The Science of Pranayama

In an earlier article, we had read about the science of Yoga:
http://guruprasad.net/posts/science-yoga/

Today, we shall explore the science of Pranayama.
Before going into the science of Pranayama, let’s take up a fictitious example for the purpose of illustration & better understanding.

pipes

Assume an apartment complex comprising of 100 houses (families), 1 large central water tank of 100,000 liter capacity and pipes connecting each house to the tank. Each house requires 1000 liter of water per day. Every time the central water tank is refilled, its strength reduces by 0.1%, which means after 1000 refills, the tank would collapse and the people must move out of this apartment to search for a new complex.

Due to inefficient management, during each refill, only 50% (50,000 liter) of the central water tank is filled, which means each house gets 500 liter of water. But due to carelessness, pipes are rusted and usually half the water leaks during circulation and hence, effectively, only 250 liter of water reaches the house. But since each house requires 1000 liter of water everyday, this 250 liter (per house) is consumed within quarter of the day itself, and since all of the houses have uniform consumption pattern, the central tank becomes empty in quarter of the day, upon which it has to be refilled again. This way, the central tank is refilled 4 times a day and since the life of the tank is 1000 refills, the tank collapses after 250 days and the people must move out of this apartment to search for a new one.

Is there a scope for improvement? Obviously!! As the first step, we can increase the quantity of water filled into the central tank during each refill to its 100% capacity (100,000 liter). Next, we can fix all rusted pipes so that there is zero leakage. Now, each house gets 1000 liter of water which is sufficient for a full day after which the central tank can be refilled again. i.e The central tank is refilled once in a day and since the life of the tank is 1000 refills, the tank collapses after 1000 days!!

Compare the life of the the system (tank & apartment) in both the above cases. 250 days vs 1000 days. A drastic 4 fold increase just by:
1) Increasing the refill capacity
2) Fixing the pipes

If you have understood this illustration, it means you have understood the process of pranayama as well. In the above example, all you need to do is replace:

  • “Apartment complex” with “Human body
  • “Central tank” with “Lungs
  • “Houses” with “Tissues & Cells
  • “Pipes” with “Respiratory & Circulatory system

Just like how the houses (families) need certain quantity of water everyday to survive, each cell in our body also requires energy (called Prana) to survive. This energy is created in a specific part of the cell called Mitochondrion which uses oxygen to oxidize glucose.

mitochondria
Image source. 

Just like how the central tank in our above example is refilled with water regularly and distributed to the houses, similarly, we have lungs in our body refilling with air regularly which is then pumped by the heart into the bloodstream and circulated throughout the body through the circulatory system, delivering oxygen to each cell.

oxygen_blood
Image source.

If the quality or quantity of oxygen reaching the cell is less, the energy output is also less. But since energy cannot be compromised, the mitochondria immediately demands more oxygen and hence the lungs inhales (refills) air again and the cycle repeats.

In the above illustration, we tried to improve the system refilling the tank with its full capacity and fixing pipes. Similarly, in our body also, we can improve the system by increasing the intake of air into our lungs to its full capacity and fix the circulatory system to become more efficient.

To summarize, body & energy efficiency can be improved by:
1) Improving blood circulation
2) Improving capacity of lungs

As discussed in an earlier article, blood circulation can be improved (circulatory system efficiency can be increased) by doing asanas:
http://guruprasad.net/posts/science-yoga/

Although Asanas address the blood circulation throughout the body, there are several internal organs & tissues which are beyond the scope of Asanas. For example, we need different techniques (other than asanas) to rejuvenate the the brain cells, nervous system & nadis. This is where Pranayama comes to the rescue. Pranayamas are basically breathing exercises which involves combinations of inhalations, exhalations, vigorous breathing, breath control and more. Just like how we have several asanas, we also have several pranayamas, each catering to certain aspect. Each pranayama can either improve blood circulation or improve lung capacity or do both.

lungs

For example, Kapalabhati pranayam improves blood circulation in the brain while Bhastrika pranayam improves lung capacity. Ujjayi regulates blood pressure whereas Anulom Vilom cleanses & tones the nervous system. This way, practicing the right set of pranayamas can eventually result in increased lung capacity & improved blood circulation.

It is widely acknowledged that Yogis, despite having similar lung size as that of an average human, can inhale 3-4 times more air because regular practice of Pranayama would have increased their lung capacity i.e They fill their lungs completely (almost 100%) with air during every inhalation, and exhale it completely before the next inhalation.
Renowned Yoga master BKS Iyengar demonstrates his lung capacity in this 2 min clip:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fcPjvp4La8A

With increased lung capacity & improved blood circulation, the breathing rate (number of times the lungs are refilled) decreases. As with any machine which has wear & tear and a shelf life, our body also has a shelf-life which is proportional to the number of breaths it takes throughout its lifetime.

An analogy of a vehicle would come in handy here. Suppose the life of a vehicle engine is 1000 km, and if the owner drives it at 100 kmph, the engine would last for 10 hours only. Suppose he drives it at a lower speed of 50 kmph, then the engine will last for 20 hours. Similarly, in the case of human body, the wear and tear occurs as a result of breathing which in turn determines the heart rate, blood circulation and other factors which influences the lifespan. Lowering the breathing rate can result in increased lifespan.

We can verify this from nature itself. A tortoise has a breathing rate of just 3 breaths per minute and hence has a long lifespan of over 200 years. A dog has a breathing rate of 36 breaths per minute and hence lives for only around 15 years.

Of late, the study of Pranayama has gained prominence in the medical field, with experiments ranging from measuring reaction time, to long term analysis of health benefits. Due to the acknowledgement of the benefits of Pranayama by medical sciences, it is being recommended by doctors throughout the world and Yoga teachers with entrepreneurial minds have turned it into big business.

pranayama_workshop
The effect of each Pranayama technique have been studied extensively and documented by scientists. Following is an excerpt from a report which concludes that Pranamayama significantly improves cognitive functions, working memory, neural processing & sensory-motor performance.

fast_slow_cognitive
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3939514/pdf/jcdr-8-10.pdf

A recent study shows that regular pranayama can result in improved visual & auditory reaction time, which might be very useful for athletes.

reaction_timehttp://www.ijpp.com/IJPP%20archives/2003_47_2/229-230.pdf

One of the negative side-effects of today’s intensely competitive world is “Anxiety & Stress”, more so in the case of children due to exams, assignments & other academic pressure which pushes them to limits.

Medical research studies have shown that dedicating just 10 mins a day for Pranayama can help children cope with such stress & anxiety.

test_performancehttp://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3573544/

academic_stress
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21234215

Despite several such proofs & acknowledgement of the benefits of Pranayama in the western world, surprisingly, it is yet to be recognized in its own country i.e India.
When it was recently introduced in Indian schools (along with Yoga), there was a severe backlash from several communities in the name of secularism and the matter is now in the Supreme Court to decide whether Yoga & Pranayama can taught in schools or not.

court_yoga
http://archive.indianexpress.com/news/supreme-court-to-examine-if-yoga-can-be-compulsory-in-schools/1184494/

It remains to be seen whether India will budge under pressure due to the pretext of secularism and forgo such a scientifically proven practice.

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