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The Power of Breathing

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Breathing has always been an interest for the spiritual and holistic community with its power to impact human brain and physiology. Breathing is an involuntary movement, running on an auto-pilot mode. Our Nervous system controls the breathing patterns and breathing can alter our nervous system in the same manner.

Breathing is so powerful that the way we breathe can have a positive or negative effect on our neurological, physiological and metabolic functions. By changing the breathing pattern (exhalation and inhalation), we can change our mental, physical and biological state to a great extent.

Breathing affects our nervous system response and vice versa. Loss of sufficient diaphragmatic movement during respiration can send stress signals to our brain leading to an increase in heart rate, blood pressure and stress response. By actively engaging diaphragm muscles during breathing we can reverse this state to lowered heart rate, blood pressure and calmness. [Study]

Science Behind Breathing

Inhalation: The contraction of diaphragm leads to lowering and flattening of diaphragm muscles. This causes lungs and chest cavity to expand, causing an increase in volume & pressure which causes air to move in. There is an exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the lungs.

The oxygen is absorbed into the blood from the air, inhaled in while carbon dioxide is expelled out from the blood into the air for expiration. The inhalation and lowering of diaphragm signal CNS to activate SNS causing an increase in blood pressure & heart rate for maximum blood supply to lungs for oxygenation.

Exhalation: The relaxation of diaphragm leads to recoil and upward movement, causing chest cavity and lungs to contract. This causes a decrease in volume & pressure, and hence air expels out. This relaxation of diaphragm signals PNS to decrease the blood pressure & heart rate for effective clearance of CO2 enriched air in lungs. Co2 is a cellular metabolic waste product produced by mitochondria in every cell.

Essence of Breathing

The ultimate instinct of human body and system is not to die rather than to live.

We breathe to expel the waste product (Co2) at first instance rather than bringing in oxygen. The body’s goal is to survive, and human biology is based on the instinct of survival. It does so by protecting it from toxins and waste products at first and secondly meeting the requirements for survival.

The excess Co2 in blood causes the pH to shift towards acidic. Our body is primed to maintain this pH towards alkaline. This change in pH triggers a stress response by stimulating SNS. This causes contraction of diaphragm & inhalation occurs to bring in more oxygen and remove CO2 to balance the pH.

The Life force “Prana” & Pranayama

Humans have often misunderstood the breath as Prana but Prana is the vital force or soul which fuels human life. Through this force only we can breathe & sense the world around us. We perceive our world through different sensory perceptions such as vision, hear, taste, smell & touch. The things not predicted through the use of these 5 senses can’t be perceived or exist. The Prana (soul) can’t be perceived through these senses and hence is infinite in nature, is endless.

Prana is the vital force or energy which controls this body and mind. Breathing is also a part of pranic action. If one can control this little force within us, we can control our mind, emotions, body and nature around us.

The art of controlling the Prana gave rise to Pranayama. One can say that by training or controlling breath one can control this Prana and that is how it is known as Pranayama. Pranayama is one part or kriya in the yogic practice.

Yoga: The Way of Living

Yoga literally means union; the union between mind, body and soul attaining the infinite where you are complete within oneself releasing all your ego (aham). This is the reason why I love it.

Yoga can be achieved in different ways;

  1. Karma yoga: Karma means action. This implies that you must act without desires for reward.
  2. Bhakti yoga: Bhakti means devotion. This implies to love and devotion for all. Swami Kriyananda says, it is not what we love, but how we love which leads to enlightenment.
  3. Gyana yoga: Gyana means realisation. This means that knowing or realising that everything is within us. It is like self study.
  4. Raj yoga: Raj yoga is royal yoga. The raj yogi practices all the above yogas and further includes other 8 aspects of life. They are
  • Yama – means Non-killing, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence and no gifts  
  • Niyama – means cleanliness, austerity, study and self surrender to higher self 
  • Asana – postures (yogic postures)
  • Pranayama – controlling Prana 
  • Pratyahara – sensory restraint (restriction)
  • Dharana – fixing mind on the spot 
  • Dhayana – meditation 
  • Samadhi – superconsciousness 

So we can see that Pranayama is only one aspect of Raj yoga. But in order to achieve complete yoga you must follow other practices also. In one sense by controlling the breath and following the above principles, we try to control the prana, the living force within us.

How We Breathe?

Breathing is accomplished by contraction and relaxation of a dome-shaped muscle under the lungs known as Diaphragm as explained above. Diaphragm have a nerve supply from two nerves; phrenic and vagus nerve.

Phrenic nerve originates from cervical vertebrae while vagus nerve is a cranial nerve. That is why, for optimal deep breathing, it is important to keep your neck and head aligned with your chest cavity. The yogi pose is the most suitable pose for deep breathing during practice by keeping your spine, neck and head in one line. Any misalignment in cervical vertebrae can cause this nerve to get pinged and affect its optimal functioning.

