Painting by Juliane Porter
Pranayama, in Yoga, is the practice of controlling the breath, which is the source of our pranah, or vital life force. If we control the breath, we control the mind. Stated differently, fast breathing = restless mind; still breath = still mind and clear perception. When the breath is still, the mind is still.
Pranayama should only be practiced: after at least a year of asana practice, if one follows a Sattvic Diet, and if one practices the Kriyas (cleansing techniques). It must always be taught under the guidance of an experienced teacher and should never be learned from books. It is said that Pranayama, practiced correctly, has the power to cure all disease. Conversely, pranayama practiced incorrectly, can be the cause of all disease. One must practice slowly and steadily as Pranah must only be raised slowly and steadily. Let's look into the incredible benefits of Pranayama Practice and the fascinating science behind it for further clarification.
There is a tiny organ in the middle of the chest which controls pranah. Prana is the universal energy, magnetism, electricity while Pranah (with an "h" on the end) refers to Life Force in a living being. Pranah consists of 10 Vayus, or vital force within various parts of the body. Although Pranah is one homogeneous energy, it can be divided into these 10 Vayus. The Vayus control all the moving faculties within the body. For example, The Apanu Vayu runs from the naval to the perineum, controlling excretion. The Prana (different than Prana/Pranah) Vayu runs from the naval to the throat, controlling respiratory breathing.
The whole science of Pranayama is based on the Pranendriya pulsating in synchronization with the breath. When we breath fast or irregularly we experience a lack of clarity, impaired sensory perception and a restless mind. On the other hand, when we breath slowly with regulation, the Prenendriya is in a state of pause and we're able to perceive accurately, think clearly and experience peace of mind. Pranayama techniques are first used to calm the mind so we can meditate, especially via the technique of Kumbacha (breath retention) practiced by yogis since Vedic times, which slows the breath and retains it for a period of time, leading to transcendence of duality.
KUMBACHA & THE BOHR AFFECT
As we're aware, breathing delivers oxygen from the air, through the respiratory system, to be converted into energy within the body’s cells. Oxygen is transported in blood by hemoglobin (in the red blood cells), however, oxygen needs to be released from the hemoglobin in order to be absorbed in the body. Here is the fascinating piece. When there is a higher concentration of carbon dioxide in the blood, hemoglobin releases oxygen, allowing more oxygen to reach our organs, muscles and tissues and be converted into energy. So, carbon dioxide, commonly only thought of as a toxic gas, turns out to be a key feature in enabling oxygen to get to where it is needed in the body.
The Bohr Affect refers to scientific studies by Danish Scientist, Christian Bohr, who discovered this fact, that Carbon Dioxide is essential in helping oxygen to release its bond with hemoglobin, and thereby, as a person’s oxygen levels increase in the blood stream, carbon dioxide levels then drop. So, without a healthy level of CO2, oxygen cannot be released, which is the root cause of many disorders. Stated simply, high levels of CO2 indicates greater absorption of Oxygen into the blood which means Hemoglobin's Oxygen binding capacity is inversely related to CO2 concentration. Without proper levels of CO2, Oxygen can't be released from the red blood cells into the tissues. CO2 increases the capacity for Oxygen absorption. Even if there is a lot of Oxygen in the blood, it can't be absorbed unless there is enough CO2.
Kumbacha (breath retention) allows blood chemistry to normalize via the balancing of Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide (CO2) via two controls, the Heart Sensor located near the heart and the Brain Sensor, in the brain. When blood is low on oxygen (O2) the Heart Sensor notices and it speeds up respiration. When the body is low on Carbon Dioxide (CO2) the body responds via the Brain Sensor, which tells the body to slow down respiration.
The lowering of CO2 affects blood acid balance which causes blood vessels in the brain (the capillaries) to constrict reducing the amount of oxygen in the brain, in which case, the Brain Sensor signals the body to slow down breathing. In other words, to get oxygen to the brain, we need to breath slowly, and we need enough CO2. Stated yet another way: slowing down our breathing increases CO2 in the blood, which in turn increases the necessary oxygen to the brain, and in turn stimulates brain capillaries to dilate so blood can flow through them. Brain function is improved, thereby improving the function of the entire body. It is totally wrong to say CO2 is a waste product.
THE HALDANE AFFECT
John Scott Haldane found the deoxygenation of blood increases it's capacity for CO2, which means the more the tissues can absorb Oxygen, the more CO2 increases. Hyperventilation, or fast breathing or hyperventilation (such as much of us do) leads to lower levels of CO2 and therefore, reduced Oxygenation which further lowers CO2. A healthy human has 7% CO2 levels, whereas the atmosphere has .036-.039%. High levels of CO2 (the result of Pranayama: slow, regulated breathing and breath retention) means efficient oxidative metabolism (the exchange of O2 & CO2) which allows for O2 to release when and where needed.
This sheds new light on CO2 for many of us who thought it was simply a waste product we gave to the trees! In actuality, as Professor and Physiologist Yandell Henderson points out, CO2 is the primary hormone in the body because it is the only one produced by every tissue and acts on every organ. Ironically, CO2 is, in fact "The Breath of Life".
In summary, Pranayama, the constriction of airways via controlled breathing techniques, leads to higher levels of CO2 which improves O2 delivery throughout the tissues of the body and dilates brain capillaries - creating an incredible health cascade. Additionally, inflammation is decreased by stabilizing Mast Cells and Nerve Cells, and mitochondrial activity is increased... Intrigued? We've only touched the tip of the ice berg. Stay tuned, as I know, this scientific info is often best in small doses so I will leave the rest of the juicy benefits, science... and a technique any of us can practice even if we haven't yet practiced Asana for one year... for Part II.
Do you practice Pranayama? What is your experience of the benefits? Please feel free to share any questions and comments you have.
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