Breath and Stress

Notes On Yoga – Breath and Stress by Bob Fulkerson

Yoga is more than stretching or muscle building; it is in fact a spiritual practice. Scientific studies and centuries of experience have demonstrated profound physiological improvements of a regular Yoga practice.  These notes are just a very brief attempt to look at two major aspects of the power of Yoga in our lives: Breathing and Stress Reduction.

“What is God?  God is the breath inside the breath.” Rumi

Getting in touch with the breath at the beginning of each session prepares one to quietly and heartfully go inward, awakening body, mind and spirit to the asana practice that will follow. Following are some notes about the relationship between breath and spirit:

•  In Sanskrit, the word “prana” means life force, energy, and breath.

•  The Greek word for “psyche”, or soul, is related to “Psychein”, meaning “to breathe”.  From the Latin word for wind (“anemos” ) are derived the words for soul (“anima”) and spirit (“animus”).   In Hebrew, the word for breath (“ruauch”) also means “spirit”.

•  The word “Hatha” itself is loaded with connotations related to the breath.  The “Ha” is for inhalation and the “tha” for exhalation.  In Sanskrit,  “hatha” means “now”.  Reminds us to pay attention to the eternal moment of our current breath. (The type of yoga I teach is “Hatha Yoga”.)

•  The “Ha” of Hawaii also means breath or spirit.  The native people there first used the term “Howlie” to describe Captain Cook and the first white people they encountered.  It means “the people without breath or spirit.”

•  The Paiute word for prayer, blessings, or peace, is” Na-nish-na-heit” (spelled phonetically).  The “heit” is an aspirated sound to simulate the breath.  Similarly, the word “Shun-da-hai”, in Western Shoshone, means peace, blessings, or prayer.  The “hai” is also aspirated to motivate outward breath.  At the end of a prayer, you will see and hear Shoshone blowing (breathing) outward.

BKS Iyengar, likely the foremost teacher of Yoga today, in his commentaries on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, states:

“The wise yogis studied this connection between breath and consciousness and advocated the practice of pranayama to stabilize energy and consciousness…Prana is energy, when the self-energizing force embraces the body.  Ayama means stretch, extension, expansion, length, breadth, regulation, prolongation, restraint and control.” (Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. P.153.)


Yoga and Stress Reduction

The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is the “auto-pilot” of the body’s central nervous system. From moment to moment, the ANS is either winding up or winding down. When we’re winding up, the sympathetic nervous system takes over; the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in as the body gears down. (Note:  There is not consensus in medical science that we can influence the ANS, in spite of several studies to the contrary and centuries of experience of yogis through the ages.)

In the former, when experiencing perceived danger, excitement or fear (“fight or flight”), the messages go out to the body to prepare it for a critical situation. The heart beats faster, blood pressure increases, breathing increases, pupils dilate, adrenaline flows, the digestive system shuts down.  The parasympathetic nervous system is the other half of the ANS that allows us to rest between stressful “battles.” Digestive juices flow again, adrenaline secretion stops, blood flow to the muscles decreases (no reason to run) and blood flow increases to the reasoning centers of the brain.  This is why simply stopping to take a deep breath in times of stress sometimes allows us to think more clearly in a critical situation.

We all live under varying degrees of stress or anxiety. Most of our lives are full of stress from modern life’s seemingly endless list of stressors including bills, traffic (road rage), relationships, threats or anxiety over war and terrorism. Stress contributes to most major health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, diabetes and even cancer.   The good news is that research on the physiological effects of Yoga shows we can correct the chronic imbalance in the ANS that results from stress and alleviate many health problems.

By practicing yoga and reducing stress, we also

   •  Increase  “feel good” neuropeptides such as serotonin.
•  Improve circulation of lymph and tone the spleen, leading to more efficient removal of toxins and strengthening the body’s immune system.
•  Decrease harmful levels of cortisol hormones.

The body also produces cortisol in response to stress.  People who are wound up contain elevated levels of cortisol, also known as the “death or stress hormone”.  Elevated cortisol levels:

   •  Add to unwanted weight gain by stimulating the appetite.
•  Ensure efficient conversion of these calories to fat.
•  Ensure that fat tends to get stored in the abdomen.

Yoga reduces the body’s production of cortisol.  Yoga also helps with unwanted weight gain by increasing your sense of body awareness–from whether your cervical spine is ready for halasana (shoulder stand) to whether you want to eat even though your stomach is already full–which may of us with weight problems do.

In closing, Yoga is not simply about flat abs, looking good, or asana (postures) on the mat. The Eight-Fold Path (“Ashtanga”, meaning “eight”) of Yoga laid down in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (See BKY Iyengar’s Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali) is a 5,000-year old remedy to modern ailments that is in line with every religious and spiritual tradition I’ve come across, from the Buddhism to the 12 Steps to Christianity (“Be still, and know that I am God”; A merry heart doeth good, like a medicine.”)  It is not meant to supplant medical science or treatment for physical ailments—be sure to tell your doctor about your yoga practice.  At the root, Yoga (from “yoke”, or “union”) is about self transformation. We intuitively understand that we are united with the divine presence in our lives.

With gratitude to Patanjali, Gyandev McCord at The Expanding Light Yoga School at Ananda, Dr. Timothy McCall, MD, of the Yoga Journal, and the long line of yoga teachers and students I’ve been blessed to know.

Bob Fulkerson
March 5, 2005


“By your stumbling, the world is perfected.” Sri Aurobindo

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