By Stephanie Given, Zuna Yoga 200 hour yoga teacher training graduate
My first hatha vinyasa yoga class, I was there merely for the physical benefits. I walked a few blocks from my apartment to a local yoga studio and entered a class that was scheduled to last an hour and fifteen minutes, not knowing that Mary, the instructor, always pushed the class past two hours—a fact that I would later respect and, eventually, miss horribly. That entire class, I remember thinking “When the heck is this going to end?!” and “How can there be more poses?!” and “Kapalbhati? Breath of fire? What is that?” Quite frankly, it wasn’t what I felt during that yoga class that made me want to come back for more. Rather, it was what I experienced after the class that had me hooked. I remember the serenity of my walk home and really feeling the brisk air, sleeping soundly throughout that entire night and feeling less anxious than usual the following day. I returned to class every Thursday until the studio shut down.
For a while after that, I jumped around to other yoga studios, attending mostly fast and hot “heated hour of power vinyasa” classes during which I barely had a minute to relax let alone breathe. I would leave having experienced a great workout, which I craved, but I missed the feeling of tranquility and presence that I gained from Mary’s class. It took some time before I found a studio with a practice that satisfied what my mind and body craved— a balance of breathwork, core strengthening postures, and a beautiful savasana.
The more yoga classes I attended, the more I naturally began to take yoga off the mat into my life, physically as well as emotionally. I could feel myself becoming calmer, smiling more, and being more present and mindful during everyday activities. As I tried to explain this to friends and family, they asked why, which made me want to know, too. I began to research and write papers about the effects that yoga had on all aspects of your life for my college courses.
The reason has everything to do with breath.
In yogic terms, pranayama, the fourth limb of Patanjali's Sutra, is defined as the practice of voluntary control of breath and refers to the inhalation, retention, and exhalation of breath. “Prana” translates to “vital force,” and “ayama” translates to “expansion.” Coming together, “pranayama” means “expansion of vital force.” In other words, it's controlled breathing, simple and powerful. And it has the power to change and sculpt your life.
In western terms, controlled breathing directly affects your parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. Your body reacts to psychological stress—whether actual stress or perceived stress—in the same way it does life-threatening physical stress. This means that the daily hassles that we all encounter, like running late for yoga class, being behind at work, or finding that your children have drawn all over your walls at home, create tension and friction in your body in the same way as a grizzly bear running after you. In response to stress, the sympathetic nervous system increases your heart rate, elevates blood flow, and shuts off function to major organ systems, including your immune, endocrine, digestive, and reproductive organs. Imagine the impact that has on your entire body over time. No wonder most people in the western world are suffering from stress-related disease.
The opposing parasympathetic nervous system incites the rest and digest mechanisms of the body. It reduces blood pressure and slows down heart rate after stressful events. It redirects blood flow to the parts of the body that are not used for survival tools, like the digestive and reproductive organs and the endocrine and lymphatic systems. With this increased circulation, you are able to more efficiently extract nutrients from food and better eliminate toxins.
The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems balance one another like a seesaw —when one goes up, the other goes down. A consistent yoga practice with controlled breathing and pranayama establishes and maintains parasympathetic dominance. That means you minimize the body’s tendency to activate the sympathetic nervous system and thereby avoid the resulting cascade of negative consequences. In particular, research has shown that 30 minutes of controlled and focused breathwork, three times a week, under the instruction of a yoga teacher followed by a 10-minute savasana, can have significant improvement on a person’s overall wellbeing by increasing the parasympathetic nervous system response, which lessens the stress response and increases peaceful alertness (Journal of Clinical & Diagnostic Research, vol. 8, no. 5). Ample research shows how yoga alleviates unmanaged stress, a leading factor in anxiety, obesity, depression, and insomnia. All of these beautiful effects arise from attention to your breath!
Regular practice of controlled breathing strengthens the nervous system so that the mind becomes calm and capable of concentration and taking you one step closer to your true self. Focusing on your breath can literally and completely change your life. And you can practice this at any time. As you breathe in, feel and envision your breath flowing through your nostrils, down through your chest and to your pelvic floor for a count of five. Then slowly exhale your breath through your abdomen and chest and out through your nose for another count of five. Repeat this a few times and you’ll feel your entire body begin to relax. That’s the parasympathetic nervous system doing its thing. (When progressing beyond a beginner pranayama practice, it’s imperative that you work with a trained yoga or meditation instructor.)
When you learn to slow your breath and relax in difficult postures on the mat, you can train yourself to do the same in difficult situations off the mat. No magic. Just the science of the breath. It will make you healthier, calmer, and more present in your daily life—during rush hour, a stressful day at work, your child having a tantrum. You have the power to relax your entire body, not with a glass of wine but by becoming aware of the vital energy you already possess.