The stress and stress-induced disorders such as hypertension, angina and other diseases such as anxiety disorders, depression are fast growing. This is considered to be the bane of “modern” society. Stress-related illness is believed to be one of the reasons for the increase in long-term sick leave during the last decade. The holistic science of yoga is the best method for prevention as well as management of stress and stress-induced disorders. Numerous studies have shown yoga to have an immediate down-regulating effect on both the HPA axis responses to stress. Effectiveness of yoga against stress management is a well-established fact.
It was also found that brief yoga-based relaxation training, normalizes the function of the autonomic nervous system by balancing both sympathetic and parasympathetic indices. Yoga has been shown to have immediate positive psychological effects: decreasing anxiety and increasing feelings of emotional, social, and spiritual well-being.
Yoga is essentially a spiritual discipline based on an extremely subtle science, which focuses on bringing harmony between mind and body. It is an art and science of healthy living. According to Patanjali (Father of yoga), the primary aim of Yoga is to restrict modifications or tendencies of the chitta or mind – ‘’Yogaschitta vritti nirodhah”. Yoga analyses, removes and sublimates different types of samskaras or complexes with the view of restoring equilibrium in the personality and training the mind for higher psychic and spiritual attainments. Yoga aims at developing an integrated personality of which the body, mind and spirit are integral components. It does not operate within the old mind/body dualism of Cartesian thought, which separates physical from mental health. It is believed that happiness depends on physical fitness, mental agility and spiritual verve. Spiritual joys and mental delights are subject to bodily conditions, free from every type of ailment. Yoga is a path to both physical and mental wellbeing and higher spiritual awareness. Thus, it presents a wider spectrum than modern viewpoint of psychosomatics which accounts for bodily ailments only on a functional basis. The real objective of Yoga is to attain peace and tranquillity within. Regular yoga practice gives freedom from stress and anxiety in life. Yoga, therefore, is not only a science of mental diseases but a complete science of mental health. It is both preventative and curative of mental disorders and at the same time capable of producing mental peace and cosmic consciousness. As such, it is both a positive and normative science.
Yoga connects body and mind:
The body/mind interactional approach is strictly observed in the different practices of Yoga. Patanjali step of Raja Yoga bears testimony to this. Of the eight steps, the first four: yama, niyama, asana and pranayama, axe exoteric and are considered to be the psycho-physiological preparations for the actual Yoga practices. The practice of Yoga proper begins with the fifth step, Pratyahara, which is withdrawal and control of the senses. Pratyahara, along with the next three steps of Raja Yoga, namely dharana (concentration on one object or idea), dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (sublime equanimity) is esoteric and primarily psychological and psychic. Thus, in the eight steps of Raja Yoga the practices at the physical and psychological levels are counterbalanced. They present a balanced combination of the physiological Yoga of vitality with the psychical Yoga of meditation. It is done with full awareness, generally with closed eyes and in rhythm with the breath, resulting in a cohesive integrated functioning between the body, mind and prana.
‘Breathing is the physical part of thinking and thinking is the psychological part of breathing.” – Ayurveda.
Pranayama is an exact science. It is the fourth Anga or limb of Ashtanga Yoga. Regulation of breath or the control of Prana is the stoppage of inhalation and exhalation, which follows after securing that steadiness of posture or seat, Asana. Thus, is Pranayama defined in Patanjali Yoga Sutras, Chapter II-49.
When practicing pranayama the breath should be skilfully inhaled, exhaled and retained. It teaches us to change the depth, rate and pattern of breathing. Pranayama is a Sanskrit word which literally translates into “extension of the prana or breath”. ‘Prana’ means life-force and it is the life-force or vital energy that pervades the body. Prana is the link between mind and consciousness. Breath is external manifestation of Prana, the vital force. By exercising control over this breathing we can control the subtle Prana inside. Control of Prana means control of mind. Mind cannot operate without the help of Prana. The vibrations of Prana only produce thoughts in the mind. It is Prana that moves the mind. It is Prana that sets the mind in motion. It is the Sukshma Prana or Psychic Prana that is intimately connected with the mind. This breath represents the important fly-wheel of an engine. Just as the other wheels stop when the driver stops the fly-wheel, so also other organs cease working, when a person stops the breath. If we can control the fly-wheel, we can easily control the other wheels. Likewise, if we can control the external breath, we can easily control the inner vital force, Prana. The process by which the Prana is controlled by regulation of external breath, is termed Pranayama.
