Pranayama and the Parasympathetic Nervous System

Each time I get on my mat, I most enjoy the opening and closing of each practice. It’s the invitation to be present. To begin with focusing on the inhalation and exhalation, feeling the cool air in your nostrils, passing through the body. To focus the mind on the present. As a totally side point, I particularly liked how Master Paalu used the metaphor of fish, swimming and jumping to the surface, as a figure of speech to describe our thoughts, randomly ebbing, rising and moving past. (Though I swear, some of these fish really want my attention). It’s fascinating how this act of breathing happens mindlessly and automatically – we do it all day and night long and almost never pay attention to it. Yet, it has powerful potential. In becoming more conscious of the breath, we can bring awareness to the self and present moment.

Internet searches for Pranayama and podcasts led me down the rabbit hole to new information, which I’d like to share a bit about. First, that many cultures, from ancient and modern times have recognized the power of harnessing breathing. Most people are probably aware of the “qi” energy that Chinese understand as the “vital principle” that flows through the body, and respiration is one of its primary manifestations. I didn’t realise that the Greek term “pneuma” and the Latin “spiritus” similarly refer to (loosely) the breath and divine. As late as 1902, a German psychiatrist, Johannes Heinrich Schultz coined a form of breathing-led relaxation, which he called “autogenic breathing”. This pretty much lays the foundation for a lot of Euro and Anglo-centric mindfulness meditation that is rooted in breathing exercise. 

Second, that these techniques of breathing influence both physiological and psychological factors; breathing does the former by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. For example, the “Sitali” and “Sitkari” Pranayama have the effect of cooling the body. Some of the benefits include reducing agitation and reducing stress. I was intrigued and read more about this nervous system.

The parasympathetic nervous system is opposite in function to the sympathetic nervous system. It controls the internal functions that occur when the body is resting and relaxing – stimulating it can slow the heart rate, simulate bronchial secretions and enhance digestion. A popular form of relaxation technique called “Cardiac Coherent Breathing” aims to coordinate breathing with heart rate, so as to stimulate the vagus nerve, which is part of the parasympathetic nervous system. When the vagus nerve is stimulated, it helps to slow the heart rate and in turn communicates this to the brain, which can bring about peaceful or positive feelings. When coupled with a a mind-based effort to move attention away from thoughts (or those fish!), we can improve physiology and psychology, or in short, body and mind.

There are a number of scholarly articles written about this, but a theoretical piece about heart-focused breathing really caught my attention. In journal article published in “Frontiers in Psychology: Psychology for Clinical Settings” (September 2019), McCraty and Zayas write about a “different subjective inner state that is achieved through techniques as paced breathing…” and that “a physiological shift resulting from heart-focused breathing can help facilitate the experience of a positive emotion”. They go on to write about heart-focused breathing techniques and cardiac coherence, highlighting how the technique uses communication between heart and brain to bring about well-being for practitioners. Their article had some very thought-provoking suggestions on using heart-focused breathing as a trauma-support tool. (if you want to read it, link is at the bottom).

Breath has immense power – panic attacks can be triggered by hyperventilation and (as we’ve talked about in the last few classes) rapid breathing can aggravate the body. While there’s always the danger of over-complicating things, it’s good to remember that, coming back to breathing, “following your breath” can be the beginning of a powerful mindfulness practice. 

Inhale and exhale.  


McCraty, R. & Zayas, M., (2019)”Cardiac coherence, self-regulation, autonomic stability and psychosocial well-being” we learn