Science is slowly demonstrating what yoga practitioners have been teaching for thousands of years. Recently, a team of medical researchers from the Netherlands published a study demonstrating that breathing techniques taught in yoga actually influenced the body’s sympathetic nervous system—the part that controls non-conscious responses, such as the fight-or-flight response, as well as immune system efficiency.
The breathing techniques of yoga are known as pranayama. The word ‘prana’ means ‘life-force’—that which animates nature and this is displayed as the amount of vitality you have as you focus on aspects of your life. The word ‘yama’ means ‘to sustain’. Prana has the same meaning as the Chinese word ‘Qi’, the Japanese word ‘ki’, the Egyptian word ‘ka,’ and the Hawaiian word ‘mana’. The ancient Greeks called it ‘pneuma’, and Christians call it ‘Spirit’ or ‘Holy Spirit’ from the Latin ‘spiritus’ meaning ‘breath’(1). Pranayama is a suite of breathing practices to lift your vitality.
The vitality of your life is reflected in the urges, drives, and the emotional pull of love and joy you experience—the gusto to achieve what you want in life. We know that emotional stress pulls our immune system down. Many of us also know from experience that the health of our immune system impacts back on your overall vitality in a cyclical pattern. The ability to breathe in certain ways, while maintaining a particular focus, is the key to breaking this cyclical pattern.
When we experience emotional stress such as anger, sadness, anxiety or fear, our breathing changes. For example, when you feel sad you sigh; when you feel frustrated, your breathing becomes tense. People experiencing depression tend to breathe in a shallow way, high in the chest. Prolonged poor breathing like this impacts on the immune system and it also tends to maintain the unwanted emotions and the depressed state of mind. Take a moment to observe your breathing right now, without changing it. Is your body able to naturally breathe deeper and make your tummy move in and out, or do you naturally breathe shallow breaths only in your upper chest—and your tummy area does not move at all?
Being unwell, suffering from low moods, anxiety or depression, or, being stressed without even realising it, causes your breathing to alter the oxygen to carbon dioxide ratios in your body. This has physiological consequences for both your organs and your immune system, and in addition, it quickens the aging process. One of the keys to slowing the aging process (both physically and mentally) is to naturally maintain youthful breathing.
In Classical yoga, the practice of pranayama has two components: the various breathing techniques to alter your oxygen to carbon dioxide ratios, in combination with types of mental focus to induce vitality. You need to regularly combine both components to maintain a strong and efficient immune system—to stop for example, viruses like influenza making you sick. More importantly as you age, a healthy immune system will prevent cancer masses from forming and reduce the chances of developing autoimmune diseases—and you will age gracefully.
I was teaching pranayama courses at the Australian National University as far back as 1990, and am now running 60 minute lunchtime mini-workshops where you can learn and take home some of the yoga secrets to breathing your way to better health. To attend one of these mini-workshops, phone Larisa on (02) 62826800.
1. In a recent essay, this is how Jo Roy, a current student yoga teacher of mine, described her spirit:
‘I see spirit as my character, my passion, momentum, drive, fragility, my emotions—I feel my spirit can be ignited and also extinguished…. it can run positively and negatively. I feel it as something that is evolving, it is fluid, fiery, shifting, changing. It lights up when it is connected to my soul and is the very part of me that physically reacts to connection, passion, emotions, and feelings. It is the part of me that can be childlike, leaping and dancing. It is the part of me that needs to be lead, guided and supported in order to light up… and not put out. Spirit is the part of me that can be developed, that aims toward being the best it can be, it can be changed, it can learn, it can grow.’