How Does Pranayama Affect Our Physiology?


January 19, 2021     benefits of yoga | breath | pranayama | Yoga Research

Pranayama can positively affect our physiology

Research Study At A Glance

The Research Question Asked

What are the effects of pranayama practices on physiological functions and disease symptoms?

Type of Study

Review study

Methods

Sixty-eight individual studies included in the larger review study were selected from a search of three databases, PubMed, PubMed Central, and IndMed, using the keywords pranayama and yogic breathing. Studies were included if they occurred before July 2017 and were in English, but were not included if they combined pranayama or yogic breathing with other yoga practices.

Results

Participants in studies using pranayama practices as a treatment experienced positive neurocognitive effects, psychophysiological effects, biochemical/metabolic effects, as well as positive impacts on multiple clinical conditions/diseases.

Conclusion

A wide variety of positive effects can be experienced as a result of pranayama practice, but specific effects vary considerably with the particular pranayama technique being used and the health and wellness situation of each individual practitioner.

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Background

Breathing is often central to yogic practices. Some practices focus on regulating or manipulating the breath in various ways. In other cases, the breath is used as an object of focus or concentration, without trying to control it in a specific way. Initial research on the effects of some types of yogic breath control practices, called pranayama, suggest that it can positively affect diseases of respiratory disorders, like asthma, as well as positively affect the balance of the nervous system. The research study that we highlight here chose to review the larger body of individual research studies on the effects of pranayama to see whether larger trends emerged when many of the smaller, individual studies were examined together.

Research question

What are the effects of pranayama practices on physiological functions and disease symptoms?

Research methods

To find individual studies that would be included in the larger review study, the researchers searched three databases, PubMed, PubMed Central, and IndMed, using the keywords pranayama and yogic breathing. Individual studies were not included in the larger review if they combined pranayama or yogic breathing with other yoga practices. The search included a timeframe of all past years of journal publication up to July 2017. Only studies in English were included in the larger review. Based on these criteria, the researchers included 68 individual studies in their larger review study.

In a preliminary analysis, the researchers found that individual studies fell into two separate categories of study emphasis: physiological studies and clinical studies.

Physiological studies included in the review evaluated one or more of these functions:

  • Neurocognitive assessments
  • Psychophysiological changes
  • Respiratory function
  • Biochemical function
  • Metabolic variables

Clinical studies included in the review evaluated one of the following conditions:

  • Hypertension
  • Cardiac arrhythmias
  • Bronchial asthma
  • Pulmonary tuberculosis
  • Cancer
  • Diabetes mellitus
  • Mental disability
  • Stroke rehabilitation
  • Smoking withdrawal
  • Anxiety
  • Pain

Pranayama techniques evaluated in the individual studies included one or more of:

  • Kapalabhati
  • Bastrika
  • Nadi shodhana
  • Suryanuloma viloma
  • Chandranuloma viloma
  • Surya bhedana
  • Ujjayi
  • Bhramari

Results

A wide variety of positive effects of pranayama on different systems and functions in the body, as well as impacts on different diseases/conditions, were reported in the larger review paper. They included neurocognitive effects, psychophysiological effects, biochemical/metabolic changes, and effects on a number of clinical conditions.

Neurocognitive effects:

  • Changes in brain wave activity
  • Spatial task performance improved
  • Visual and auditory reaction time changed: reaction time was less anticipatory
  • Reduced systolic and diastolic blood pressure

Psychophysiological changes:

  • Changes in heart rate variability
  • Increase in parasympathetic activity and a decrease in sympathetic activity
  • Changes in cardiovascular variables
  • Decreased stress levels
  • Decreased blood pressure
  • Improved lung function

Biochemical and metabolic changes:

  • Changes in oxygen consumption
  • Changes in blood pressure
  • Decreased free radicals

Individual studies reported positive effects of pranayama on patients experiencing these clinical conditions/disease:

  • Asthma
  • Cardiac arrhythmias
  • Cancer
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Hypertension
  • Stroke
  • Test anxiety
  • Pulmonary tuberculosis

Note: This paper provided a very comprehensive review of the many smaller studies that have evaluated the effects of pranayama on physiological and clinical conditions. For a full list of each of the individual studies included and the effects of pranayama covered in that study, please see the full article.

Why is this relevant to yoga practitioners?

Breathing practices are central to many yoga practices, whether we’re combining them with asana or doing only pranayama practices. This research suggests that those breathing practices have wide ranging effects. What is clear from the review study, is that pranayama without asana also potentially has a large suite of positive effects on our physiology. What hasn’t been isolated in research yet, are the mechanisms by which we might experience those positive effects. While we don’t need to wait for research to fill in those gaps before we do a pranayama practice, research can be very helpful for making decisions about tailoring specific practices to specific physiological or clinical conditions. The researchers themselves note that an important next step is a much larger study designed to start unpacking just what the mechanisms might be for the effects of pranayama that we experience.

Conclusion

The breathing practices that we do in yoga are just as impactful, if not more so, than the poses themselves. This research review demonstrates that pranayama or yogic breathing practices alone can have a wide range of positive effects. Hopefully, that helps motivate us as practitioners to give our breathing the attention it deserves in our next yoga practice.

Reference citation

Saoji, A.A., B.R. Raghavendra, N.K. Manjunath. 2019. Effects of yogic breath regulation: A narrative review of scientific evidence. Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine. 10:50-58.

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