Effects of Meditation and Pranayama (Breath-Work) on the Respiratory System
Meditation has such a powerful positive influence on our circulatory system. However, correct breathing is necessary to oxygenate the blood to be ready for effective circulation. Indeed, meditation can positively impact our respiratory physiology and the combined effect of meditation on our nerves, circulation, as well as our respiration, make this an incredibly powerful technique. In this article, we examine the effects of meditation particularly on the respiratory system.
What are the primary functions of the respiratory system?
Many of us often take breathing for granted simply because it is primarily an involuntary activity, and we don’t have to give it much thought for it to function. We only notice breathing changes when there is an obstruction. Correct breathing is important because this is the one and only route for the deeply situated cells and tissues in your body to receive oxygen. And oxygen is necessary for cell survival. Therefore, improvement in the supply of oxygen to the body is what allows them to break down food into energy that can then be utilised.
Respiratory physiology is simply the active movement of bringing air into the lungs to support gas exchange in the alveoli (microscopic sacs within the lungs) and the blood in the pulmonary capillaries . Through a process called external respiration, oxygen is exchanged for carbon dioxide. Oxygen then binds to hemoglobin in the red blood cells and is then pumped through the bloodstream. The bloodstream then delivers oxygen to the cells and removes waste carbon dioxide which is then delivered back to the lungs for release. Respiration is controlled by the nervous system and any disturbances such as chronic stress can severely affect breathing. Here we will discuss how meditation improves airflow to the lungs and why it is so important.
Why it’s important to practice meditation for respiratory health?
Pranayama or breath work was first methodized in the Patanjali’s yoga sutras (circa 200 B.C.). Prana refers to the life force that has been understood to be the vital breath and the control of this breath energy is referred to as pranayama. Techniques such as meditative breath-work that lead to slow, deep breathing have been shown to be promising in a variety of cardiorespiratory and stress-related disorders . During meditation, sensory nerves are able to function efficiently in delivering information regarding lung movements to the brain and contribute to the experience of slow breathing . Literature suggests that high breathing rates when the body is at rest can predict negative heart and lung outcomes . This indicates how meditative breathwork can be of direct help.
Improved breathing can also promote better sleep, improve metabolic activity (oxygen breaks down food), reduce blood pressure and can also reduce the risk of cancer (as cancers can survive in the absence of oxygen). It is important to remember that simply pumping blood throughout the body via the cardiovascular system is not enough. If the blood is not well oxygenated by optimal functioning of the respiratory system, it will defeat the purpose of circulating that blood throughout the body. Meditation can be used as a technique to synchronize the brain, lungs and heart to function optimally.
How meditation has a positive impact on the respiratory system?
Meditation can induce slow and deep breaths. Slow, deep breaths have been shown to be much slower than the typical 12–15 breaths per minute in normal adults. Techniques such as yogic breath-work target the frequency of six breaths per minute (0.1 Hz). Such frequencies can maximize heart rate variability (HRV)  and can synchronize the breathing cycles and heartbeats .
Simply put, heart rate variability (HRV) is a measure of the variation in time between each heartbeat. This means that meditation increases the capability of responding to any changes in the environment that require the heart rate to change quickly. It is important to note that a reduction in HRV is clinically meaningful in stress-related disorders including anxiety, depression, and epilepsy .
Breathing exercises such as pranayama yoga improve nerve function and response to stress, and as a result of improving heart-lung, brain and endocrine function [2, 8]. These benefits of meditation are due to a dramatic shift from sympathetic nerve function toward an enhanced parasympathetic nerve action . The sympathetic nervous system (a division of nerves) activates the fight or flight response during stress whereas the parasympathetic nervous system (another division of nerves) restores the body to a state of calm. Therefore, through meditation, an increase in the action of the nerves that restore calm will also improve the ability to breathe deeply.
Scientists have found that meditation can synchronize heart and lung function. This means the brain can optimally direct the lungs to breathe deeply and oxygenate the blood to then be efficiently pumped by the heart and nourish the organs . This effect is also observed among Zen meditators . Changes in lung pressure as a result of slow and deep breathing also impact the amount of blood that returns to the heart and this improves cardiac output (amount of blood pumped by the heart in a minute) . This will allow more oxygen in the blood to be delivered to the body each minute.
To circulate oxygenated blood efficiently, our heart rate often varies when we breathe in or breath out. This variation in the heart rate is found to be reduced in people with depression and anxiety . This variation can also be reliably measured as Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia or RSA that can indicate the effects of respiratory rate on autonomic function. Indeed, meditative breath-work techniques that involve slowed breathing can enhance RSA  suggesting that this exercise can improve the heart and nerve function as well as increase the volume of blood pumped by the body each minute. Such rhythmic breathing also affects brain function.
Studies show that slow breathing can engage distinct brain networks compared to the ones engaged during normal breathing . A group of brain cells within the brain stem known as the pre-Bötzinger are crucial in the generation of respiratory rhythm and meditation improves this rhythmic activity. Slow nasal respiration can also enhance memory function . This means that regular breathwork can also prevent age-related cognitive decline. The broad impact of meditative breath-work can be explained by the fact that respiration generates respiratory patterns that affect the whole brain  rather than being restricted to distinct regions of the brain. To utilise the full benefits of controlled breath-work, meditation helps to strengthen the mind-body connection and allows the practitioner to keep their mind and body in sync.
I hope you found this article on The Positive impact of meditation on human physiology as fascinating as I do. My aim is that it’s provided you with valuable insights into just how powerful meditation is at holistically healing the body and mind, and reducing the risk of psychosomatic stress-related diseases.
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