2022-07-13

Why in fact less is more: breathing

People tend to breathe too fast and constantly mildly hyperventilate themselves. This stimulates their fight-and-flight mode which in turn perpetuates breathing even faster, ultimately leading to stress, anxiety and even panic attacks. For someone unaware of this process, this may wrongly be diagnosed as depression or more serious conditions.

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Traditional yoga scripts, such as Patanjali's Yoga Sutras (2nd century CE), Hatha Pradipika (15th century CE by Swami Swatamarama), Shiva Samhita (composed around the same time), or Gherand Samhita (17th century) refer to pranayama - the methods of energy regulation - as steadying breath which may eventually lead even to the point of stopping it (with life functions preserved). This notion contrasts with many pranayama techniques found in modern yoga which use mild hyperventilation, such as kaphalabhati, or bastrika as well as contemporary yoga-derived methods such as the Wim Hof method.

Health benefits of reducing breath intensity are promoted by many modern yogis (such as Hoelscher 2018), and involve extended exhalation or breath retention (kumbaka). This approach supports increased delivery of oxygen to cells which is caused by the Bohr effect. At the beginning of the 20th Century, Christian Bohr a Danish physiologist noticed that elevated amount of carbon dioxide in blood increases its pH and allows easier release of oxygen from haemoglobin (Bohr et al. 1904). Conversely, when breathing rate is increased, delivery of oxygen to cells is limited. In extreme cases, low level of carbon dioxide in the blood due to hyperventilation may cause fainting when sufficient amount of oxygen is not delivered to the brain.

Similar view on breathing is expressed by advocates of the Buteyko therapy method (Buteyko 1960). Konstantin Buteyko was a Russian physiologist who from 1950s promoted the theory that pulmonary diseases are mainly caused by hidden and chronic hyperventilation. His method of treatment involved holding breath in order to neutralize reduced delivery of oxygen to cells caused by the Bohr effect. Contemporary research found that reducing intensity of breathing can improve physical and psychological performance of athletes (Chaudhary 2021), while the opposite situation can be linked to many serious health problems (Rakhimov 2012).

In Buddhist meditation, breath is only watched and not controlled in any way. When breath is only pasively witnessed it callms the mind, which in turn also calms breathing. The way we breathe has a very strong effect on physiology, posture, amount of oxygen delivered to cells, and our nervous system. thus a similar, or stronger effect is acheived just by passive observation of breath without any attempt to of control it.

Breathing is controlled by the somatic nervous system, i.e. it is activated by nervous centres in the brain. We can regulate the way we breathe using cerebral cortex, while left on autopilot, breathing rhythm is dictated by medulla and adjusted by the next higher segment of the brain, called pons. Because the cerebral cortex can overwrite impulses from the lowest two segments of the brain, to some extent we can argue that breathing is an act of will. Nevertheless, respiration is this part of somatic system that the most influenced by the autonomic nervous system (Coulter 2001), for example the breathing rate increases as we increase walking speed and the oxygen level in the blood drops.

Not only breathing is influenced by autonomous nervous systems. People with abnormally fast breathing overstimulate sympathetic system (fight-or-flight response) and may suffer from panic attacks, tension or anxiety. Although some experimental studies (such as Kenardy et al. 1990) found no evidence of this mechanism, long-term medical observations confirm that hyperventilation often mimics many diseases and can trigger panic and phobia (Tavel 2016, Lum 1987). Calm abdominal breathing on the contrary can reduce the heartbeat rate (known as respiratory sinus arrhythmia) as well as blood pressure, by stimulating parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest mode). Similar effect is also produced by extended exhalations.

As thoracic breathing also stimulates flight-or-fight response, Kaphalabhati, or Bastrika are designed to increase abdominal breathing and are followed by periods of naturally reduced breathing to counteract the effect of hyperventilation. In addition, momentary mild hyperventilation may also have a profound calming effect. In turn, when we try to reduce breathing rate, practice extended exhalations or kumbaka in a forceful way, these practices do not work when the body becomes stressed. This is because, the heartbeat rate increases stimulating sympathetic nerves system.

To conclude, pranayama can give beneficial effects when practiced in a skillful and balanced way. We can easily monitor this by observing how it effects our mental state.

Literature


Bohr C., Hasselbalch K.A., Krogh A. 1904. Ueber einen in biologischer Beziehung wichtigen Einfluss, den die Kohlensäurespannung des Blutes auf dessen Sauerstoffbindung uebt, Acta Physiologica 16
Buteyko K.P. 1960. Buteyko Method: The experience of implementation in medical practice, Patriot Press
Chaudhary S., Khanna S., Maurya U.K., Shenoy S. 2021. Effects of Buteyko Breathing Technique on Physiological and Psychological Parameter among University Football Players, European Journal of Molecular and Clinical Medicine 8, 2
Coulter H.D. 2001. Anatomy of Hatha Yoga, A Manual for Students teachers and practitioners, Himalayan Institute ISBN978-0-9707006-1-2
Hoelscher R. 2018. Breathing and yoga, online khunreinhard.com
Kenardy J., Oei T.P.S., Evans L. 1990. Hyperventilation and Panic Attacks, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 24
Lum L.C. Hyperventilation syndromes in medicine and psychiatry: a review, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 80
Rakhimov A. 2012. Yoga benefits are in yoga breathing, Amazon Kindle book ASIN:B007MS6CS2
Tavel M.E. 2016. Panic attacks: concealed hyperventilation usually overlooked, JSM Anxiety Depress 1, 4