Pranayama is the practice of breath regulation. The benefits of a regular pranayama practice have long been recognized within the yoga community, and with the on-set of the COVID-19 pandemic, pranayama is increasingly being discussed as a vital tool for treating ailments brought on by the novel coronavirus.
The mysteries of ‘Long COVID’
While COVID-19 is primarily a respiratory illness, the virus has been found to potentially affect long-term nearly all organ systems and the nervous system. A study published by the UK Office for National Statistics found that roughly one out of seven people who tested positive for COVID-19 experienced symptoms for a period lasting longer than 12 weeks.
Common symptoms in long COVID sufferers include fatigue and shortness of breath, but some also report heart palpitations –a sign that the body’s “autonomic nervous system” is out of balance. This is the body’s control system that critically regulates heart and breathing rate and triggers the “fight-or-flight response” when being confronted with a perceived threat. Carrying out seemingly mundane tasks –like loading the washing machine or sitting up in bed –have been reported as setting heart rates racing.
An article published by The Atlantic earlier this year documents the observations and success of a team of researchers and doctors at Mount Sinai in the U.S. with prescribing breath-work for treating these symptoms. Notably, in formulating their course of treatment, the team remarked –
“long-COVID patients were breathing shallowly through their mouths and into their upper chest. By contrast, a proper breath happens in the nose and goes deep into the diaphragm; it stimulates the vagus nerve along the way, helping regulate heart rate and the nervous system.”
This prompted the realization that in treating long-COVID patients –
“the diaphragm and the nervous system had to be coached back to normal function before further reconditioning could start.”
Within just a week of starting patients on the breath-work course, all patients within the program were reporting positive improvement.
As discussed in the article, the Mount Sinai team’s theories about why the breath-work ultimately was so helpful touches upon many of the widely-discussed benefits of pranayama. In particular, they noted –
- Breath-work allows patients to consciously control their heart rate;
- In helping to regulate stress, breath-work may benefit the immune system;
- Proper breathing is crucial to the lymphatic system, which plays a key role in eliminating toxins and waste.
Considering for example the pranayama practice of Anulom Vilom (alternate nostril breathing), it is documented as improving lung function, increasing oxygen saturation levels, reducing sympathetic activity and correspondingly stress and anxiety.
While we all hope not to be in the situation where we must use breath-work for rehabilitation from an illness, these findings are a positive reminder of the power of controlling our breath and its healing effects on the body.