Expert - View Breathing exercises – the natural way to a healthy life
Dejan Kupnik, M.D.
Centre for Emergency Medicine - Prehospital Unit, Maribor/Slovenia, Europe
(certified YIDL teacher)
The ancient system and science of yoga is one of the most priceless jewels ever discovered and revealed. Not only does yoga take care of our physical body with asanas (physical exercises) and pranayamas (breathing exercises) – it also nourishes our inner world and balances the mental and spiritual forces of the human being. Increasingly, yoga knowledge is penetrating practically all fields of today's science, including medicine, chemistry, physics and so forth. In this article we will focus on breathing exercises (pranayama) and their effects on the human body.
The breathing process influences our health
My first observation as a doctor was that the majority of people do not use all the breathing capacities that our body offers. Most of the time people breathe quickly and superficially without complete use of the most important muscle for breathing – the diaphragm. Why is this muscle so important? It separates the chest cavity from the abdomen and with inhalation it begins to move downward into the abdomen and expands the chest cage in all directions. By this movement, air is drawn into all parts of lungs, the abdominal contents are slightly compressed and abdominal pressure increases. So this movement also influences our digestion and increases blood circulation to the abdominal organs. By increasing the pressure inside the abdomen and at the same time lowering the pressure in the chest cavity (as happens with each inhalation), a pressure difference arises between abdomen and chest and that intensifies the blood flow from the abdomen to the heart. So by breathing properly and using the diaphragm completely (and especially by practising some pranayama techniques such as bhastrika) we inhale greater amounts of air, but above and beyond that we also improve our circulation, strengthen the heart muscle and lungs, and improve and speed up the digestion process. The latter is also connected with balancing the levels of fats in the blood which in the long term lowers the incidence of heart attack and stroke. Beside this, we can also observe a positive influence on the function of the liver, spleen and pancreas. With a better functioning pancreas, the blood sugar level is balanced, lowering the incidence of late-onset diabetes mellitus.
There are two important factors which should be mentioned. Firstly, we know that by eating various food products we also consume a lot of dangerous and often carcinogenic compounds which by nature are capable of causing cancer. These compounds are usually found in various food products as preservatives and other additives. If these compounds stay in our digestive system for long periods of time and if our digestion process is slow, then they get more opportunity to initiate some dangerous changes in the digestional tract. This is especially true for people who eat a lot of meat and fatty foods which slow down the digestion process. With regular physical and breathing exercises and by consuming a lot of dietary fibre (for example, within a vegetarian diet) we can speed up the digestion process and eliminate carcinogenic compounds faster, depriving them of the chance to influence the intestines.
The second factor is our immune system. We know that each day at least one hundred cancer cells are developed in our body, but as long as our immune system functions properly, it destroys these cells and we don't become ill. Regular practising of pranayama techniques has a great positive effect on our immune system, especially when combined with regular physical exercise. By improving the blood circulation and the functioning of various organs and body structures, including those which are closely connected to the immune response, we can improve the state of our immune system.
Improving breathing capacities
Ordinarily there is a lesser amount of blood circulating in the upper parts of the pulmonary blood vessels and significantly greater amount in lower parts of lungs, especially below the level of the heart. The reason is that hydrostatic pressures are lower in the blood vessels above the heart. There, the circulation is better only in systole (the time of contraction of the heart) and much less in dyastole (the time when heart ''rests'' between contractions). By practising yoga, we can quite easily overcome this situation. When we practise asanas in the recumbent position, the pressures in pulmonary blood vessels are equal throughout the lungs, the blood flow in upper parts of lungs increases and, by breathing deeply and slowly, the blood in the lungs can take more oxygen from inhaled air. In this way, the blood flow increases by up to 7 to 8 times in the upper parts of the lungs and up to 2 to 3 times in the lower parts of lungs. There is, of course, a limit to the blood's capacity to carry the oxygen but with deeper breathing, especially in recumbent position, we supply the body with larger quantities of oxygen than otherwise.
