Hatha yoga — the section dedicated to working with one’s body — contains an extensive and important layer of practices called pranayamas, the unique techniques designed for training the conscious control of one’s breath. With minimal effort of the practicing person involved, the healing effects of pranayama shall occur from the very first minutes of practice, while in scope of regular performance it shall lead to sustainable restructuring of the body.
As translated from Sanskrit, “pranayama” means managing one’s breath, or even life-management (the word root derives from the noun “prana,” which means “breath”, “life”; the verbal part “yam” means “manage, control”). And this is no accident: in terms of their affecting the respiratory system pranayamas modify all systems of the body as well as make their impact upon person’s emotional and sensual spheres, his volition and intellectual activity.
I suggest that in this article we consider the main ways that pranayamas influence upon the organism of the practicing person.
Step 1 — anatomy, or organization of the body.
In scope of anatomy the respiratory system implies the external breathing apparatus that consists of:
― upper respiratory tract (nasal cavity, pharynx, larynx);
― trachea and bronchi;
― right and left lungs located in the pleural cavity;
― thoracic cage with muscles of respiration;
― innervation apparatus.
Step 2 — physiology.
In terms of modern physiology, respiration is an integrated process performed by the integral organism and consisting of three interrelated elements:
1. External respiration, that is, all processes aimed at provision of gas exchange between the external environment and the blood within pulmonary capillaries. It is performed by air conducting passages, lungs, small (pulmonary) circuit.
2. Gas transport; here the major role is played by the cardio-vascular system.
3. Internal (tissue) respiration, or the process of body tissues’ saturation with oxygen and release of carbon dioxide. The tissue respiration is based upon oxidation-reduction processes accompanied by release of the energy required for vital activity of the whole organism.
There is also a separately distinguished system of central regulation of respiration process which includes the structures of the cerebral cortex, some certain areas and nuclei of diencephalon (betweenbrain), mesencephalon and medulla oblongata, pons varolii, the neurons of the cervical and thoracic areas of the spinal cord, the central and peripheral chemoreceptors and mechanoreceptors of the respiratory apparatus.
Step 3 — yoga, or the way it all works.
1. From the very first steps of doing pranayama the practitioners shall learn that breathing appears to be of different kinds and can be done by means of involving abdominal muscles, those of the ribcage and diaphragm, as well as the supporting muscles of the neck and shoulder zone. When consciously engaging them in the act of breathing we simply train the muscles themselves. Weak and never used in terms of any other practices habitual to Westerners, they limit the disclosure of reserve capacity of the lungs subject to intensive loads. Therefore, working out and training this weak link of respiration process comes as the first and important step on the way of mastering pranayamas performance.
2. The next mechanism is conscious activation of the particular groups of the respiratory muscles. For instance, one can breathe by means of chest only, or by using only one’s abdominals (the first stage of mastering the technique of the full yogic breathing). The trick is that we can willfully engage only the necessary groups of muscles, while what we master regarding the rest of them is the skill of conscious relaxation. Thus, we switch the body onto a more economical and therefore a more efficient operation mode. Energy is spent only on some certain required action.
3. By means of this deliberate activation of different muscles groups in a different sequence and in different tempo-rhythm (while learning different pranayamas) we affect the “center of the centers” — the system of breathing apparatus regulation. That is, we train the integration of neuromuscular, neuro-humoral, interneuronic connections. And when subject to changed conditions of the environment, the trained body shall respond consistently, engaging only the necessary muscles and activating as accurately as possible the required elements of the respiratory system. In fact, this is the development of our physical body, the upgrade of its evolutional level (the activation therapy by L.H. Harkavy).
4. It is already in the early stages that compensation for the “effect of the dead space” occurs due to increase of the usual volume of the air inhaled. This increases the efficiency of alveolar ventilation and improves oxygen supply of the organism. (The fact is that in scope of “everyday mode” a person breathes in a rather shallow manner that prevents the air in the less accessible areas of lungs from sufficient and intensive renewal).
5. The continuous increase of the imposed load leads to gradual involvement of new segments of the lungs, and thus the “backup” or reserve capillaries join in the working process. It facilitates the expansion of lungs capacity and the organism stand–by force (the L.H. Harkavy’s theory of micro-stress). Incidentally, the similar phenomena are also observed in the cerebral tissue: in scope of increased need for oxygen the reserve neurons of the respiratory center shall get activated.
6. The improved blood circulation and increased blood flow result in increased efficiency of the alveolar–capillary perfusion. The gas exchange thus becomes a more efficient and easier process.
7. The increased blood flow occurring within the respiratory organs zone and origination of various situations of micro-stress type (hypoxia, hypercap– nia, etc.) provide for cardiovascular system workout. The work of both becomes well-coordinated.
8. The basal metabolic rate becomes harmonized.
9. The blood inflow causes stimulation of the local immunity which helps in prevention of lung disease. It can be also used in treating the already existing disorders.
