is amusing how sophisticatedly the exercise has been by intuition matched.

Based on investigations carried out in physiology we know that:

 The firing of diaphragmatic motor neurons (the nerve cells that ensure the work of the diaphragm) shall be maximum in the course of fast displacement of the lower ribs (the so called excitatory intercostalphrenic reflex) (Decimal et al.,1969; Shimareva, Glebovsky, 1975, 1979).

 While the tension of the diaphragm muscular fibers depends upon the original length: the smaller the lungs volume is, the bigger the active tension shall be (Kim et al.,1976).

They are the lower ribs that we activate at the early stage of Bhastrika.

Besides the average range of lungs volume in which the pranayama is done makes up 200 to 400 ml (subject to correct arrangement of muscular movements), that being rather insignificant.

That is, in terms of Bhastrika performance the rate of phrenic neurons excitation is high and the tension of the diaphragm muscular fibers is active.

 And in general, the generated expiratory load is considerable because of high frictional resistance to breathing that is formed in the bronchi due to high air velocity.

 That is, in the course of the practice we consciously form the conditions for maximum excitation of the zone that needs to be worked with, and simultaneously provide it with load.

In fact, these are the perfect conditions for the action that trains and develops the zone.

These are the mechanisms of how Bhastrika affects the muscular system.

Part 2. Bhastrika and Apparatus of External Respiration


Bhastrika and apparatus of external respiration.

 1. Bhastrika stabilizes the state of the bronchial tree smooth muscles.

 The main function of the external respiration organs is the uninterrupted supply of oxygen and removal of carbon dioxide (the main product of metabolism in the human body). Here the respiratory part of the lung (alveoli) “is responsible forO2 diffusion from the air into the blood of the pulmonary circuit vessels and back from there (CO2), while the upper airways (bronchi and bronchioles) — for bringing the air to the alveolar part.

 The bodys needs for oxygen absorption and carbon dioxide elimination directly depend upon the rate of metabolic processes that in their turn are determined by specific features of ones personal life (the situations one is involved in, the emotional states, the external weather conditions and so on).

 And it turns out that since situations are constantly changing, ones personal breathing pattern (the respiration depth, its frequency and rhythm) changes permanently as well.

 All anatomic structures that form the apparatus of external breathing must have some certain degree of lability to enable timely adjustment of organism.

 What is it that ensures lability in the scope of constantly changing conditions of external breathing — when one may quicken it or slow it down, thus forming the conditions for gas flow that from the point of physics are totally different from one another?

 First of all, it is the elasticity of the bronchial tree that is grounded on the connective tissue. This parameter makes it possible for bronchi and alveoli to expand without residual deformations.

 Furthermore, it is the contractility of the bronchial tree smooth muscles.

 If the elastic frame allows the stretch of the bronchi thus changing their length and width, the smooth muscles as if support and adjust this function.

 For instance, due to contractive force of the respiratory muscles the rib cage extends by inhalation and the lungs attached to it shall thus stretch. The expiratory lungs shall deflate mainly due to the elastic retainer — the force that tends to neutralize the elastic stress, the deformation that has occurred.

 At the same time the larger the volume inhaled and exhaled by a person is, the more intensive shall the elastic framework of the lung be engaged. And in these circumstances the large bronchi shall generate variations of the respiration lumen that is partially ensured by the muscles located within their walls.

 In my opinion — that I propose to take as a hypothesis — the smooth muscles of bronchi and bronchioles mush ensure constant micro-vibrational motions of bronchial tubes providing the necessary looseness for adapting to changes in aerodynamic conditions.

 For instance, such vibrations are created by the vessels of the human body microvasculature, and their presence comes as a criterion of vascular health.

 In the event of lungs disease the smooth muscles change their tone. Apparently it becomes less labile. For instance, in case of bronchial asthma the tone shall be raised — mainly by exhale, thus forming the unsatisfiable desire to exhale the air that accompanies the asthmatic attack. In medicine it is referred to as expiratory dyspnea.

Now, let us look at the way Bhastrika affects the described processes.

 When doing Bhastrika, we create conditions for rapid advancement of the air through bronchial system.

 In these conditions, taking into account the aforementioned lability of bronchi lumen and their multiple branching, the air flow shall be changing from the laminar (quite) mode to the turbulent (i.e. with numerous air swirls) one that will complicate the air conduct and will cause increased (traumatic) load on the bronchi mucous membrane.

 These are smooth muscles that can help generate the laminar flow when at high speed — having contracted, they will ensure better stability of the tubes.