Influencing the nervous system through breathing
Breathing exercises have been shown to lower blood pressure, both systolic and diastolic, and it has been reported (Cochrane Library of Studies) that regular pranayama in combination with physical yoga exercises and relaxation techniques helps to decrease the number of epileptic seizures and their duration in people treated for epilepsy. The reason for this lies in the fact that, by practising pranayama, we can successfully balance the activities of the central nervous system. This happens because the activity of the breathing centre in our brainstem directly influences other nearby centres which regulate the frequency of the heart beat and blood pressure. Also affected (calmed and balanced) are awareness processes, thinking mechanisms and centres which regulate hunger and sexual activity. By influencing the parts of the brain where our subconscious and conscious activities originate, we can control and balance the entire central nervous system.
As mentioned before, the calming effects of breathing exercises influence the state of our blood vessels. By lowering the activity of the sympathetic nervous system during the practice of pranayama, the tonus of the smooth blood vessel muscles, which tend to dilate, is also lowered. The whole body is thus supplied with greater amounts of blood and oxygen and the diastolic blood pressure is effectively lowered. With increased blood flow in the tissues, the body eliminates and excretes all the metabolic waste products faster. Regeneration processes can take place more efficiently and accumulation of waste material in the body's tissues is prevented.
Do's and don'ts with breathing techniques
There are a lot of pranayama techniques in the system of Yoga in Daily Life and they are associated with the various levels of the system. We always have to start with the easiest breathing exercises and the reason for that is quite simple: because of improper breathing habits, we first have to learn how to breathe in the right way. If we do this slowly and gently, the body will get used to the changes without any problems. But if we start to practise some highly advanced breathing techniques too early, it is a shock to the body. The breathing centres in the brainstem can be disturbed and, as a result, fast and very uncomfortable breathing and a feeling of shortness of breath can develop. We can end up with worse breathing than before. But by learning the right way of breathing and practising breathing exercises step by step, we allow the body to adapt to these changes peacefully.
Before we begin with the first level of pranayama (nadi sodhan), it is important to learn to breathe with the diaphragm. During inhalation, we first expand our belly and then the chest, going from bottom to the top, and during exhalation we passively relax, chest first and then the belly, going from top to bottom. We must not breathe forcefully, but in a slow and comfortable manner. During this initial learning process, we don't have to inhale to our maximum capacity – just a little deeper and slower than usual. In the process, the body gets used to the new way of breathing and begins to breathe more slowly and deeply by itself, without any conscious effort. It is more beneficial to breathe through the nose because, with the help of the so called nasopulmonary reflex that takes place with this kind of breathing, we can inhale and exhale deeper and slower and are stimulated to breathe with the diaphragm. By breathing through the nose the air we inhale becomes warmer, cleaner and moister.
Basic breathing exercises and pranayama techniques like nadi sodhan (without holding the breath) are generaly suitable for all who are not in the state of any acute medical condition. Pranayamas which contain forceful exhalations are not suitable for those having heart arrhythmias, angina pectoris, high blood pressure, aneurisms of aorta, aneurismatic malformations of the brain blood vessels, sepsis or any febrile illness, acute asthmatic attack or worsened bronchitis. The same is true for those who have untreated abdominal hernias, who underwent abdominal surgery in the last three to six months and those after heart infarction. For those who suffer from heart arrhythmias, angina pectoris, high blood pressure, glaucoma or any aneurismatic malformations of the blood vessels (brain, aorta) it is very important not to hold the breath between inhalations and exhalations, but to breathe in a fluent, non-forceful way.
People with asthma and chronic bronchitis benefit the most from pranayamas like nadi sodhan and ujjayi. For those who suffer from mental illnesses, the best breathing exercise is to breathe in through the nose and exhale slowly through the mouth, with eyes open the entire time, up to a maximum of five minutes. This exercise can be repeated 2 to 3 times a day.
By learning to breathe the right way – slower, deeper and more relaxed – we can positively influence the physical and mental processes of the body and harmonize and balance our entire being. This greatly affects the quality and duration of our lives and unfolds spiritual development.
Yogic techniques are so powerful that they can actually transform our very body structure. There are numerous reports about advanced yogis whose bodies did not decompose in the usual way after physical death. Their bodies stayed in a sort of mummified condition even though they were not exposed to any embalming processes. So far the only explanation for this phenomenon lies in the effect of pranayama and meditation techniques which transformed the bodies of these yogis.