When the Breath wanders, the mind is unsteady, but when the Breath is still, so is the mind still.” – Hatha Yoga Pradipika.
When we learn the breathing techniques, it will positively affect our actions and thoughts. Every thought we have changes the rhythm of our breath. When we are happy breathing is rhythmic and when we are stressed breathing is irregular and interrupted. Mastering the art of breathing is a crucial step towards self-healing and survival.
Pranayama balances the autonomic nervous system:
Autonomic nervous system is the part of our nervous system that controls the functions of our body such as digestion, heartbeat, blood pressure and breathing that are “involuntary”. The sympathetic nervous system is the branch of our autonomic nervous system that sends us into Stress mode (Fight or Flight) and the other branch of the system is the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), often called the “rest and digest” or “calm and connect” system, which allows us to recoup from the stressors of life. Respiratory system is the one system of ANS which we have a conscious control. When we are practicing pranayama (Alternate Nostril Breathing) one can balance both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system there by attaining the mental and emotional control.
Basically, there are three ways of practicing pranayama,
Stimulating Practices. When we make our inhalations longer than our exhalations, for example, by using a two-second inhalation and a one-second exhalation (2:1 ratio), and we maintain that for several minutes, our heart rate will speed up a bit. This increased heart rate sends a feedback message to our brain that our circumstances require activity, stimulating the Sympathetic portion of our Autonomic Nervous System. So, pranayama practices that lengthen our inhalation are practices for those who need energizing or are feeling depressed or lethargic.
Calming Practices. When we make our exhalations longer than our inhalations, for example, by using a one-second inhalation and a two-second exhalation (1:2 ratio), and maintaining for several minutes, and rate slows down a bit. This decreased heart rate sends a feedback a message to our brain that our circumstances are more peaceful and calm now, which stimulates the Parasympathetic portion of our Autonomic Nervous to allow us to rest, recover, and heal with the Rest and Digest or Relaxation Response. So, pranayama practices that lengthen our exhalation are practices we might want to do if we are hyper, stressed out, anxious or suffering from insomnia (they have great effects when done in bed during the middle of the night).
Balancing Practices. When we make our inhalations and our exhalations the same length, for example, by using a two-second inhalation with a two-second exhalation or by practicing Alternate Nostril Breathing, we are subtly affecting our nervous system, maybe only slightly stimulating or calming it (depending on our current state). So, these practices are good for times when we feel like we need “balancing” more than calming or stimulating.
Yoga couples sustained muscular activity with internally directed focus, producing a temporary self-contemplative mental state. It also triggers neurohormonal mechanisms that bring about health benefits, evidenced by the suppression of sympathetic activity. Thus, it reduces stress and anxiety, improves autonomic and higher neural center functioning. So, yoga can be beneficial in the prevention and cure of diseases and maintaining good mental health.
- Chandrasekharan.N, PRINCIPLES AND PRACTICE OF YOGA THERAPY,A complete guide for learning and practicing yoga therapy, 2012, viniyoga healing foundation of India.
- Swami Satyananda Saraswati (1989) Four chapters on freedom: Commentary on the yoga sutras by Patanjali. 3rd (edn.), Munger: Bihar School of Yoga.
- Swami Muktibodhananda Saraswati (1984) Under the guidance of Swami Satyananda Saraswati. Swara Yoga: the tantric science of brain breathing. Munger: Bihar School of Yoga
- Sri Swamy Sivananda, The Science of Pranayama, 2000, A devine life society publication.
Author: Dr. Arya Mohan
Under the guidance of, Dr. Girish Navada U.K H.O.D, Department of Psychiatry, Father Muller Homoeopathic Medical College, Deralakatte, Mangaluru, 575018