Recent pranayama brain studies have proven what yogis have known for centuries: pranayama breathing techniques have direct effects on the brain as well as on other physical capacities, such as exhalation of breath.
Benefits of Pranayama
Pranayama is a special type of breathing used in yoga practice before or after, or sometimes between exercises. Pranayama is supposed to quiet the mind and to improve breathing technique. In addition, pranayama has certain physical effects, making pranayama exercises an important component of yoga for health practice.
One beneficial physical effect is that pranayama practice lowers heart rate. If you take someone's pulse while they are sitting at rest, and then measure their heart rate after they have practiced pranayama for 20 minutes, the second heart rate result will be significantly lower than the resting heart rate.
Pranayama also lowers systolic blood pressure and the amount of cortisol (the stress hormone) in the body. These two benefits are even more impressive to most than the effect of lowering one's heart rate. Heart rate can even be lowered by simply taking a few deep breaths. But, extended pranayama practice can lead to sustained lowered heart rate, whereas the effects of a few deep breaths are restricted to the moments immediately following those breaths.
While taking a few deep breaths is a good way to calm yourself, scientific studies do not reveal the effects for resting quietly. In pranayama studies, control groups who do not practice pranayama breathing exercises show no difference in physiological response between sitting at rest and either lying down on a couch or sitting with eyes closed and breathing deeply. While many people consider lying on a couch or closing their eyes and breathing deeply to be relaxing, the physical effects of such rest are not scientifically visible. The good news is that the physical effects of practicing pranayama breathing exercises are picked up in scientific studies.
Pranayama Brain Studies
There have been pranayama brain studies involving two groups: people who regularly practice pranayama, and a second group who never practice pranayama. The study results reveal significant differences in these two groups' brain activity when measured by EEG.
Neurologists interpret the differences in brain activity as an indication that the pranayama practicers have increased focus for mental activities and heightened awareness compared to the non-practicers of pranayama. When testing brain function in groups of practicers and non-practicers, the clear result is that those who perform pranayama have better problem-solving skills and remedy the problems faster than those who do not.
Brain Observation During Practice
The previous pranayama brain studies simply compare people who do and who do not practice pranayama. However, it is also interesting to observe brain activity while practicing pranayama. One study measured brain activity using an EEG. When practicers began their pranayama exercises, the EEG revealed an increase in both alpha and beta activity. What this means is that pranayama increases two kinds of brain activity, and what is so interesting about this is that these two types of brain activity are generally related to increased awareness and increased relaxation.
Under normal circumstances in everyday life, the amount of beta activity decreases while the amount of alpha activity increases: this can be seen when someone is becoming increasingly aware or awake. The opposite pattern is seen while somebody is relaxing and then falling asleep: alpha decreases and beta increases.
Pranayama causes both types of activity to increase, which means that pranayama helps one become more alert, while simultaneously becoming more relaxed. Yogis see this as the ideal state of the mind.
In yoga communities, pranayama is believed to be an important component of overall health and well- being. It's only with the advent of technologies that can directly observe brain activity that scientists have been able to prove that pranayama has the physical effect that yogis have always claimed that it has.