“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.”
―Thích Nhat Hanh
Yogic breathing is a fundamental practice in the study of yoga. As one of the limbs of Patanjali’s eight-limbed path, yogic breathing, or pranayama, is defined as the “control of life force,” and is aimed at increasing vital energy in the body and mind.
Most of us have noticed that the way we breathe can impact both our body and mind. Yoga students report feeling more calm and centered; being better able to navigate intense emotional feelings, and sleeping more soundly. For most yoga students, the practice of conscious breathing is foundational to the practice of yoga. Breath work can also help mitigate the negative impact of stress and trauma.
Breathing practices “can balance, strengthen, and increase the adaptive flexibility of stress response systems, potentially counteracting the detrimental effects of excess stress, neglect, and trauma on emotion regulation, physical health, and the ability to experience love and compassion,” say Kripalu presenters Richard P. Brown and Patricia L. Gerbarg, whose Breath-Body-Mind approach has been shown to benefit healthcare practitioners, individuals with psychiatric and medical conditions, at-risk children, veterans, active duty military, and survivors of disasters—the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, Haiti earthquake, Gulf Horizon oil spill, slavery in Sudan, genocide in Rwanda, and Rohingya refugee children in Bangladesh.
Intrigued by these reports, scientists have begun to turn an eye to this practice. Why is yogic breathing so helpful? What are the key benefits of this practice? An important research finding is that yoga can increase stress resilience. But how? The answer to this question lies in understanding one of the primary systems affected by yoga—the autonomic nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system regulates our stress response.
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is connected to physical processes such as digestion, respiration, heart rate, immune function, and peristalsis. This system has two branches, the sympathetic system and the parasympathetic system.