The Nervous System
When the breath is breathed slowly with an even cadence through the diaphragm rather than through the upper chest it confirms to the nervous system, "I am safe." The autonomic nervous system is automatic. It is made of two parts, the sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is our danger response. When activated by the presence of threat we experience the impulse to fight, flee, or freeze. Stress hormones are released into the blood. Certain channels of blood are restricted, others are opened. Digestion stops. The body is primed to survive in any way possible. The parasympathetic nervous system is activated by safety. Heart beat slows, digestion activates, the mind rests. These systems run themselves instinctually. The time that would be lost deciding consciously whether to pull your hand away from the stove or not, for example, would lead to unacceptable risk and damage, so the body does it without the permission of the conscious brain.
The reason the breath can impact the entirety of this body made of multiple bodily systems running more or less on their own is that the breath can be consciously breathed. When the body is automatically in a state of fear we can consciously breathe a breath of peace and command the body and mind to experience peace because these systems depend on a sort of consensus. Our breath is our voice into the otherwise inaccessible conversation of our body. For the most part, if one system, say the respiratory system (which is responsible for breathing), is in a state of peace, it vetos the opinion of other systems as they respond to the senses. The other bodily systems, most importantly the nervous system, become confused about these competing signals, the senses are instilling panic and the breath is whispering calm. Through breath practice, the yogi overcomes the instinct of a prey animal, always terrified of the hunters in the grass, and teaches the body that the threat is not worth the panic, even if the hunters are there. If the house is on fire should a family scream for their lives, run in frantic circles, forget whats up and down, and most dangerously how to open doors or should they remain focused and calmly gather what they can and leave the home the way they have a thousand times? Eventually, the nervous system responds through faith to the breath instead of the senses. This trust in life as benign despite what the senses might say is the yogi breaking free from maya (the illusion of the world) and learning to interact with life and its actual goodness. The yogi, their bodies, and their faith in a newly ordained benevolent world all learn that most of the paranoia of fear and danger is rooted in the nightmares of our history, both as a species and as individuals, biologically and psychologically, and if they breathe steadily enough for a moment a promised peace always comes. That peace is a sunbeam cutting clarity into maya, the confounder.
The state of the body naturally impacts our thoughts. The idea to appreciate here is that the vast majority of our thoughts are as automatic as the orbit of Earth around the Sun. What is consciousness within us is a candle's twinkling flame on the horizon of a perfectly enormous midnight. Yet, the yogi utilizes what is there. When the nervous system is finally touched by the breath, the nervous system works to share the message of this new peace with the body and the mind.
The vagus nerve, in particular, seems to be empowered by yogic breathing. The vagus nerve is a particularly loud bell humming the peaceful message of the parasympathetic nervous system throughout the electrical system of the body. The modern world calls this yogic breath Coherent Breathing. The yogis called it samavritti. Sama means equivalence and vritti means thoughts. Samavritti, the equivalent breath, is a diaphragmatic breath with a 1:1 ratio between the inhale and exhale. Breathing this way strengthens the nerve. Vagal strength, meaning a strong vagus nerve, is known to be associated with higher degrees of empathy. The vagus nerve also deals with digestion, heartbeat, head movement, and vision. It runs from the base of the skull down into the face and through the chest into the intestines, hence its effects on the body.
The yogis have a simple anecdote about this relationship between breath and the mind. The nervous system being the bodies door to the mind. Breath is pranashakti (breath power) and mind is chittashakti (mind power). They are two fish swimming side by side. They will always swim side by side. For all time. Perhaps the water in which the two fish swim or the bond that holds them could be the nervous system. Breath influences the brain. The brain, in turn, supports the breath. We can consciously control one fish and not the other. That fish, named pranashakti, our breath, is our hope to guide the dance.
When in a parasympathetic mode, the thing to honor experientially is that the mind is permitted to internalize. The inner world becomes real. The self is realized to be a landscape to explore. Logically, the external environment is filled with wolves lurking behind trees and lions in the grass, if there are monsters in the past and storms in the future, if there are lies in the air and skeletons in the earth; what reason would anyone find to close their eyes and risk looking into themselves? The second they drop their guard in this death trap of a world they'd be snatched up. Life is survival. We all have problems that beg for our attention. If it is the fit who inherit the future then those with open minds that can dance with life that inherit the present, which is most real! For the rest who cannot open themselves to the safety and opportunity of now the game is ultimately over. This echoes Maslow's hierarchy of needs which suggests before happiness, which the yogi defines as self-awareness, one must have food and shelter. Pranayama supports the same core logic. Food and shelter become metaphors for the yogi's faith that we are taken care of at all times which comes from the nutrition (CO2) and shelter (peaceful nerves) of breathwork. Again, a mind open to the truth of the present is a mind that steps gracefully into the future.
The world is not so dangerous. Life is not so grueling. I may leave the door unlocked. I may trust the stranger. I may leave it all to chance. I may close my eyes. I may still my strategies. I may silence my desires. It is only until the world is believed to be not just safe but also generous with its protection that the yogi permits themselves to committedly enter their already pacified minds to reveal the creative, harmonic, and beautiful opportunity life gives us. That is the attitude necessary for practice, at least. In time this disposition will bleed into the territory of your normal life.
