*Excerpt from True Yoga: Practicing With the Yoga Sutras For Happiness and Spiritual Fulfillment © 2016 by Jennie Lee. Used by permission from Llewellyn Worldwide, Ltd.
Awareness of how we move energy (prana) through the breath is a foundational building block of Pranayama. If we did nothing more than learn to breathe slower, deeper, and more evenly, we would increase our health and life span significantly. The strong correlation between the physiology of breathing and length of life is noticeable in the difference in life span between mammals that breathe slowly, like tortoises and elephants, versus those that breathe rapidly like rabbits and mice. The average human breathes approximately sixteen times per minute, but an advanced practitioner of Pranayama can regulate the movement of energy through breath to less than one cycle per minute. Slowing the breath dramatically like this prolongs life by decreasing stress on the organs and cortisol levels.
In addition to increasing the length of life, Pranayama also promotes a better quality of life experience. On a purely physical level, deep breathing maintains elasticity in lung tissues for greater pulmonary functioning and efficient blood oxygen levels. It also slows the heart rate so blood pressure decreases. It aids digestion through the circulation of fluids to all the organs in the abdomen. It helps eliminate waste by circulating blood to the liver and kidneys, and it aids immune functioning by optimally circulating lymphatic fluid. Consistent deep breathing disposes of carbon dioxide and any buildup of toxins in the bloodstream more efficiently.
With any change in our physical and emotional states, our breathing patterns change naturally. Think of how the breath quickens when we are upset or afraid. By reversing this equation, we see how employing strategic Pranayama practices to effect desired physiological changes gives us a new measure of self-control. Just by changing our breath pattern, we can shift our feeling state. If we are lethargic but need to accomplish a work or school project, we can employ Pranayama that quickens the heart rate and stimulates the brain. If we are feeling anxious and jittery, we can employ a practice that slows the metabolism and racing mind.
Practicing conscious control of the breath lets us bring awareness to patterns of restriction in the body in order to release them. There are hundreds of practices of Pranayama that effect different states of being. Like having a variety of tools in a toolbox, it is helpful to know a variety of practices, so that as we notice what needs attention, we can employ the appropriate Pranayama to overcome blockage and create flow.
Energize, Relax, or Neutralize
On the mental and emotional levels, managing prana through deep breathing helps us relax and lowers the levels of stress hormones. Steady breathing balances the flow of blood to both hemispheres of the brain for positive correlation between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, which regulate the scale between stimulated brain activity and rest.
We feel more control over body and mind, able to integrate emotional responses as they arise. Studies done at the Harvard Medical School by Herbert Benson, M.D., have shown how stimulating certain areas of the hypothalamus can cause stress, and by activating other areas of the brain, stress is reduced. A steady, slow breath creates what Benson called an immediate “relaxation response.”  In contrast, forceful, deep breathing energizes us without the use of artificial stimulants.
Focusing on the breath illuminates our inner landscape. By examining the quality of our exhalation we see how well we are able to relax and how much we are giving out to the
world. Assessing the nature of our inhalation, we determine our level of engagement with life and what we are taking in. We see what needs to change and what we need to let go. If we have been suppressing emotions, conscious breathing will act like a surgeon’s knife, excavating that which is creating disease through unhealthy repression or negative beliefs.
Pranayama creates space for inquiry and personal discernment. And it enables us to consciously reprogram for more joy. It gives us the ability to put ourselves into action or rest at will by controlling the involuntary nerves of heart, lungs, and other organs. As we allow vital organs to rest and become replenished with new life force energy, and use our will force to visualize where and how prana is directed, we create the physical and emotional stillness and discipline needed for meditation.
The breath is the link between body, mind, and spirit and as such is the great liberating force, enhancing vitality and creating within us a fuller opening to the endless prana that is available from Source.
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 http://www.relaxationresponse.org/ Mind Body Medical Institute, Chesnut Hill, MA. January 5, 2015.