There is no doubt that yoga and pranayama are now becoming increasingly popular in modern Western society. But what does science say about these ancient breathing techniques?


Before diving into the science, let’s explore the origins of pranayama.

 

What is pranayama? 

Pranayama is an ancient breathing technique that finds its origin in yogic practices and is considered the ‘fourth limb’ of Ashtanga yoga. In Sanskrit, prana means breath—also called the life force—and yama means extension, giving pranayama the meaning of 'the extension of the life force.'


There are many pranayama practices, and they may be better described as breath regulation techniques. They modulate the breathing pace by either slowing down or pacing the breath, manipulating the nostrils, and breath retention.


According to yogic belief, you can control the power of your mind through the regulation of your breath. This idea has captivated the attention of the scientific world and catalyzed an entire movement of researchers. There is an ongoing quest to determine the validity of this bidirectional relationship between the mind and breath. 


In exploring pranayama’s bright future, this article highlights the modern applications of this ancient tradition, its relevance, and benefits in today's fast-paced world.

 

What is the mind-breath connection?

Slow and controlled breathing exercises are known to calm the mind and reduce excessive arousal. This kind of slow and controlled breathing forms a large basis for pranayama, and science seems to approve.


There is a vast body of research that suggests that pranayama improves mental and physical health through a down-regulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic nervous system.


In short, pranayama promotes parasympathetic dominance via direct vagal stimulation, linked to the vagus nerve. This nerve finds its origin in the brainstem and runs through the neck and thorax into the abdomen, forming a predominant part of the parasympathetic nervous system and playing an important role in the body’s involuntary sensory and motor functions. The vagus nerve – also known as vagal nerves – also acts as a counterbalance to the sympathetic nervous system and can trigger a relaxation response when stimulated.


Stimulation of the vagus nerve is achieved through deep, slow abdominal breathing. This is the kind of breathing we find in pranayama, and it is effective in shifting focus away from stressors and pain. Think of it as a way of using your breath to hack your mind and body into a state of calm.


Science Always Wins

Studies have demonstrated the health benefits of pranayama, such as:

  • Decreased blood pressure
  • Decreased heart rate variability
  • Mood regulation
  • Resilience to stress
  • Reduced anxiety

Yet, the influence of breathing techniques on our overall health still remains a topic of contention, and there is much that remains to be unveiled.


It's not that pranayama is wrong or that the evidence is flawed. There is simply more work that needs to be done on its applications and approaches as it is a vast and under-researched discipline.


However, there are breathing exercises with significant health benefits that are scientifically backed. These exercises follow the same basic principles of pranayama's slow abdominal breathing, and they have the research to prove their efficacy too.


Here are two science-driven breathing exercises that will change your life.


cyclic-sighing-breathing-technique

 

Technique 1: Cyclic Sighing

Cyclic sighing is a controlled breathing exercise that promotes long exhalations.

Longer exhalations reduce stress, anxiety, and psychological arousal through the direct stimulation of the vagus nerve. This, in turn, reduces stress responses associated with the sympathetic nervous system.


A study conducted by David Spiegel and Andrew Huberman shows that cyclic sighing takes only five minutes before there is evidence of overall body calmness.


Spiegel says that we can break the cycle of anxiety by teaching ourselves how to take control of our breath, and it’s not rocket science:


  1. Begin by breathing in through your nose.
  2. Once your lungs are filled, take a second, deeper sip of air to further expand the lungs.
  3. Then, slowly exhale through your mouth until your lungs are empty.

Even after as few as two or three of these sighs, you might already notice a feeling of calm flowing through your body.


Spiegel recommends repeating the process for five minutes to experience the full effect.


resonance-breathing-live-biofeedback

 

Technique 2: Resonance Breathing and Live Biofeedback

Resonance breathing is another exercise that increases parasympathetic activity through slow, diaphragmatic breathing at a specific frequency.


When breathing at a rate of six seconds per breath, the tone and activity of the vagus nerve are increased, and overall health is enhanced.


The goal is to achieve a state of resonance, in which your breathing and heart rate are in sync.


This results in immediate calm and can be taught using biofeedback equipment, a device that tracks your vitals and provides live feedback on your heart rate, breathing rate, and heart rate variability.


Take a look at Oxa breathing coach for more information on this incredible equipment that enables you to achieve a state of resonance by adjusting your breathing to respond to the live biofeedback signals provided.


***

While there is still much to be discovered about pranayama’s effects on the body and mind, it is clear that science has found a way to adapt our current knowledge of pranayama’s efficacy. This has led to the formulation of controlled and scientifically proven techniques for improving overall well-being. In the age of live biofeedback wearables that enable us to maximize this scientific potential, it is truly an exciting time to observe.


FAQs: 

Q: What is pranayama?

Pranayama is an ancient breathing technique that finds its origin in yogic practices and is considered as the ‘fourth limb’ of Ashtanga yoga. In Sanskrit, "prana" means breath—also called the life force— and "yama" means extension, giving pranayama the meaning of “the extension of the life force.”

 

Q: What is heart-rate-variability (HRV)?

HRV is a measure of the variation in time between each heartbeat. These minor fluctuations in your heartbeat are undetectable without specialized devices. HRV is a normal occurrence in healthy individuals and changes depending on activity. A slower heart rate indicates rest or relaxation, and a faster heart rate may occur during exercise, and moments of stress or danger.

 

Q: What is the sympathetic nervous system?

The sympathetic nervous system is a network of nerves commonly referred to as your fight or flight response. This system is stimulated during times of increased stress or perceived danger and is responsible for secreting stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline.

 

Q: What is diaphragmatic breathing?

Diaphragmatic breathing helps you use your diaphragm correctly while breathing. These practices, otherwise known as abdominal or belly breathing, are breathing techniques aimed at increasing oxygen intake during times of heightened stress.

Ready to begin?

Get the Oxa Sensor and your choice of garment - lounge-wear shirt, bra, or adjustable chest strap. Your purchase includes access to the Oxa app which gives personalized data summaries and insights, as well as access to breathing exercises to teach you how to harness the power of your own breath.