Vagus nerve carries signals from diaphragm to the CNS (central nervous system) which is responsible for other physiological and metabolic functions in the body. The rate of breathing and diaphragm activation sends a signal across CNS to control the heart rate, blood pressure and other metabolic functions. Faster & shallow breathing activates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) while deep and slow breathing activates parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).

Hence vagus nerve plays an important role in controlling various functions in body. It sends and receives information from and to various organs affecting our digestion, immunity, stress response, metabolism, hunger, appetite etc. [Study]

vagus nerve

Ida & Pingala: The Autonomic Nervous System

In ancient texts (vedas) prana run through two different Nadis present on the left and right side of our spinal cord. The left Nadi is known as Ida and the right as Pingla. These are like yin and yang, sun and moon, dark and light, the two aspects of life & nature.

Left Nadi, ida represents the lunar aspect while the right Nadi, pingala represents Solar.

In scientific term, Ida represents our Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) while Pingla represents the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). For people who don’t know about sympathetic and parasympathetic system, they are part of our Autonomic Nervous System which regulates various physiological and biological functions on auto mode, such as breathing, immunity, digestion, excretion etc. Both of these system work opposite and must be in balance for optimal body functions.

One of the two nadis is in dominant state through out the day and keep alternating whenever situation arises. You can check the dominant Nadi or nervous system at any given time by assessing the flow of air (especially inhalation) through each nostril by closing the other. Whichever nostril is flowing freely without any resistance is the dominant Nadi at that time.

Functions and Properties of Nadi

The Ida Nadi is cool, lunar, white, calming and feminine is nature and controls the left nostril. Pingla is warm, solar, red, stimulating and masculine in nature and controls the right nostril.

People under stress have Pingala (SNS) as dominant Nadi, often notice increased heart rate & blood pressure, have low immunity and weak digestive functions. They are always running from task to task and have difficulty calming down which ultimately leads to disturbed sleep.

While who always have left Nadi as a predominant Nadi through out the day, may have low energy levels, lack of motivation, depression, big appetite, cravings and sleepiness through out the day.

Nervous System and Health

Our nervous system is the primary system to respond in stressful situations. It can be mental or emotional trauma, physical injuries or infections. Nervous system releases certain chemicals and messengers such as neurotransmitter and hormones to resolve the injury or trauma in a shortest time possible. The CNS receives signals from our sensory organs and respond accordingly.

If the problem or injury is not resolved or it is long term, such as one being in always a flight or fight response, then nervous system signals endocrine system to pitch in. The endocrine system takes over trying to resolve the issue or threat. All hormones are delicately interconnected to each other signalling each other to rise and decline when needed. The imbalances created through hormonal system give rise to conditions which are then diagnosed as disease through pathological testing.

Creating the Equilibrium

As we can see above that every disease or ill health starts with the involvement of nervous system at first instance.

Since nervous system and breath is intricately connected, therefore we can modulated our nervous system and its response by changing the way we breathe. Therefore balancing both the nadis or nervous system results in following improvement:

  • Improved Immunity
  • Enhanced digestion
  • Better Sleep
  • Increased Stress tolerance
  • Improved brain functions (concentration, decision making and learning)
  • Increased energy through better oxygenation
  • Lowered rate or incidence of chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and autoimmune and inflammatory diseases.

Hatha Yoga for Equilibrium

Hatha Yoga is a perfect tool meant to balance both nadis or we can SNS and PNS.

In Sanskrit, Hatha comprises of two words or beej mantras, Ha and tha. Ha represent force (solar energy) and tha represents mind (lunar energies). One of the most powerful technique to balance the Nadis is a breathing technique called Nadi Shodhan (alternate nostril breathing).

Since most of nerves originates from our spine so it becomes important to keep it free from any kind of undue pressure and misalignment. Compressed or misaligned spine is a common condition now a days due to bad posture and lack of enough exercise. Hatha yoga works on strengthening the spinal musculature as well as flexibility. There is common saying that you are as old as the flexibility of your spine.

Hatha yoga includes a series of postures (Asanas), breathing exercises (pranayama) and other day to day procedures (kriyas) performed in a sequence. The spine exercises in Hatha Yoga primarily focus on bending, extending, twisting and rotational movement of spine.

Best time to do the pranayama is when they are changing their positions and both of them remain opens for sometime. Even a walk or vigorous exercise also opens up both nadis after which one can perform breathing exercises such as pranayama.


  • Nervous system sends and receive signals from lungs, diaphragm and other respiratory organs
  • Nervous system controls our response to stress, injury or infections
  • By modulating breathing, we can control our nervous system and hence our response to stress, injuries and infections
  • SNS and PNS are part of our nervous system
  • Both works in opposite manners, where PNS is activating and SNS is inhibiting
  • Balance between PNS and SNS is important
  • By having a control on our breath we can control various functions in our body
  • Vagus nerve is an important nerve whose function can be optimised using various yogic practices such as pranayama.
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