Pranayama is a part of the eight limbs, or stages of Yoga. It is an essential part of the daily practice.
Pranayama is a Sanskrit word that means ‘extension of the prana or breath or life force’. Pranayama also means ‘breath control’.
The word is composed from two Sanskrit words: prana ‘life force’ and ayama which means ‘to control’. Therefore Pranayama is about controlling and extending the breath.
The control is performed through:
Benefits of Pranayama:
Pranayama can prevent and reduce the physical effects related to stress disorders
It can assist in developing a steady mind, by focusing the attention on each inhalation and exhalation
It can enhance the respiratory capacity by oxygenating all parts of the lungs
It can improve the digestion and the endocrine system activity
It can lower the blood pressure by releasing tension in the body and the nervous system
It can help improve concentration and memory
It can improve physiological parameters, mood and quality of life
The diaphragm: our friend in the practice
The primary muscle of respiration is the diaphragm. It is a layer of skeletal muscles that attaches to the inner surface of the ribs and the lumbar vertebrae, converging at a central tendon. The diaphragm separates the thoracic cavity, containing the heart, lungs and liver from the abdominal cavity and performs an important function in respiration.
During each inhalation the diaphragm contracts, the volume of the thoracic cavity increases creating a vacuum that let the air drawn into the lungs.
At each exhalation the rib muscles relax, the diaphragm goes up and the rib cage gets smaller, allowing the air to be exhaled.
The rate and the depth of our breathing is controlled by the respiratory centers. These respiratory centers are located in the medulla oblongata and in pons in the brain stream.
When the carbon dioxide level in the blood is high, the blood lowers its PH. The chemical receptors in the body detect the decrease amount in blood PH and trigger a signal towards the Respiratory Center which then activates the respiratory muscles to breath in. This mechanism happens involuntarily many times, from 5.000 to 30.000 times per day!Wow!
‘The mind is the king of the senses and the breath is the king of the mind’. B.K.S. Iyengar
Breathing is the only way to control the Autonomic Nervous System.
The Nervous System (N.S.) is made of:
The Peripheral Nervous System is classified into three parts:
The Somatic N.S.
The Autonomic N.S.
The Enteric N.S.
We use the Somatic N.S. for example every time we go to the gym lifting the weight, or simply by walking in the street or drinking a glass of water.
The Autonomic Nervous System is composed by the Sympathetic Nervous System and the Parasympathetic Nervous System.
The Sympathetic N.S. is activated when our body and mind receive stress inputs from the outside environment and it is basically a survival mechanism.
When we feel ourselves in danger our body reacts by increasing the blood pressure, by raising the blood sugar and then we get ready for ‘Fight or Flight’. This mechanism has played a fundamental role for our evolution, protecting us from immediate threats, like wild animals attacking, enemies etc..
In our daily lives we usually experience stress. It all depends on how we respond to it.
When I was living in Rome for example I had to spend a lot of hours in traffic, dealing with aggressive drivers and people yelling at me. It was really hard to be calm and steady (as you can see when my friend Alessia drives in Rome…).
I also recognize that kind of anxiety when I move from one place to another, or even while I have to pack for a trip. In these moments I always feel a lack of grounding and support.
There is something that triggers in my mind and it starts to produce a list of ‘What if?’.
I make a sequence of risk management scenarios and alternative plans that can be overwhelming after a while.
Taking care of things is important and we all want to be responsible and productive but when we hold those feelings and thoughts for too long, then we create a wall, a barrier, that separates us from reality.
On the other hand, if we are able to recognize our mental patterns we can create space between the stimuli and our reactions. In this way breathing is a way in which we can activate our Parasympathetic Nervous System, also called ‘Rest and Digest’ mode.
It’s that kind of feeling that you might experience when you are sitting at the beach and you watch the waves of the ocean, or maybe when you are walking surrounded by the trees and you enjoy the gentle sounds of the leaves moved by the wind.
What events trigger an over reaction from you?
Can you trust in your body by giving yourself the chance to observe your breathe?
What if you could use your breathe as a tool to reduce the negative stress and to promote a better life style?
I believe that pranayama and in general all the breathing techniques, are tools that acts as a ‘rescue’ remedy when i feel overwhelmed from something. They are really effective and powerful. They don’t require a big effort in terms of time. I usually do it 5-10 minutes daily as a way to ‘clean’ the body. I’m also aware that it is not a ‘panacea’ and that it is part of a wider practice, but it works!
‘Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time’ - Thomas A. Edison
‘RANDOMIZED, CONTROLLED, SIX-MONTH TRIAL OF YOGA IN HEALTHY SENIORS: EFFECTS ON COGNITION AND QUALITY OF LIFE’ - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1457100/
‘A YOGA INTERVENTION FOR YOUNG ADULTS WITH ELEVATED SYMPTOMS OF DEPRESSION’ - http://search.proquest.com/openview/344413c890b7f879f2e9bd0d71586c18/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=32528
‘Beneficial effects of yoga lifestyle on reversibility of ischaemic heart disease: caring heart project of International Board of Yoga’ - http://europepmc.org/abstract/med/15636328
‘Immediate cardiovascular effects of pranava pranayama in hypertensive patients’ - http://imsear.li.mahidol.ac.th/handle/123456789/146120
‘Physiology of long pranayamic breathing: Neural respiratory elements may provide a mechanism that explains how slow deep breathing shifts the autonomic nervous system’- http://www.medical-hypotheses.com/article/S0306-9877(06)00166-6/fulltext
‘The mechanics of Respiration’ - www.3d-yoga.com