Updated: Jun 18, 2020
Breath. Pranayama. Expansion. Nervous system. Diaphragm.
Think about it. Right now, your body is breathing all on it's own. You are not deciding the breath, it is a part of your autonomous nervous system. A system without constant conscious control.
Whether we think about it or not, our body draw breath all the time. By breathing consciously, you build a bridge between the conscious and the unconscious mind and system as well as create awareness towards your breathing challenges in different emotional behavioral settings.
Breath practice and the effect on our nervous system
There are two sub-categories to our autonomous nervous system. Sympathetic (active) and parasympathetic (deactivating) nervous systems.
Our sympathetic nervous system controls our bodily response to physical activity by increasing the heart rate, muscle activation, blood pressure, digestion, sweat amount, urination, sexual arousal and other functions. Stimulation of this system would for example be exercising. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), this would be our "yang" system, or in Indian Yogic Philosophy (IYP) you might draw a parallel to Pingala Naadi, the sun energy.
Our parasympathetic nervous system controls the opposite work; decrease of heart rate, relaxing muscles, slowing down blood pressure, preparing the body for sleep, rest and digestion. Stimulation of this system would be sleeping or having peaceful thoughts for example. In TCM this would be our "yin" system. In IYP this might be Ida Naadi, the moon energy.
Stimulation of both systems occurs when you draw breath. Through each cycle of breath you draw inhale and exhale. When inhaling you activate/contract your diaphragm muscle, stimulating your sympathetic/active/yang/sun-system. On your exhale your diaphragm muscle relaxes and you stimulate your parasympathetic/resting/yin/moon-system.
The diaphragm muscle
The diaphragm is the primary muscle used when breathing. It is a dome shaped muscle placed just below your lungs and heart. This muscle is contracting and getting flat when you inhale, which creates a vacuum effect pulling air into the lungs. When you exhale the diaphragm relaxes and blows back up to the dome shape - pushing the air out of the lungs.
TEST: Sit down comfortably. Take a couple of deep breaths in and out.
What is harder; breathing in or breathing our? Do you feel how your diaphragm relaxes on your exhale and how it takes more energy to inhale deep than it does to exhale?
What you feel is your diaphragm muscle activating and resting. If you are doing a breath practice where you lengthen inhales and exhales, your diaphragm will be active on both in- and exhales. This is happening when you practice sama vritti (counted breath, see below).
Physical benefits of deep breaths
When you deepen your breath, you move the diaphragm to a lower point, utilizing the lower part of your lungs. This will improve your lymphatic drainage from the base of your lungs, massage your pancreas, gall bladder, liver, stomach and other organs.
Using a bigger part of your lungs will also allow more fresh air to enter your system. This has a positive effect on your cardiac functions and improves oxygenation of blood and circulation.
Mental benefits of deep breaths
Breathing deep and slow also results in a more calm heart rate. Oppose to shallow or rapid breath happening from the chest, deep diaphragmatic breaths will calm your system by allowing more time for your system to rest and digest by soothing the parasympathetic/resting/yin/moon-system.
TEST: Place your right hand on your belly and your left hand on your heart.
First, breathe as rapid and shallow as possible into your left hand. Notice how you feel.
Next, breathe slow and deep into your right hand. Notice how you feel.
Where do you feel most comfortable and relaxed?
When we feel stress, trauma, insecure, anxiety, etc. a most common reaction is to find rapid, shallow breaths from the chest. Our blood vessels gets constricted and the heart rate increases. This will often restricts our digestive function as well. Taking deep breaths in these situations will have a counter beneficial effect as our heart rate lowers, your mind gets a singular focus and your entire system will promote relaxation through stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system.
Pranayama (breath expansion) techniques
Dirga / Yogic Breath. Three part yogic breath. Dividing your torso into 3 sections. Belly as section 1, solar plexus and lateral sides as section 2, and chest to top as section 3. Initiate your inhale from belly/1, then inhale to the middle/2, then to chest/3. Exhale from 3, then 2, lastly 1. So every breath begins and ends at the belly.
Ujjayi. Victorious breath - inhale and exhale with contraction of throat muscles. Creates a sound like the ocean waves. Equal inhale and exhale length. Often used during yoga practice. Called victorious breath because it takes a lot of focus due to length, sound, activation and is believed to be a tool to gain control over hunger and thirst.
Sama Vritti. Equally counted breath. Classical counted breath with 4:4:4:4 method, count inhale 4, hold for 4, count exhale 4, hold for 4, etc. Can also be done with other counts such as 4:2:4:2, 4:1:3:2, or any combination of your choice.
Valoma. Interrupted breath. Dividing your breath into 3 or 4 stops. Can either be done on inhales (antara kumbhaka) or on exhales (bahya kumbhaka). Interruption of inhale and full calm exhale is by far the most relaxing version, as you completely deactivates the diaphragm on exhale and do not keep activating it to slow down your exhale.
Naadi Shodhana. Alternate nostril breath. Shifting between holding a finder to block the right or left nostril, breath alternates between entering and exiting from the two nostrils. Inhale through left, exhale through right, inhale through right and exhale through left is one round. You often combine this practice with a form of sama vritti and count your in- and exhales and maybe even your holds on top or/and bottom. For example 4:4:4:4, 5:5:10:5, even 5:20:10:10.
All the above mentioned techniques have a soothing and calming effect on your system. Other breath techniques as Kapalabhaati or Bhastrika is hyperventilations and might not have the desired calming effect, although they are grate for concentration, energizing the mind or preparing for meditations.
One big breath and thank you
Inhale deeply. Hold for a moment. Exhale completely.
Thank you so much for reading this far.
Write a question below, if there is anything you would like to know.