 Thus, we can suggest that Bhastrika establishes conditions for stabilization of the bronchial muscles tone, and in the event of regular performance it trains the aggregate of the bronchial muscles.

I would like to draw an example in support of the hypothesis advanced.

 There is a case described in medicine: a patient with severe bronchospasm connected to the lung motor was reporting shortness of breath and swelling

of the chest; the symptoms disappeared after reduction of RV and rhythm acceleration (Cassil, 1968). In fact, while doing Bhastrika we also accelerate the rhythm and we breathe the RV (respiratory volume) that is actually reduced if compared to the habitual one.

 2. The increase of alveolar ventilation due to increased percentage of inhalation in the course of respiratory cycle.

 3. The performance of Bhastrika can eliminate the lungs’ gas traps.

 The gas traps are the zones/alveoli in which the air is sealed by exhalation.

 The matter is that the pressure caused on alveoli from the part of the shrinking chest at some point becomes higher than the pressure within them.

 This is the phenomenon that almost everyone is subjected to. The percentage of these traps in young and healthy people makes up 15% of the VLC (vital lung capacity); in this case such occurrence is not harmful.

 But in case of reduction of the pulmonary apparatus elasticity (due to age, frequent inflammatory diseases, pulmonary emphysema), when the wall of the bronchi is not able to withstand the load from the outside, the number of such trapsincreases. In this event the air by exhalation does not come out from the lungs at full; hence the subsequent inhalation cannot provide the organism with the required volume of air. The deadspace is thus formed and the lungs cease to maintain their basic function — the ventilatory one.

 In the process of Bhastrika the airstream that performs high-speed oscillation motions in the bronchial tree forms the increased intrabronchial pressure. This provides facilities that reduce the possibility of the gas trapsformation1.

 4. Bhastrika normalizes the bronchial tree wall blood and lymph flow.

 The high-pressured passage of the airstream stimulates local blood flow and lymph circulation in the bronchial tree walls. This comes as a stimulating factor for the local immunity and as prevention of infectious diseases.

 5. The diaphragm is a short leashto formation of the respiratory rhythm: the diaphragmatic motor neurons are directly related to the respiratory rhythm generation zone located in the brain.

 Therefore, in terms of subjecting the diaphragm to rhythmic load we can assume training impact on respiratory rhythmsetting centers of the brain.

[1] In case of significant impairments of lung elasticity (emphysema and so on) Bhastrika is counter-indicative. In all other events of respiratory apparatus diseases the set of exercises must be drawn up by a competent Yoga-therapist.


Part 3. Practical Recommendations

 In the previous section I wrote that the facilities established while doing Bhastrika prevent formation of gas traps in the lungs.

 It should be noted that it shall be possible ONLY in case of correct muscular effort.

What should it be?

 1. By inhale it is the diaphragm without participation of the chest muscles that should be involved.

 2. The muscular impulse should initiate the exhalation; its further performance is contraindicated.

Let us sort out the details.

 As we have already said, the inhalation is done mainly due to the muscular effort that overcomes a series of resistances from the part of the lungs:

 the elastic resistance of the bronchial tree that tends to contract, keeping its original shape (this resistance is referred to as elastic traction of lungs);

 the resistance of the transported air;

 the inertial resistance.

Yet the exhalation is mainly done because of the elastic traction of the lungsit pulls up the bronchial tree, alveoli and respiratory muscles [1].

Thus, we use the activity of the expiratory muscles at the very beginning of the exhalation. We use the abdominal muscles since the diaphragm at this period is not contracted but relaxed, getting back to its original position.

If we try to further push out the air from the airways amid and at the end of the exhalation cycle, the only thing this will lead to will be the formation of the gas traps that we actually want to get rid of.


The matter is that the driving force of the exhaled air is the pressure drop occurred within the system the alveoli — the nasal cavity.

In the pause between the inhalation and the exhalation this force is equal to 0” — the pressure in the stretched alveoli is just the same as the pressure in the nasal cavity.

 The exhalation starts from alveolis gradual shrinking and respective rise of the pressure within them. This pressure is possible due to two forces — the elastic traction of the lungs and expiratory muscular effort that creates the compression from outside, from the part of the thoracic cage. This effort is slightly dampened by the pleural cavity with negative intrapleural pressure.

 The pressure difference occurred in the course of exhalation increases and the airstream comes out of the respiratory tract.

