Pranayama: a Powerful Key to Your Nervous System

One of the methods we recommend that you can use to switch your nervous system from Stress mode (Fight or Flight) to Relaxation mode is by practicing breath awareness (see  The Relaxation Response and Yoga). Simple breath awareness provides a focus for your mind that allows you to trigger the Relaxation Response in the same way that meditating on a visual image, a mantra, or any other physical sensation does.

But what about pranayama, the formal practice of breath control? Although practicing pranayama takes quite a bit of focus and is a good way to take your mind off regrets about the past, worries about the future, or negative reactions to the present, it turns out that the reason pranayama works is quite different than simple breath awareness.

Understanding how pranayama works will help you appreciate why it is so powerful. And it will also help you chose the most appropriate practices for your particular condition. This is because—and many people don’t realize this—not all pranayama practices are relaxing. Some are quite stimulating in fact, and others should be considered more “balancing” than quieting. Let’s look at why that is.

Your autonomic nervous system is the part of your nervous system that controls the functions of your body, such as digestion, heartbeat, blood pressure, and breathing, that are “involuntary,” meaning the functions that you don’t have to think about (see Anatomy Lesson post). The autonomic nervous system is also the part of your nervous system that sends you into Stress mode (Fight or Flight) and that triggers the Relaxation Response (Rest and Digest). And while you cannot tell your nervous system directly to slow your heart beat, digest your food more quickly (that would be nice, wouldn’t it?), or to start relaxing right this minute, you can control your breath.

Think about it: even though you breathe without thinking about it, you can intentionally hold your breath, speed up your breath, slow down your breath, breathe through one nostril instead of the other, and so on. And this ability to alter your breathing is what gives you the key to your nervous system, providing you with some control over its “involuntary” functions.

This happens because of the relationship between your heart and lungs and the nerves between them. For each round of breath you take, during your inhalation, the nerves stimulate your heart to beat a little faster and then, during the exhalation that follows, your nerves stimulate your heart to slow down a bit. The overall effect is very little change in your heart rate from minute to minute. But when you make one part of your breath cycle, either the inhale or the exhale, longer than the other, and you do this for several minutes, the accumulated effect is that you will either slow your heart rate down (with a longer exhalation) or speed it up (with a longer inhalation) from where you started.

Stimulating Practices. When you make your inhalations longer than your exhalations, for example, by using a two-second inhalation and a one-second exhalation (2:1 ratio), and you maintain that for several minutes, your heart rate will speed up a bit. This increased heart rate sends a feedback message to your brain that your circumstances require activity, stimulating the Sympathetic portion of your Autonomic Nervous System to prepare you physically and mentally to take action with the Fight or Flight or Stress response.

So pranayama practices that lengthen your inhalation are practices you might want to do if you need energizing or are feeling depressed or lethargic. You would want to avoid them if you are feeling hyper, stressed out, anxious, or are suffering from insomnia. 

Calming Practices. When you make your exhalations longer than your inhalations, for example, by using a one-second inhalation and a two-second exhalation (1:2 ratio), humming on your exhalation with a Bhramari breath, or using your tongue tongue to slow your exhalation with a Sitali breath (see Managing Hot Flashes) and you maintain that for several minutes, your rate slows down a bit. This decreased heart rate sends a feedback a message to your brain that your circumstances are more peaceful and calm now, which stimulates the Parasympathetic portion of your Autonomic Nervous to allow you to rest, recover, and heal with the Rest and Digest or Relaxation Response.

So pranayama practices that lengthen your exhalation are practices you might want to do if you need hyper, stressed out, anxious or suffering from insomnia (they are excellent for doing in bed in the middle of the night). Since typically most of us aren’t really “under-stressed,” about the only time I can think you’d want to avoid these practices are if you are falling asleep and don’t want to.

Balancing Practices. When you make your inhalations and your exhalations the same length, for example, by using a two-second inhalation with a two-second exhalation or by practicing Alternate Nostril Breathing, you are only very subtly affecting your nervous system, maybe only slightly stimulating or calming it (depending on your current state). So these practices are good for times when you feel like you need “balancing” more than calming or stimulating or for when you wish to do a formal breath practice that will harness your mind in the present moment without having a strong effect on your nervous system.

Caution: For completeness, I’m listing forms of pranayama in this post that in the Iyengar tradition are not recommended for beginners. This is because they can indeed have a very powerful effect on your nervous system. Generally, 1:2, 2:1, and Brahmari breath are considered safe practices (although you should never let yourself get short of breath), but I do recommend that if you are interested in experimenting with pranayama that you study with a trained teacher.

RETURN TO THE MAIN PAGE