The Science of Breath & The Mind ~ Body Connection
By Rory Foster
Breathing techniques are an integral component in the practice of Yoga and Meditation. By mastering the breath one can control the thought waves of the mind and the connection between the mind and the body.
The “mind/body connection” is a much spoken phrase used in complimentary and integrative healing practices and in Eastern philosophies. According to ancient teachings of Yoga, between thought and matter there is an intermediate layer of existence—energy—that is the link that connects the mind and body. Yoga calls this energy prana and we bring it into ourselves on the vehicle of the breath. Therefore, by controlling our breathing we can control the flow of prana in the mind and body.
Breathing is both a voluntary and involuntary function. When our attention is focused on our breath it is under our conscious control. When our attention is elsewhere or we are asleep breathing becomes involuntary and under the control of our lower brain. When we lose conscious control of our breath it usually becomes irregular and shallow and the flow of prana is haphazard. Conscious attention to our breath enables us to control and regulate the rhythm and depth of inhalation and exhalation; we can then control and increase the flow of prana, or life-force energy.
The body and mind are in continual communication with each other. Every thought and accompanying feelings of the mind affect the body via the involuntary Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), of which there are two parts: Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). Chemicals—hormones and enzymes—that correspond to our feelings are released causing our body to react accordingly. Stressful thoughts and events create feelings that will trigger the SNS causing accelerated heart rate and respiration along with a surge of adrenaline and other stress hormones. Muscle strength is increased while many organ functions are inhibited. This is our healthy short-term biological way of keeping us safe and protected—it is our fight or flight mechanism. However, it is the long-term day after day, low-level stress, which causes a continual production of stress hormones such as cortisol that are corrosive and destructive to our organs and nervous system.
In contrast, serotonin and endorphins correspond to pleasant feelings such as joy and happiness and to the Parasympathetic Nervous System. When activated, the PNS stimulates organ function, slows down the heart rate and respiration and brings us into a calm, peaceful state—our desired true nature according to Yoga teachings.
The ancient yoga masters discovered there is a close connection between conscious breathing and the involuntary Autonomic Nervous System, and that by controlling the breath we can bring the ANS under our conscious control. We then have the ability to de-stress ourselves by disengaging the Sympathetic Nervous System and halting the production of stress hormones, and calming ourselves by making the Parasympathetic Nervous System dominant.
The science of breath in Yoga is known as pranayama, meaning control of life force energy, and it offers many different breathing techniques and exercises that have been practiced by yogis for thousands of years. Instructing today’s patients in the techniques of breath control has become mainstream with psychologists and other mental therapists since modern medical science now recognizes the benefits of these breathing techniques. By controlling the breath one can calm the mind, lower blood pressure, de-stress the nervous system, and bring the mind/body connection into harmony and balance, and a state of self-healing.