The Science of Pranayama 

Pranayama is not just breathing exercises but in yogic terms involves tapping and controlling subtle prana shakti, which in physical terms is variously described as vital force, bioenergy or bioplasma that flows in our body through specific channels which cannot be anatomically demonstrated. Control of Prana, the life force in our body, is the primary requisite for higher goals in yoga sadhana.  

Prana shakti can be generated by rhythmic breathing and can be directed to desired organs by bandhs, postures and mental concentration. A normal human adult breathes 16-18 times per minute; the frequency goes up and down according to the energy demand of our body. The primary function of breathing is to allow absorption of oxygen from air in small air pockets called alveoli, 4.5 million of which line our lungs and provide over 100 sq m of surface area for absorption of oxygen and release of carbon dioxide from blood.

Although our lungs possess a capacity of about 6 litres of air, only 500 ml is inhaled and exhaled in resting stage which we call shallow breathing and about 2.5 litre of air always remains trapped in our lungs. Even if we exhale to our full capacity, 1.2 litre of residual air is still left in our lungs, which means many deeper corners of our lungs are never ventilated with fresh air under normal breathing conditions. It is therefore necessary to make special effort to breathe in such a way that fresh air reaches to all corners of lungs. Pranayama provides techniques to do just that.

Pranayama is not just a means to provide oxygen to various organs; even shallow and irregular breathing can do that. Rhythmic breathing brings rhythm to the nerve impulse and to the entire body and to all organs and glands. Rhythm is the most essential element in the universe. Galaxies, solar systems, planets and even atoms and electrons move in a rhythm. Light rays and energy in any form flows in a rhythm.

Essentially rhythm maintains the universe. Yogis believe that our body is a manifestation of the universe and rhythm must be maintained in the functioning of all organs. Charles Gray of the University of California found specialised cells in brain which maintain harmony in body and mind. Disease is an expression of disruption of this rhythm in one or several physiological processes.

Pranayama holds the key to bring back that rhythm because this is the only process which is under both voluntary and involuntary control of our brain. We cannot regulate our heart beat, digestion or glandular secretion but we can definitely regulate our breathing cycle voluntarily and through it can bring about rhythm in other organs of body. Hence mastery over Prana has to be the first step in any yoga sadhana.

Respiratory system is the only system in our body which is under the voluntary as well as involuntary control of sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. By modifying breathing cycles one can achieve control over autonomous nervous system.

Pranayama under Hathyoga system is complicated whereas Raja yoga has simplified the process so that everyone can do it easily. Popularity of Swami Ramdev of Aastha channel is due to the fact that he has done away with complicated and difficult asanas which only adept yogis can practice and instead has given complete emphasis to Pranayama, which even highly obese and sick people find easy to practice. His highly confident claims that only Pranayama is capable of removing all ailments of body give hope to those who cannot proceed on the difficult path of yoga sadhana.

No wonder thousands throng to his shivirs in the wee hours of morning and get relief from various problems. Although there are about a dozen types of pranayamas, we shall scientifically evaluate here only four important ones, namely, Bhastika, Kapal Bhati, Anulom-Vilom and Bhramari, which everyone should practice empty stomach for at least half an hour in the morning and evening. Pranayama should be done sitting comfortably in Padmasana, Siddhasana or Sukhasana. Old people can also do it sitting on chair with back straight.

Bhastika: With back straight, inhale slowly with both nostrils open till lungs are fully inflated and chest fully expanded. Hold breath for two seconds and then exhale slowly emptying the lungs as much as possible. After pause of a second, inhale again and repeat the cycle. As the air in lungs expands due to body heat, exhalation should always take more time than inhalation. No force should be exerted in any of the actions.

When lungs are fully stretched all air pockets are stretched to capacity and air ventilates even the farthest corners of lungs. Similarly during exhalation all stale air is removed from lung so that fresh air can take its place in the next cycle. The prana can also be directed to the lower, middle or upper lobes of the lung by simple postures. While doing Bhastika, if you hold the lowest rib with fingers in front and thumb at the back, prana will be directed to the lower part of the lungs. If thumb is placed in the armpits and fingers on the chest, prana will go to the middle lobes and if arms are stretched on either side of the head and palm resting on the back of the shoulders, then prana energy will go to the upper side of the lungs. As during normal shallow breathing stale air accumulates in the lungs, bhastika is very effective in ventilating lungs and making blood oxygen-rich so that all organs and glands receive highly oxygenated blood and any abnormality is quickly corrected.

Kapal bhati: In this form of Pranayama air is inhaled with both nostrils open, in short forceful jerks. During inhalation abdomen should forcefully move inward and upward. Rest is needed after 10-20 cycles. Kapal bhati should be practiced for about 15 minutes.