10. Since the airways are massaged by the “proper” airflow (most of pranayamas are performed with one’s mouth closed and so the air that gets into the respiratory system is already warmed, humidified and purified) it factors into pranayama’s mild anti–inflammatory effect.
11. One of the main effects produced by a number of pranayamas (Kapal– abhati, Akapalabhati, etc.) is the prevention of visual impairments and ENT organs diseases.
12. Active participation of diaphragm in the act of breathing helps to massage the internal organs, especially those of digestive tract. Besides, when the organism is subject to hypoxia there occurs an adaptive redistribution of blood flow when blood supply of vital organs is set as priority. It facilitates the healthcare effect of pranayamas for almost all organs and systems.
13. A similar effect is caused by pranayamas performed in a speedy temporhythm (Kapalabhati, Bhastrika) since it provides for intensive fluctuations of the intracavitary pressure rate and promotes hydraulic massage of the internal organs. This effect is of much importance for the brain cavity organs for it is virtually the only physiological way of craniaocerebral pressure normalization.
14. The reflexory effect. It is no secret that many organs and systems are connected through numerous reflexes. By means of engaging the respiratory muscles we activate the proprio-visceral reflexes, while in terms of “breathing” the pranayama in some certain body positions we enable the viscero-visceral reflexes.
When adjusting the length of each inhale and exhale, as well as breath delays, we change the concentration of oxygen and carbon dioxide with various intensity degree thus “training” the body’s buffering systems, the humoral element of regulation process. And this, in its turn, contributes to the “establishment” of relationships between organs and systems of the body as a whole.
15. Many pranayamas (Chandra- and Surya–Bheda, Surya Viloma etc.) selectively and persistently activate the sympathetic or parasympathetic parts of the autonomic nervous system, thus enhancing the body toning or aggravating the sedation. The pranayamas like Anuloma Viloma contribute to balancing the unbalanced parts of the autonomic nervous system.
16. The peculiarity of the external respiration function is that it appears to be simultaneously automatic and of voluntarily controlled kind. The supraliminal performance of breathing techniques enhances the quota of cortical regulation that is ontogenetically younger and therefore more vulnerable. Regular training contributes to its development and more acute differentiation.
17. The adaptive changes occurred in reply to established conditions of micro-stress in scope of oxygen utilization system increase the number of respiratory enzymes, the mass and capacity of mitochondria; despite the lack of oxygen in the afferent blood the cells’ ability to produce energy decreases. And in the course of time there develops a sustainable and saving adaptation at the tissue level (F. Z. Meerson).
18. The influence upon emotional sphere. The states of emotional nature cause changes in one’s breathing. Here, the unexpected or stress situations make one breath with some pauses, while an intensive emotional shock or excitement leads to hurried expiration, it may result in respiratory embarrassment and the feeling of shortness of breath. It is worthy of note that even upon a person’s recollection of the situation that bears emotional significance his breath shall change in compliance with emotion that occurred in the past; the person “replays” the previously experienced state in complete. Based on these observations we may draw a conclusion that “every situation tells”: the human psyche and the body attached to it are like a “diary” that contains the records on almost every experienced situation (in the language of yoga these “emotions” are called vasanas, and in terms of psychotherapy these are the subliminal complexes, the systems of condensed experience (St. Grof). Those of them that are emotionally unpleasant and that often come as the reason of many diseases the person hides from himself by means of the so-called de– fense mechanisms. And in order to start up the healing process one should let the situation out. For instance, by means of formation of a certain type of breathing. And when the situation is uncovered, it can be worked with. This principle comes as basis of numerous techniques employed by modern psychotherapy and those of shamanism. Such techniques can be enhanced through a combination of asanas and pranayamas, by affecting a certain projection zone associated with “problematic area” of the body.
Thus, a pranayama can be considered a kind of psycho–technique (See A. G. Safronov “Psycho–practices in Mystical Traditions: from the Antiquity to the Present”). In order to make its performance more effective one should use some keys. In particular, one needs to become aware of emotions that occur in the process of breathing and further subject them to mastering and working with.
19. In addition to the afore-drawn effects pranayamas also come as a powerful tool of affecting the person’s energetic structure, they facilitate the cleansing of energetic channels, intensify the existing “personal set” and energetic capacity of the practicing person, and when used correctly they contribute to development of the energy management skills. And thus in scope of yoga practice they act as a link between the techniques that are directly related to body and the techniques designed to alter the emotional and behavioral stereotypes, to mental processes’ management. Pranayama plays a role of a bridge that brings together the body and the soul.
Here is a short list of the healing effects that the body enjoys in case of regular practicing pranayamas. We shall add that all pranayamas are very different and therefore they can be fitted individually, depending upon the current goals and objectives. But the performance of such practice is recommended after mastering the skill of rather delicate reflecting one’s physical and emotional conditions. No wonder that ancient Acharyas who were carefully keeping the valuable knowledge used to disclose the secrets of skillful breath control to yoga adepts like an elixir — drop by drop: when properly used and applied, it (the knowledge) promised much health and wealth, while if applied carelessly and in one’s hurry, it spelled maladies and other troubles.