According to ancient yogic texts, our vital life force —our Prana or our breath — derives from Pranayama, the practice of controlled breathing. Science is finally starting to catch up to the knowledge outlined in the Vedas, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and other ancient texts.
Meditation has been practiced for the past 5,000 years on Earth, yet science is only now starting to recognize and understand the significant health benefits it has on the human body. These benefits can be observed while meditating and can be seen during the day-to-day lives of regular meditators as well.
The Importance of Regulating the Breath
The average individual takes approximately 20,000 breaths daily, but how many of those do we consciously think about? The beauty of the breath is that it can be a voluntary or involuntary process — if we didn’t think about breathing, it would still happen, but when we do think about it, we can decide what to do with it. You can consciously choose to slow your breathing, for example, or to engage in techniques that control your breathing, which then affect your involuntary breathing process.
Your breath is responsible for supplying your body with oxygen; it is literally your life source. You cannot survive without it. However, it can do so much more than that! Your breath can aid your digestion, your brain, your cellular health, your immune system, and so much more. You can capitalize on these incredible benefits of controlled breathing through meditation or simply by changing your breathing technique.
Many people assume “breathing is breathing,” but you can actually breathe using different patterns that will directly affect your overall health. There is a significant amount of research that suggests that regular breathing through the mouth isn’t ideal and we should breathe through our noses instead.
Please note that numerous short-term meditation and breathing techniques through the mouth are excellent for our health. These include the Wim Hof method and Transformational Breath, a technique I learned recently at Rythmia in Costa Rica. However, breathing through your mouth at all times is not recommended.
The following video featuring Patrick McKeown, one of the top teachers of the Buteyko Method, discusses the potential negative affects of mouth breathing and dysfunctional breathing methods associated with asthma, rhinitis, and sleep disorders such as sleep apnea.
Controlled Breathing Induces a “Relaxation Response”
Herbert Benson, M.D. Harvard Medical School, wrote a book titled Relaxation Response in which he discussed numerous medical studies on the health benefits of meditation. The Relaxation Response is basically the opposite of the “fight or flight” response and can be described as a deep relaxation that engages the parasympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as meditation.
According to Dr. Benson, the Relaxation Response can counteract the physiological changes of stress and the fight or flight response, including muscle tension, headache, upset stomach, racing heartbeat, and shallow breathing. If the body reacts with the fight or flight response or any other stress response too often — and chronic stress like this is endemic to modern society — the body secretes high levels of stress hormones, which can produce a wide range of stress-related health issues such as cardiovascular disease, GI diseases, adrenal fatigue, and more.
To combat stress and induce the Relaxation Response, you can engage in progressive muscle relaxation, energy healing, acupuncture, massage, breathing techniques, prayer, meditation, tai chi, qi gong, visualizations, and/or yoga.
A Harvard study found that meditation can mitigate symptoms of Irritable Bowl Syndrome (IBS) and improve gut health. The study showed that by inducing the Relaxation Response, participants showed reduced symptoms of IBS as well as decreased anxiety and overall better quality of life.
Meditation Improves Cellular Health, Brain Function, and More
A study performed at the Chopra Center for Wellbeing compared a group of meditators to a group of non-meditators and found that meditating can have long-term benefits, including improved mental health and cellular health. You can read more about this in another CE article here.
Another study showed that meditation and controlled breathing can protect and lengthen telomeres, which are located on the ends of chromosomes. If your chromosomes are healthy, your cells are healthy as well, further proving that meditation can aid cellular health. You can read more about this and how meditation can decrease your risk of cancer here.
A study conducted by Harvard researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) determined that meditation literally rebuilds the brain’s grey matter, which is associated with memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress. Participants practiced, on average, 27 minutes of mindfulness exercises daily and experienced significant improvements after only two months. This is one of the first studies to prove that meditation can actually change the brain.
In addition to physiological changes, meditation can also provoke emotional and psychological changes as well. This study proved that experienced meditators produce increased levels of melatonin. The meditators were studied after participating in either Transcendental Meditation-Sidhi or yoga, which were both found to help increase melatonin.
According to Ellen L. Idler, Ph.D., Professor at Emory College, those who practice spiritual modalities including meditation are more likely to make positive and healthy choices. Idler goes on to explain that through meditation, we can decrease chronic stress and the potential for disease.
Meditation, controlled breathing techniques, and other mindfulness exercises have played a significant role in my life. I have personally experienced many of the health benefits mentioned above and I would strongly encourage you to give meditation and controlled breathing a try!
The beauty of Pranayama is that you’re practicing it all of the time. The breath is your life force, your sustenance; what better way to thank your breath than to train your body to breathe optimally?
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