The ultimate state of pranayama (yogic breath-control) and meditation is a state where breathing is reduced as much as possible without force. However this is a process that can for most people take a life time. In order to work towards the mastery of yoga it is sometimes useful to breathe more than normal (hyperventilation) but eventually the aim to be able to comfortable live and practice while breathing less than normal (hypoventilation).
In yoga and life breathing may guided or controlled for five main reasons. These are:
Pranayama (yogic breath-control) is the art of learning how to breathe less than normal (hypoventilation). Although sometimes fast, deep and/or complete breaths have benefits, the less you breathe overall the better your mental capacity is and the greater is the blood flow to nourish the brain and the heart. The haemoglobin also transfers oxygen more efficiently to all the cells of the body (the Bohr effect). Many studies on meditation have shown that focus and concentration are better when you breathe less! Additionally, the nervous system is much calmer when you breathe less and this is reflected in a reduced desire to eat.
Breath-control is also useful on a mental level. Any type of focus on your breathing can help you concentrate but the nervous system works best if you breathe less than normal.
Breath-control works on the cardiovascular and circulatory system. You can enhance the movement of energy and information through your subtle channels and enhance the movement of blood and heat through your blood vessels by breathing differentially from your abdomen (diaphragmatic breathing) or from your chest (thoracic breathing). You can also bring more blood and oxygen to the brain and heart and less blood and oxygen to the arms and legs by breathing less than normal (hypoventilation). Conversely, you can bring less blood and oxygen to brain and heart and more blood and oxygen to the arms and legs by breathing more than normal (hyperventilation).
A brief summary of the the different possible effects of breathing is shown below.
- Mobilising the spine
- deep inhalation tends to cause spinal flexion (bends your spine more forward) while deep exhalation tends to cause spinal extension (bends your spine more backwards)
- Stabilising the spine
- the muscles of breathing out (especially from the chest) can make your spine more stable
- Strengthening the spine and body
- the diaphragm (the main muscle of inhalation) can be used as powerful strength muscle
- Control of the autonomic (automatic) nervous system via the diaphragm which can be controlled either by the conscious mind (somatic) or unconscious mind (autonomic)
- Reciprocal relaxation of the muscles of abdominal exhalation (which include many of the muscles that can tend to over-tense and contribute to lower back pain) by the main muscle of inhalation (the diaphragm)
- Focus on any type of breathing can help with concentration
- Reduced breathing (hypoventilation) leaves the body slightly more acidic (with carbonic acid), which gives the physiological effect of calming the nervous system and the mind in general
- Slow abdominal (diaphragmatic) breathing tends to enhance parasympathetic control of relaxation response with ahimsa (non-violence) and/or love and peace and happiness as dominant emotions
- Faster chest (thoracic) breathing tends to enhance sympathetic control of ‘flight or fight’ response with tapas (passion to do your best) and/or fear anger and aggression as dominant emotions
- deep breathing with the abdomen relax (which can be diaphragmatic and/or thoracic provided the abdomen is relaxed) causes an increase in blood flow
- with this type of breathing heart rate increases on inhalation as does blood pressure
- heart rate decreases and blood pressure decreases on exhalation
- this type of breathing causes increased pressure into the abdomen on inhalation and decreased pressure on exhalation that increases blood flow and nervous system stimulation to the abdominal organs
- Reduced breathing (hypoventilation) for
- Calmer nerves
- Increased oxygenation and blood flow to brain and heart
- Reduced hunger
- Increased breathing (hyperventilation) for
- Stimulation of nerves
- Decreased oxygenation and blood flow to brain and heart
- Increased hunger
You can learn much about the breathing and its relation to yoga and exercise by joining our online course on the ‘Applied anatomy and physiology of yoga’ by going to
Our Online course goes for 12 weeks and begins at various times throughout the year.