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October 5, 2022

The Benefits of Conscious Breathing

Sourabh Jain, Ivan Alsina Jurnet
October 1, 2022
The Benefits of Conscious Breathing

The practice of being aware of the breathing process has been used for thousands of years by different traditions around the world to affect the mind and body. Recently, scientific studies have also begun validating its effectiveness in reducing stress and anxiety, and improving cognitive performance.

Yoga

Conscious breathing, also known as breath awareness, is a foundational practice in yoga that is used within many of its branches, including in hatha yoga, raja yoga and kriya yoga. 

In the branch of hatha yoga - the branch most commonly associated with yoga today, conscious breathing as an individual practice comes under the system of pranayama. Pranayama utilizes breathing to influence the flow of energy or prana in the energy body or pranamaya kosha (Satyananda 2012). Conscious breathing is used as a preparatory practice, and is the first prerequisite for the practice of pranayama (Niranjanananda 2016).

Technique

The technique of conscious breathing in its simplest form is merely awareness of the fact that “I am breathing in and I am breathing out” (Satyananda 1981). 

Introductory forms of the practice direct awareness to the speed, depth and regularity of the breath and utilize counting of the breath backwards from a number, e.g. 27, down to zero. Emphasis is put on not exerting any control over the natural pattern of the breath. Others guide the practitioner through the mechanics of breathing, taking the awareness through the nostrils, nasal passages, throat, and lungs, and corresponding movements of the chest, rib cage and diaphragm (Niranjanananda 2016). 

More advanced forms enhance sensitivity to the respiratory system and develop an awareness of total breathing. They prepare the practitioner to experience the subtleties of the breathing process, so that the effects of pranayama can be understood (Niranjanananda 2016).

Benefits

The practice has a number of benefits:

  • Calming effect on the mind. Awareness of the breathing process is itself sufficient to slow down the respiratory rate and establish a more regular and relaxed rhythm of breathing. This is an effective method of quietening a tense mind (Niranjanananda 2016). This effect is enhanced if the practitioner is aware of the cause of their tension.
  • Can be practiced anytime, anywhere. The simplest form of breath awareness can be done while talking, working, or when the  mind is engaged in other directions, as well as when sitting comfortably with the eyes closed. It can be done at any time and under any circumstances, even while you are reading these words and simultaneously  understanding everything that is written (Satyananda 1981). It can be a way of integrating yoga into daily life, moment to moment.
  • Develops the witness aspect. Awareness of your breath implies that you are  simultaneously aware of your conscious-ness. In other words, if you are aware that you are breathing then you are automatically aware of your own awareness. Most people  forget the fact that they are aware or conscious; they are so wrapped up in their thought processes and actions that they do these things auto-matically. So by being aware of your breath you continually know that you are aware of your conscious being; you no longer lose yourself in mental and physical activity (Satyananda 1981).
  • Cerebral cortical development. The regular practice of pranayama over a period of time reinforces cortical control of the breath, a process called telencephalization, where one shifts from unconscious to conscious breathing with profound effects on one’s wellbeing. During conscious control of the breath, the cerebral cortex bypasses the respiratory centre in the brain stem. Impulses from the cortex also affect adjoining areas of the brain concerned with emotions. The involvement of the cerebral cortex in conscious breathing causes the cortex to develop and allows the individual to enter higher stages of the evolutionary cycle (Niranjanananda 2016).

Advanced Practice

With practice it is possible to undertake all daily activities and still maintain breath awareness (Satyananda 1981). The breath should become a part of one’s constant awareness. The first step towards achieving this is to simply become aware of the breathing process (Niranjanananda 2016).

A specific time duration for which awareness of the breath will be maintained, can also be set. Sri Swami Satyananda Saraswati, founder of the Bihar School of Yoga, speaks of his own experience:

God’s first command
In  the  middle  of  the  night,  a  storm  began.  There  was  torrential rain and lightning, outside and inside, both! Then I heard a very clear, shrill voice say, “Twenty-one thousand six  hundred  times.”  That’s  all,  nothing  else.  So,  what  was  the  meaning  of  this  shrill  voice  that  came  in  the  night?  I  understood  what  it  meant,  because  this  was  what  I  had  been teaching.
In one minute, we normally breathe fifteen times. In one hour, with natural, spontaneous breathing, not pranayama,  we  all  breathe  nine  hundred  times.  In  twenty-four  hours,  we  breathe  twenty-one  thousand,  six  hundred  times. Therefore, the instruction was clear. For twenty-four hours, do not eat, do not go to the toilet, do not sleep, do not  yawn,  only  be  aware  of  your  natural  breath.  Do  not  interfere with your breathing; just watch the natural breath for twenty-four hours. I started the sadhana [practice] from that day. It was no joke and I realized it after coming here to Rikhia. (Satyananda 2013)

Research

Breathing awareness, known as Breathing Awareness Meditation (BAM) or conscious breathing in the scientific literature, has been practiced for thousands of years. However, it has not been until the last few decades that scientific research investigating its benefits and efficacy has grown exponentially. 

Today, emerging scientific evidence is showing that the practice of BAM has a positive impact on a variety of cognitive skills and abilities. In particular, it has been found that its practice:

  • Promotes an efficient use of attentional resources (Schöne et al., 2018) and improves both selective attention (Joshi   Telles, 2009) and focused attention (Telles et al., 2019), which can be especially useful for those with concentration difficulties or for persons with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Counteracts the cognitive decline associated with aging, by improving visuospatial attention (Malinowski et al., 2017). This ability is critical for daily functioning, such as driving, navigation, etc.
  • Improves metacognitive processes and decreases impulsivity, which can facilitate clinical changes in patients with psychological disorders such as substance abuse disorders and eating disorders (Pozuelos et al., 2019)
  • Helps to restore memory functions in adults, improving short-term memory (Thakur et al., 2011) and working memory (Manglani et al., 2020; Thakur et al., 2011)
  • Enhances training performance in sports, by improving cognitive abilities such as attention regulation processes (Crivelli et al., 2019)

Such improvements in cognitive performance have been considered to be associated with a refinement of emotion regulation skills, resulting in an enhanced psychological wellbeing (Schöne et al., 2018). As a result, BAM techniques have been applied in a variety of scenarios in order to reduce the levels of anxiety or stress and to induce a positive mood of its practitioners. In particular, the literature has shown benefits to:

Virtual Reality

Conscious breathing is particularly well suited to the medium of virtual reality, compared to other guided relaxation techniques, for a number of reasons:

  • It can be practiced with eyes open. This allows users to continue taking in the visual stimuli provided by virtual reality headsets. This is in contrast to relaxation techniques that recommend the eyes remain closed.
  • It can be practiced during any virtual scenario. This could be particularly useful for VR applications utilizing exposure therapy, where the user is exposed to triggering scenarios. Many guided relaxation techniques require exclusive focus on the technique to be effective.
  • Easily transferable to daily life. Once the technique has been learnt and practiced in a virtual environment, the same technique can be utilized in the user’s daily life outside of a virtual environment. Many relaxation techniques cannot easily be practiced in daily life and require dedicated practice time.

Relax VR combines guided relaxation techniques such as breath awareness, with exposure to nature VR scenarios, binaural beats music and essential oils. Several studies have shown its efficacy in reducing levels of stress and anxiety, promoting relaxation, and reducing the level of pain or discomfort during painful procedures.

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