I have before me an article by Dina Ingber, a science writer for Science Digest (June 1981), in which the connections between yogic breathing and the brain are discussed. The author states that 'changing the way we breathe can change the way our brain works and give us conscious control over our blood pressure, immune system and mental health.'
Breathing is more than just an oxygen delivery system. It is the link between the conscious and subconscious mind, for we choose to either allow our breathing to remain in automatic gear or consciously speed up or slow down its activity. Of all the automatic processes in the body, breathing is unique in this respect.
Breathing is partly volitional, but essentially automatic and involuntary (we cannot stop it for more than a few minutes). All of us exercise some control over breathing, especially when we exhale. For example, speaking, laughing, singing and playing certain musical instruments utilize the force of exhalation in conscious work. The link between the subconscious and conscious is undoubtedly found in the brain. The areas which control involuntary action (subconscious) and voluntary behaviour (conscious) are both linked to the emotion controlling limbic system.
The fact that breathing is involved in our emotional and mental reactions will become quite evident when we remember that we gasp in pain, sigh in relief, and hold our breath in anticipation. We also know that when we are relaxed we breathe slowly and deeply, and when we are tense or excited we breathe with rapid, shallow breaths. This is because breathing is regulated by the autonomic nervous system, designed to allow the body to handle stress and relaxation. The autonomic structures are in turn controlled by certain limbic system centres.
Dr Sheila Haas, a psychologist at New York University has studied 160 healthy adults and found that variations in breathing, while not correlating well with physical structure, did fit in neatly with certain personality types. She stated that slow, deep breathers, in general, were 'strong, stable and adventurous, intellectually and physically active, and very much in control of their own lives'. Rapid, shallow breathers, on the other hand, were found to be 'shy, passive, fearful and dependent on others for a sense of self and security'.
It is the contention of yogis that by learning to control the breath through pranayama we not only learn to control the physical structures of the body, as has been done with biofeedback, but also alter our mental state. By helping to relax and neutralize fears we alter the very structure of our personality.
Some time ago, Dr Alexander Lowen, a student of Dr Wilhelm Reich, stated that 'the depth of respiration affects the intensity of our feelings'. Lowen devised methods to release and deal with pent-up emotions by teaching the student to relax muscles and deepen the breath. His techniques are similar to yogic asanas and pranayama. Techniques such as bhastrika, rapid deep breathing, work to dislodge stored tensions. When these tensions are dislodged we can deal with them through relaxation and meditation and in turn feel more relaxed and in control of ourselves.
Dr Philip Nuernberger, a stress-management consultant for business corporations in America, has run tests to determine whether breathing techniques and relaxation make a difference when taught to one group of people and not to another. His trained group consistently scored higher on standard psychological tests and lower on scales designed to measure neuroticism.
J. V. Hardt and B. Timmons conducted independent studies at the Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute of the University of California. They found that certain forms of deep breathing induce alpha brain waves, associated with relaxation. Fast, shallow breathing showed fewer alpha waves. The alpha waves correlated better with deep abdominal breathing.
In his book 'The Relaxation Response', Dr Herbert Benson states that proper breathing is an essential part of relaxation. He has utilized deep, conscious breathing in his studies on high blood pressure and has helped many people to overcome this problem.
Dr I. N. Riga, an ear, nose and throat specialist from Bucharest, Rumania, found that breathing in one nostril more than another is linked to certain types of diseases. He found that out of nearly 400 patients suffering from nasal obstruction due to deviation of the nasal septum, those who breathed more through the left nostril also suffered much more from stress related diseases. The stress related problems abated once the deformity was corrected by surgery. Yogic therapy utilizes alternate nostril breathing to equalize the flow of breath in both nostrils so as to bring about harmony in the body.
Through learning to control the breath, we can alter our brain waves and reduce our susceptibility to illnesses such as heart disease and depression. American heart specialists are already prescribing alternate nostril breathing to patients with angina pectoris (heart pain) and have found marked improvement.
More research is required to bring the work on breathing and relaxation to the level of scientific respectability and acceptance. A few brave pioneers, however, are leading the forefront and experimenting with these simple, effective and safe techniques.
At the Bihar School of Yoga, Swami Satyananda, a pioneer in research into the effects of breath on the body, brain, emotions and mind, has set up the facilities for such work in many countries of the world. He has concluded that the right side of our brain is connected to the breath in the left nostril, and vice versa. By controlling the flow of breath, through alternate nostril breathing (nadi shodhana) for example, we affect the deeper structures of the brain and can regain mental, emotional and physical equilibrium. Such findings are the outcome of many years of personal study and experience and are yet to be tabled in scientific form. Perhaps such experience will be the foundation of a new science of healing and better living.