The science and ancient yogic wisdom behind breathing and the mind body connection.
By Mackenzie Russell
The stomach is where many of the 72,000 Nadis connect and it is here that we often practice sending the breath. When we don’t feel our feelings or deal with past trauma our “issues live in the tissues” (Thomas, Kurtis Lee. 2020) and some energy gets stuck in our bodies. Stress manifests in many ways and if left to fester, can cause harm to our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual selves. This stagnant energy that resides within us can be moved when we activate the breath purposefully. In this way, the breath acts as a way to cleanse our emotional energy which ultimately makes us healthier beings in every way.
“Prana is the link between matter and consciousness, and body and mind, soul and spirit.” (Kivinen, Tiina. Amrita Living YTT Manual, 2020)
Breathing is an act that strengthens our body awareness and expands our consciousness. When we become aware of how we feel, we are better able to address these feelings and deal with them in effective ways. When we cultivate a consistent Pranayama practice, we can reduce stress while it is still small. If we let the effects of stress build and snowball by hiding from our issues then we might start to see anxiety, panic attacks, and depression creeping in, or becoming more prominent.
Modern science is now beginning to catch up to what the ancient yogis have been teaching all along. There are more and more studies showing just how important and beneficial breathwork is for many aspects of human life. For example in his book Breath - The New Science of a Lost Art, James Nestor states:
“Modern research is showing us that making even slight adjustments to the way we inhale and exhale can jump-start athletic performance; rejuvenate internal organs; halt snoring, asthma, and autoimmune disease; and even straighten scoliotic spines. None of this should be possible, and yet it is.” (Nestor 2020)
Studies and research aside, the benefits of breathing exercises can be felt immediately when you give them a try. There are many different techniques to explore. Take a deep dive and see which ones feel good for you. It is definitely worth the investment.
“In the end, breath, movement, and energy is life, and life is breath, movement, and energy.” (Kripalu. 2019)
The breath is a tool available to everyone from birth to death and it is so simple yet so profound! It connects our mind and body and it anchors us to the present moment. Breathing techniques have been used for centuries as a way to calm the nervous system, as a practical tool for healing, and as a way to connect with our inner selves. The beautiful thing about the breath is that it is completely free, always available and the effects are immediate and undeniable.
The breath is voluntary (we can control it) and involuntary (happens naturally even when we aren’t thinking about it). It is through this voluntary control of breathing, or breathwork, that we can access the powers of the breath to connect and calm the mind and body. In most techniques, it is suggested to breathe through the nose. This is because nose breathing filters and warms the air, which keeps the air in excellent condition to transfer oxygen and carbon dioxide efficiently. Taking deep breaths in through the nose, is the optimal way to communicate with our brain and peripheral nervous system (the nerves and ganglia outside of the brain), which is the gateway between the mind and body. As we lengthen our breath, deepen our exhales, and bring awareness to our breathing, we activate our vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is responsible for telling our brain that we are safe and can relax. The breath is a unique aspect of our nervous system through which we can access our sympathetic nervous system (fight, flight, freeze, or activated/stress response state) and parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest, calm state). When our brain gets the signal that it can get out of the fight, flight or freeze state, then our parasympathetic nervous system is activated. When this happens, things can begin to settle and our heart rate slows down, our blood pressure decreases and a sense of calm begins to rush over us. In times of panic, stress, or increased emotions of any kind, we can always turn to the breath as an anchor. When we control our breath we control our mind. It roots us to the present moment as it pulls us out of our head and into our bodies, away from our thinking mind and into our being selves.
In Yoga, this breathwork is called Pranayama and it is one of the 8 Limbs of Yoga. The Sanskrit words that make up Pranayama can be roughly translated as follows:
Prana - life force- vital energy that animates all of creation
Yama - discipline, restraints
Ayama - expansion and cultivation
Pranayama could be interpreted as “through discipline, the life force is expanded”. In other words, controlling the breath to achieve a desired result. Through different practices the breath can be calming, balancing, energizing and more. According to Kripalu yoga lineage, “The breath is one of the easiest doorways into the capabilities of the human nervous system because it touches every aspect of our being: physical, physiological, psycho-emotional, and spiritual.” (Kripalu website 2020)
Pranayama can be described as breath control and expansion, or careful control of Prana through specific techniques. It is attuning to the life force (Prana) as it circulates through the body. Since Prana can be described as the energy that makes up all of creation as well as the energetic life force within us, the breath is the way that we connect to this energy.
In the yogic tradition, Prana moves through the Nadis (energetic channels) and Chakras (energetic centers) and when Prana rises in the body, eventually to the crown chakra (Sahasrara) the quality of consciousness changes, potentially leading to a bliss state (Samadhi, the 8th limb of Yoga). Continued below...
In this course you will learn about pranayama or mindful breathing techniques as well as their benefits with Mackenzie. Included are 6 practices, each about 10 minutes long where she will guide you through:
In each practice, she will give you a detailed explanation about why, when and how to use each of these yogic breathing techniques, as well as teach you the Sanskrit names for each. Also included is a Relaxation Meditation where you can put your new skills into practice.
Once you've complete this course, you will experience the amazing benefits of pranayama firsthand, you'll have a better understanding of how to apply it when practicing on your own and you can feel more confident about it next time it comes up in a yoga class.
Sample Video from Mackenzie's Breathing Techniques Course on Salti Yoga Online.