This is the most powerful of all Pranayama as it moves and tones up all glands and intestine in abdomen and lungs and heart in thorax and energises them as no other yoga exercise can do. Yogis use it to get rid of excessive fat, heart blockages, diabetes, liver abnormalities, asthma and even skin diseases. The subtle aspect of this Pranayama is nadi suddhi that energises nerves and plexuses which feed bioenergy to organs and glands.

Anulom-Vilom: This is an important Pranayama of Raj yoga discipline. Sitting in lotus or any other comfortable posture, air is inhaled through left nostril with right nostril closed with the thumb of right hand. This is called Puraka. Air is retained in the lungs for few seconds according to one’s own capacity (Kumbhaka). Then air is exhaled through the right nostril while left nostril is closed with the middle finger of right hand, which is called Rechaka. After a pause of few seconds, air is inhaled through right nostril and exhaled through left nostril.

The cycle is repeated using both nasal passages alternately. In Raja yoga the ratio of puraka, kumbhaka and rechaka should be 4, 16 and 8 seconds respectively. However, kumbhaka can be increased or decreased according to one’s own capacity. Some yogis, like swami Ramdev believe that kumbhaka is not necessary in Anulom-Vilom and one should breathe continuously in a rhythm.

But I feel kumbhaka is necessary as it gives oxygen and carbon dioxide enough time to dissipate through air pockets and prevents over-oxygenation of blood. Anulom-vilom is the king of all pranayamas as it has not only physical but also strong subtle effects on body. Physically it ventilates the lungs and brings rhythm to the nerve impulses that control breathing cycle, which is controlled by inspiratory and expiratory centres located in the medulla oblongata of the brain. When nerve impulse is generated in inspiratory centre, we inhale air and an impulse coming from the expiratory centre makes the lungs exhale air.

In normal shallow and involuntary breathing the impulses in these centres are arrhythmic as the inhalation and exhalation are regulated according to oxygen requirements. Also, the inspiratory centre always works harder than the expiratory centre because inhalation is always forced while exhalation takes place partly because lungs collapse under their own elasticity. By voluntarily controlling respiratory cycle, anulom-vilom brings about rhythm in the nerve impulse generated in medulla. Vagus is the main nerve that carries parasympathetic impulses not only to lungs but to all major visceral organs and hence a rhythm produced in lungs produces rhythm all over the body. As disruption of rhythm is the main cause of diseases, anulom-vilom practiced for half an hour every day cures all major ailments and is a quick cure for hypertension and psychological disorders.

Energy produced in our body flows along specific channels to energize body organs and nerves. Anulom Vilom brings rhythm in this flow and forces energy into all channels irrespective of demand.

The subtle aspect of anulom-vilom is that it forces bioplasma energy through specific channels and rejuvenates nerve plexuses (Chakras). In normal breathing, one nostril works more than the other alternately every two hours or so, which gives much needed rest to both nasal passages so that they can get rid of dust and pollutants through mucus secretion. By breathing alternately through left and right nasal passages, a current of bioenergy is generated which flows through two subtle energy channels Ida and Pingala located on the left and right side of the spinal cord, called Sushumna.

All organs and plexuses receive bioenergy from these channels. Flow of energy through Ida and Pingala gives psychic experience to the seeker, who can then also direct this energy to any part of the body by simply meditating on that organ while doing Pranayama. After a month’s practice, the seeker can also feel the energy flowing through his finger tips and can use his hands to direct bioenergy to the desired organ.

Bhramari: With eyes closed, place both index fingers on the forehead and rest of the fingers over the eyes and close ear openings with thumbs. Mouth should remain closed. Inhale to the full capacity and then exhale through both nostrils, producing a humming sound. During this Pranayama vibrations fill the entire body, making all molecules vibrate in a rhythm. A quietening resonance pervades the brain, mind and body, removing negative thoughts, anxiety and tension. Mind becomes quiet and a feeling of mysterious enjoyment is achieved. This Pranayama should be practiced 10-15 times by those who suffer from hypertension, depression or other psychosomatic diseases.

All forms of Pranayama are essentially different modes of conscious rhythmic breathing that brings rhythm in the nerve impulses emanating from brain. This also generates life giving energy or Prana, purifies and invigorates nerves, sharpens intellect, amplifies consciousness and quietens mind. Patanjali (300 BC) had said, “There is no purifying technique higher than Pranayama.” Effects of Pranayama are felt not only in lungs but also in all organs of body. It gives control over mind and awakens its dormant areas and gives some degree of voluntary control over involuntary functions. Pranayama is in the centre of yoga sadhana as all asanas and meditation are done in combination with some form of Pranayama.