There is one trick in here — the pressure from the outside should not be excessive. In case this happens, the elastic bronchial passages shall be shut off and the air shall be sealed in the alveoli (it is this very phenomenon that is referred to as gas trap or gas tapping).

 In the practical course of performing Bhastrika it means the following: we should not engage the muscles of exhalation pushing the air completely out by means of the ribcage.

 This thesis can be expanded by speculating on the subject that by expiration we use the abdominal muscles, and respectively these are mainly the alveoli of lower lungs that are opened up. That is, it is the place where the air heads to and where the overpressure is formed [2].

 In practice it means that in the course of exhalation the air should be supplied as if in an upward direction. The impulse should be formed by the abdominal muscles, while the zone of ribs and diaphragm should be to some extend relaxed and should not resist the effort. The intra-abdominal pressure built by abdominal muscles must involve the diaphragm into the upward movement.

 The intercostal muscles should to the extent possible be excluded from the act of active exhalation.

 I would like to give here one more interesting contemplation that goes somewhat beyond the scope of this article.

 In terms of medicine the diaphragm is traditionally considered to be a muscle that is not subjected to control.

Under conditions of Bhastika (hyperventilation) the expiratory muscles become active. The intercostal expiratory muscles must be deactivated in order to maintain the ventilation; and in some moment the ability of managing the diaphragm may become necessary.

 We must also take into consideration that the accumulation of tension in muscles and lung tissue in the course of performing Bhastrika at some certain point results in ones inability to cope with it. The excitation as if spreads over the respiratory neurons that control the respiratory muscles and it ceases to be local (the effect of temporal and spatial summation).

 At the stage of mastering the set task any zones that a person can produce exhalation with will be actively involved. Up to reproduction of archaic reflexes — the activation of intercostal muscles, neck, shoulders and so on. (5)

Those who have tried — they do know.

 And intercostalphrenic reflex is no exception: the intercostal muscles are those that are most actively involved.

 In the described conditions it is only by means of conscious action that a person may maintain the optimum of the move. It is not the body with its habitual reflexes that chooses. The one to choose is the man. Who learns to choose. Under his own established conditions of necessity of sophisticated management of the system that would have not been actualized beyond the state of total tension. To my opinion this state comes as an essential prereq- uisite for forming the capability of subtle, pointlike control of ones body. Of each individual muscle.

 By means of creating conscious effort we may destroy the obsolescent reflexes and form new interneuronic connections, new functional centers in the brain (A. P. Anokhin).

 While the objective of the breathing system is the provision of uninterrupted air conduct, the task of the man is that of skillful management of the most complex, multicomponent respiratory apparatus.

 Yoga gives instruments for such management. For taking care of ones body. For ones transformation.

Notes: (1)


 Fig. 1. The outflow to volume curves. A. Forced expiration after maximal inspiration. B. Expiration done first slowly, and then forced. C. Expiration done at above the average rate. In all cases the descending segments of the curves coincide.

 The above-given figure shows the air flow curves under conditions of various expiratory muscular effort. They differ only in their initial point — this speaking for independence of the air flow from the muscular effort halfway through and at the end of the exhalation.

 (2) The model is in a certain way simplified (the air has the ability of moving within the lungs).

(3) We spoke about intercostalphrenic reflex in the section 1.

(4) But this is a question for further research in the field of Yoga-therapy. And for more volumetrictype of breathing — such sophisticated manipulation with the diaphragm is better mastered when in slow pace.

(5) I. S. Breslav in his analysis of respiration system draws attention to the fact that in terms of phylogeny (in the process of development from one species to another) the ventilation of lungs was evolving from locomotor movements of the body. (I. S. Breslav., 1981; I. S. Breslav. Beathing Patterns, 1984.). In this scope the act of inhalation complies with unbending (stretching), while the one of exhalation — with bending of the body.

 In continuation of these speculation [we should say that] these movements may be also associated with emotional states of the practitioner, his behavioral patterns (A.G. Safronov. Yoga: Physiology, Psychosomatics, Bioenergetics).


[1] The muscular effort allows creating initial exhalation speed. Further speed and volume of the exhaled air shall not depend upon the muscular effort made (J. West. Respiratory Physiology: The Essentials. M., 1988. J. West. Pulmonary Pathophysiology. M., 2008).

[2] Therefore the exhalation should be formed by pushing the air out from them. The effort done by means of intercostal muscles will lead to increased risk of gas traps formation in the alveoli in which the amount of gas is not that big.

Kharkiv, 2014.