“When the breath wanders the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still, and the yogi achieves long life. Therefore, one should learn to control the breath.” -Hatha Yoga Pradipika
It’s an interesting exercise to sometimes step back and ask yourself: “Why do I practice yoga?” Your answers are probably many and varied. For most of us one reason is that post-yoga glow: the calm, relaxed, serene state we experience after a yoga class. But why does yoga make us feel so good?
This very question has inspired much scientific study. Research has shown that the practices of yoga…asana (poses), pranayama (breathing exercises), chanting, meditation…have a measurable effect on our autonomic nervous systems. The ANS controls the automatic, unconscious, involuntary processes of our bodies (breathing, digestion, perspiration, etc.) and has two parts: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. Yoga has been shown to decrease the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, known as the “fight or flight” response to stress. Simultaneously it enhances the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, or the “relaxation response”. The slow, steady, calm Ujjayi breath that we practice in a yoga class has been shown to be particularly effective at initiating this relaxation response.
These are just the basics. If you’re interested in the nitty-gritty details of the science underlying yoga, here’s your chance to dig deeper! This link will take you to a research study conducted by physicians at Columbia University, Boston University, and New York Medical College. The paper not only discusses how yoga affects the nervous system but also the implications this finding has for treatment of epilepsy, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Fascinating stuff.
Coherent Breathing is mentioned in the study as one breathing practice that has “rapid, widespread effects on brain functions” and consequently on the parasympathetic nervous system. Very similar to the Ujjayi breath that we use in class, this method trains us to breathe at a slow and controlled pace. To learn more, visit www.coherence.com.
To practice this anytime, anywhere, you can simply download a song from iTunes (artist: Coherence, album: Slow Down). Just by matching the pace of your breath to the recording, you’ll breathe more slowly and calmly and tap into the body’s relaxation response. I owe many thanks to my teacher Nixa DeBellis for introducing me to Coherent Breathing.
The next time the hectic pace of life starts to get to you and you feel your stress levels rising, maybe you’ll take a moment to pause…breathe deeply…and notice what happens.
Christine Malossi is a freelance writer and yoga teacher based in Manhattan.