In the previous session, we discussed the physiology of breath and today we are going to examine the psychology of breath but there’s going to be a little bit back and forth between the two. We are going to focus a lot on emotions today because as much as we like to think of ourselves as intellectual beings most of our decisions are governed by subconscious reflexes and emotions. And I think this discussion is going to be a long one, so grab a cup of tea or coffee and let’s get started.
Before we proceed I don’t think breath is the best starting point for Meditation but I’m discussing the Breath, the Life before discussing the Mind is because of its prior sequence in evolutionary manifestation and its tremendous therapeutic benefits.
The science of Yoga or Vedanta doesn’t distinguish much between Mind and Life, Mind is just the subtle form of Life (the breath, the emotions and the vitality) and vice versa. And both constantly affect each other but still, mind occupies a superior status and must control and tame the wild and mighty mare of vitality. So without further ado, let’s head on to the topic :).
Fight or Flight
Visualize a scenario for a while, Imagine you are passing through the jungle and you suddenly find a tiger facing you and roaring at you. What would you do? What would be your body’s priorities? To digest the food? To boost immunity and fight a virus? Probably not because if the tiger eats you undigested food or a deadly virus are now tiger’s problem!
No, but seriously that is how our nervous mind works. This is what happens, our body releases a hormone called adrenaline, our pupils are dilated and we have this tunnel vision so we can focus on the immediate threat, digestion stops, almost all the blood from the viscera and the thought and intelligence centres of the brain is diverted to lower section of the brain and to the limbs, as you don’t need to worry about your multivariable calculus assignment, your heart starts racing, breathing becomes short and there is more emphasis on inhalation than exhalation, the liver releases excess glucose. Now all you need to do is either to face the tiger or run away. Hence the name Fight or Flight. This allows a 60 kg single mom to lift a one-ton car to protect her child as you may have read in news.
So fight or flight is a very helpful response the only problem being it has not yet adapted our modern life-style. So today it creates the same response it once created on seeing a tiger before a test or important business meeting or just eye contact with your narcissistic boss. Whereas most modern problems require totally opposite set of skills and biological parameters our instinctive response is still the same. In the past fight or flight lasted for a few minutes at maximum today it lasts for weeks and months or even worse most people live in it 24/7. I would leave it to your imagination what problems this could create and what diseases may arise due to this sympathetic overdrive.
So when we refer to Breath or Prana or Vital Force  or Vital Being or Life  in yoga we are actually talking about this psycho-physical and nervous aspect of our being and not just the inhalation and exhalation. And of course, the Vital Being has parts which deal with sheer instinct such as anger and fear; and then the parts which deal with higher emotions such as love and compassion. And we will discuss those later but what I want you to understand is that the Vital Being isn’t all evil, it has mutually contradictory aspects just like any other part of our being. In the Veda, it is often described as an untamed horse or mane  which symbolises an unstoppable force and vitality coupled with yet the ruthlessness of an underlying wild-instinct and vulnerability. But if tamed properly this force becomes an unstoppable instrument of Divine Action in the human world.
Heart Rate Variability and Sympathetic Overdrive
As the heart is culturally associated with emotions let’s examine how the heart reacts to stimulation of emotions and autonomic nervous system. So every time you feel stressed or angry or scared your body is dealing with high levels of adrenaline and cortisol. And the first two physical effects of it are shortness of breath and racing of the heart. And let’s examine, why? So every fraction of a second the parasympathetic (rest and relax) and sympathetic (fight or flight) grapple for the control of heart, breath and endocrine system.
So when someone says he has a heart rate of 80 bpm (beats per minute) what he’s saying is that his heart beats at an average of 80 beats per minute, whereas the time interval between any two consecutive beats varies it can 1 sec or it can be 0.3 secs depending on which part of the nervous system is has the control. Those who live under constant chronic stress or have a sedentary lifestyle have poor heart rate variability and sympathetic overdrive compared to people who work out regularly and are good at stress management.
The problem lies not just in the fact that fight or flight gets triggered by mundane events but also in the fact that its effects may continue after hours, weeks and even years of the actual event. And hence we experience a constant sympathetic overdrive. This causes a dominance of fear, a decline of immunity, rapid ageing, chronic illness, acid reflux, anxiety, headaches, migraines, panic attacks, reduced fertility, erectile dysfunction, depression, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, even cancer (because cancer is a metabolic disorder) etc.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has stated that “Globally, more than 264 million people of all ages suffer from depression.” and anxiety is the number one disability. And “Depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy US$1 trillion each year.” In the US more than 25% of women take anti-anxiety or anti-depression medicines (with hideous side effect) and Men are short behind also suffering from lower sperm count and erectile dysfunction. And many Kids take ADHD medicines.
Breath as treatment and a means for emotional release
Breath is something very unusual, it is the link between voluntary and involuntary parts of our body. By that, I mean that we can control our breath and hold it but even when we are not aware of it, the breath goes on. And we can’t commit suicide by holding our breath if you try you will knock your self unconscious and once un-conscious the breathing will continue. But I warn you not to try it because it can leave some permanent damage. And the breath holds the key for treatment of sympathetic overdrive. Where’s the evidence? The yogis and sages of India, Tibet, China and elsewhere have been using the breath to survive in freezing cold and to attain calmness and serenity for the mind for millennia. The US Navy developed a method to fall asleep in 5 minutes using breath. And they noticed a significant drop in avoidable mistakes. Navy SEALs breathing to help them focus and calm their mind for a while now.
Superficially breath helps releases physical tension and stiffness and it could help with issues such as lower back pain or neck issues and again as we saw in the last session the whole of fascia is stimulated and the viscera is massaged by breathing correctly. “…Very short breath and short exhalation decrease toxic removal. It rots you off your vitality …. Most tightness in the body occurs when the brain tries to stabilise an unbalanced torso due to improper breathing … I replaced most stretching exercises for my athletes by breathing.” exclaimed Joe DiStefano, fitness expert, and lifestyle coach in his TED talk.
But as you we continue to breathe consciously and deeply our bodies go through a whole range of metabolic, cellular and neural changes and memories and effects of old traumas and buried emotions are touched upon for release. According to Max Storm, yoga trainer, author and corporate trainer says “People with oppressed feelings, especially grief, start weeping in 3 to 5 minutes of breath control.” he adds “Crying is a perfect biological solution to express discomfort.” I have personally seen this too many times to count.
Stanford Research in 2013 took veterans suffering from PTSD and were helped successfully by yoga and meditation mostly. This is especially important because the US loses 20 veterans a day by suicide and therapy hasn’t worked.
Many doctors and therapists have added yoga, breathing, mindfulness etc into the treatments they prescribe and many have even substituted it for therapy. So rather than looking for evidence on a sheet of paper, breath is free why not try for a couple of months and verify for yourself?
Footnotes: The Élan vital of Henri Bergson  Prana or Pranamaya Purusha or Sukshma Sharira  This is the secret and symbolic essence of Ashwamedha Sacrifice in Veda.