The Circulatory System
The next system impacted by yogic breathing, pranayama, is the circulatory system. Ultimately, the variable is whether we are breathing through the nose or mouth. There is a world of significance to nasal breathing but the main value is in the balancing of carbon dioxide and oxygen levels. When we think of breathing we think of oxygen. While oxygen is absolutely necessary we are equally dependant on CO2 (carbon dioxide). CO2 is what transfers the oxygen from our blood into our tissues. By breathing through the nose the breath takes more time to breathe. As the time it takes to breath increases the body has more time to produce CO2, a waste product of muscular action but a necessary resource for breating in general. As CO2 builds in the bloodstream, the stored oxygen which is in a surplus in the blood cells can be pushed in greater quantities into the tissue. CO2 creates chemical flow.
Another benefit to breathing through the nose has to do with the sinus cavity itself. The sinus cavity contains nitric oxide, which fortifies the smooth muscle lining veins and arteries. The health and elasticity of the vascular tissue optimizes the bodies ability to feed on oxygen. Now, through nasal breathing, the body is awake. The yogis also worked to increase CO2 levels in their blood. The first recorded breath technique was inscribed in the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Hindu epic. The techniques name is Kumbhaka, breath retention. The yogis consider holding the breath to be the third breath, inhaling and exhaling being the first two. The Gita explained that if the yogi would sacrifice their, "upper and nether life breaths" they would be gifted by Bhrama, the god of creation, with more prana. The meaning is simple enough. If the yogi would hold their inhales (upper life breath) and exhales (nether life breath) they would collect CO2 and better oxygenate their cells becoming more and more enlivened.
There is value in nurturing sensitivity to these subtle bodily sensations. Through sensitivity to body sensations, the recognized worth found within these methods overtime were detailed into full-fledged techniques of peace. By trusting the conversation of their cells the yogis ritualized the breath into a replicable symbolic medicine. Whether you know what is happening or not, if you breathe well you will instinctively realize the peace that comes from it because it is an experience. The personal experience is incomparably more enriching than simply reading and knowing what happens. The yogi touched these experiences by actually managing the way they breathe while you and I sit at this moment probably only reading the brochure of pranayama. If we were only to read of this we would never know what on earth a mind and body saturated in prana feels like. A yogi blesses themselves by creating a positive feedback loop between their chemistry and neurology. The back and forth between the vagus nerve and CO2 instills a peaceful but enthused positivity which increases the yogi's will to see their life as authentically good.
All of this information is to help us consider breathing as a primary responsibility in our practices. And when that certain chapter arises in our lives, as it must, when we are compelled to interrogate ourselves in the name of discovering the truth before our story ends, our breath will be there then as it has always been, waiting to remind us this moment is a moment of safety and completeness, so look into yourself now instead of the future.
The reason for the breath is it nurtures the mind. While the idea of a yogic or meditative mind usually comes with an instinctual idea of emptiness the reality is meditation is a constructive building up of new and immaculate thoughts rather than a taking down of thoughts. Meditation is experienced as stillness but life is always moving and building. Just because we feel things to be a certain way doesn't mean they are. Our eyes for example only see in two dimensions individually but by comparing the difference between both 2-d images, which is called retinal disparity, our minds approximate a three-dimensional world. Because we feel the experience of meditation as clarity or emptiness does not mean the mind is at all emptied or necessarily cleared. The mind is always thinking. To the yogis, this is the Law of Continuity. The mind is an ocean becoming a river becoming an ocean, always. The neurons are in fact more active in meditation as there is measurable growth in certain areas of the brain in seasoned meditators which suggests heightened activity.
When the very idea of breath is redecorated with mesmerizing philosophies it becomes a newly minted temple in the mindscape of the practitioner. These temples are our priorities. If the breath is then associated with both physical and psychological health it becomes more of a temple, like a Pagoda slowly adding floors. The breath becomes more impressive to us and now it's competing with the other great temples in our minds; family, career, diet, sleep, happiness, health, etc. Once the breath is seen as regal amongst all other phenomena, remember Prana and the elements, it becomes a thing to master. Compare this to brushing your teeth. Keeping the mouth clean is certainly a priority but to the vast majority, it isn't necessarily something to master. The breath to the yogi towers over most priorities. This is the metaphorical difference between a temple that is practiced within and the abandoned temples made and standing but hollow.
The mastered breath, the living temple, builds physical and psychological peace within the anxious body and mind so that they both may fold into their own aliveness more easily. That is the mind awakeing becasue a mind, in the end, is destined to open into itself. You might fold into your blankets with greater joy when the day was successful. You might sleep more soundly when you have off the following day. The yogi's breath, through the reasons mentioned, is that next day off sort of night sleep. It is the sunlight that calls a flower to open its petals. It is not just the catalyst but the secret bliss of this process of self-reflection that can at other times be forceful, desperate, and painful. It is through pranayama, breathing techniques, that the false concerns and incessant worrying of the mind stop to reveal its ecstasy. When the nervous system is calmed and the blood is balanced the mind becomes an enjoyable experience. Only until the mind becomes enjoyable does the mind open. Much like a romance. It is only until two lovers see themselves as enjoyable do they become intimate. From there what can be said has been said in every poem of love and life. Two fish. Swimming eternally as one. Pranashakti. Cittashakti. Breath and mind. They affect each other. Open each other. Enter each other. Become each other. Breath peacefully. Diaphragmatically. Steadily. Through the nose. The mind will follow. Then the world will gleam, crystalline, as a reflection of this organized and intensified aliveness. This leads to more beauty. Nirvana. All of it, however, is a choice. That is the most valuable truth. It is our choice to hold ourselves the way we hold ourselves. It is our choice to breath a peaceful, trusting, invigorating breath. It is our choice to build temples of insight within our attitudes. It is a choice to know ourselves, a choice to unlearn ourselves, a choice to realize ourselves, again. What to do along the way? A breath will certainly be there.
The Nervous System