The power of prana. Prana = breath = life force.
The breath has so much power. The power to energize us. To calm us down. To heal. Breathing is the most fundamental biological function of life. As automatic as its functioning may be, how we breathe is more or less entirely in our control. And yet, the majority of us manage to do it completely, wrong. So, you may be thinking to yourself, “how is it possible to breathe… incorrectly?”
Let me ask you this. When was the last time you actually took a deep, belly breath? Maybe you are having trouble recalling because it’s been a while. With the covid-19 cloud lurking over our heads for almost a year now – stirring up confusion, chaos, and immense stress – it’s quite understandable that you may not be as in tune with your breath.
When we are stressed for long periods of time, we tend to hold our prana (our breath) and breathe shallowly from our chest instead of breathing deeply from our diaphragm. But there’s a lot more that happens physiologically when we are chronically stressed. The stress response is governed by the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for regulating the functions of many of our organs and organ systems, without our conscious control. Breathing is an example of an autonomic process. The autonomic nervous system is further divided into the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. These two divisions act on the same set of organ systems but have opposing effects on the systems they regulate.
The sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for a “fight or flight” response to a perceived stress or threat, such as spotting a bear 5 feet away from you while hiking (yes, that’s happened to me!) The following is how your body reacts when in (or perceived) danger:
- The body is flushed with the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine, which can initiate a “rush” going through the body and increase the heart rate. These hormones are produced by the adrenal glands, the main organ that responds to stress.
- The heart rate also increases because there is an increased need for oxygen and nutrients to get to the brain and muscles to respond to the threat.
- The liver mobilizes energy stores by releasing glucose into the bloodstream, so that the muscles have more energy to “run” from danger.
- The tiny ducts in the lungs, called bronchioles, dilate for more oxygen to the lungs.
- The digestive system is inhibited so that every last bit of energy can be conserved for responding to the danger.
On the other hand, the parasympathetic nervous system has the exact opposite effect, and serves to relax the body. Its main function is to slow down or inhibit high energy functions, so that the body can focus on resting and digesting. The same functions are affected as the sympathetic nervous system, but the effects are opposite in nature:
- The heart rate decreases because the muscles and brain no longer need an increased blood and oxygen supply.
- The liver stops its release of glucose from the body’s energy stores.
- The bronchioles and pupils constrict to their normal size.
- The adrenal glands stop the production of epinephrine and norepinephrine.
- Digestion is stimulated again.
The human race rarely engaged in the sympathetic mode except in the face of true danger. Our modern world, however, has almost permanently turned on our sympathetic switch, making our body feel that it’s constantly trying to run away from a bear… when really, its sitting in traffic, working on an assignment, watching a football game, and trying to sleep. These everyday situations should not be stressful, but the increasing expectations of our culture and society make our bodies perceive these benign situations as extremely stressful events. We have no sense of our own prana in these situations.
The current (covid-19) state of unpredictability, fear, and the lack of feeling in control breeds even more anxiety and nervousness. And all of a sudden, you find yourself warped into this vicious cycle of a racing heart, funky feeling in the stomach, insomnia, and irritability. You find yourself holding your breath, tensing up, and breathing shallowly. While the media or much of the conventional medical society doesn’t give it much regard, now is absolutely paramount to be mindful about your breathing.
This is because the one thing that you can control even amidst the chaos, is your breath. Slow, deep, diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the Vagus Nerve, which is largely responsible for the parasympathetic response we talked about earlier and provides the experience of relaxation and rejuvenation we typically associate with calming activities such as meditation.
The Vagus Nerve — the 10th cranial nerve and longest autonomic nerve — passes through the opening of the diaphragm and controls the heart, lungs, and digestive tract. It is stimulated with deep breathing, and also with humming and singing (ever wondered why you feel the R&R after singing along to your favorite song?)
In addition, slow, rhythmic breathing promotes vagal tone. High vagal tone means that you are able to respond to your environment and can adapt to the stressors that you may face every day. In the face of today’s unpredictability, it is really important we build that resilience physically, mentally, and emotionally. Breathing allows us to create that resilience and helps our bodies return to baseline and prepares us to deal with new stressors.
Even though the act of breathing is autonomic and lies outside our conscious control, we can control our prana in a given moment by applying our consciousness to our breath. The most powerful thing about controlling our breathing is that we can shift from the high-stress sympathetic mode to the calm and relaxed parasympathetic mode in less than 5 minutes!
If you have made it this far, take a moment right now to draw your attention to your breath. And slowly, breathe in for a count of 4 and breathe out for a count of 4.
Close your eyes, if you want. Focus your awareness on your belly.
Breathe In for: 1-2-3-4
Breathe Out for: 4-3-2-1
Repeat this cycle a few times. Perhaps you will already feel a difference. That is the power of the prana, the life force.
Breit, S., Kupferberg, A., Rogler, G., & Hasler, G. (2018). Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain-Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders. Frontiers in psychiatry, 9, 44. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00044
Gerritsen, R., & Band, G. (2018). Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 12, 397. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2018.00397
Russo, M. A., Santarelli, D. M., & O’Rourke, D. (2017). The physiological effects of slow breathing in the healthy human. Breathe (Sheffield, England), 13(4), 298–309. https://doi.org/10.1183/20734735.009817