Most people don’t think about breathing because we don’t really have to. It’s part of the autonomic nervous system and happens automatically to keep us alive. We tend to become really aware of our breath when something is going wrong such as an asthma attack, anxiety, COPD, or if something were to happen to your diaphragm (the primary muscle of breathing), ribs, or your lungs. I (Tracy) became very aware of my breath many years ago (in 2004) when I underwent a surgery that required the collapsing of my lungs. Wow, was waking up from that uncomfortable, and man did it give me a new appreciation for smoothly functioning respiration!
Yoga is special for so many reasons, one reason is its focus on breath control, or what is called pranayama in the yoga tradition. In the classical yoga system laid out by Pantanjali’s eight limbs of yoga thousands of years ago, pranayama practice comes after social restraints (yama), personal disciplines (niyama), and the physical practice (asana) and is what helps lead us to withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara), concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana) and ultimately a state of bliss and freedom from the entrapments of our mind and suffering (samadhi). Pranayama comes from the idea of prana, meaning life force and that which sustains all of life and fills us with vital energy. Thus, pranayama literally means “life force extension.” We can sustain healthy prana in our body by eating healthy foods, sustaining healthy relationships, moving our bodies in healthy ways, and different types of breath practices.
We now know from scientific and medical studies that when we inhale, we get a small dose of adrenaline, and our sympathetic nervous system is activated which is responsible for our fight or flight and stress response. When we exhale, we activate the parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for our ability to rest and digest, and feel calm. When you have this simplified understanding, it makes it easier to understand the immense power we hold in using our breathing to regulate our nervous system which also has a profound impact on our mental and physical health. For example, in the military community PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is very common and prevalent. A major symptom of PTSD is that the nervous system gets stuck in that stress response and sympathetic state which can lead to chronic pain in the body, anxiety disorders, and excess cortisol and adrenaline being pumped through the body. Enter yoga and pranayama techniques! We can use breath control techniques to regulate the nervous system and help bring us back to homeostasis, balance, and harmony. We don’t only use pranayama to calm us down…we can also use it for the opposite effect to help increase our energy and vitality which can help symptoms of depression.
If you’re interested in learning more, take a trip to your local yoga studio and jump into a class. If you’re interested in sharing the benefits of these physiological effects with your military or veteran community check out our next yoga teacher training! It’s all virtual with small classes sizes to maximize learning and teaching practices. How to see you on your mat!