Do you know about Pranayama? Embedded in yogic science, Pranayamas are breathing techniques that serve specific purposes.
From alleviating depression to treating high blood pressure levels, there are innumerable benefits of Pranayama. One of these benefits includes improvement in heart health and prevention of cardiovascular diseases.
Let’s read more about the benefits of Pranayama for heart health here. However, before we dig deep into that, let’s understand the connection between these two.
Heart Health and Pranayama
Heart health and cardiovascular functions are successfully controlled by neural as well as other factors such as temperature and hormones, among others. Of these, neural factors majorly concern the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which plays a primary role in the maintenance and regulation of cardiac functions, such as heart rate (HR), systolic blood pressure (SBP), and diastolic blood pressure (DBP). Imbalances in these can lead to cardiovascular problems, such as infarction, ischemia, and hypertension.
Cardiovascular disease is, by far, the leading cause of death in both men and women. Lifestyle modifications are key factors when it comes to the prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation of cardiovascular diseases. Yoga is one of the most optimum lifestyle modifications as well as an ancient Vedic science, which is being increasingly applied in the field of therapeutics. It includes practice of specific postures (asanas) and regulated breathing (Pranayama). Breath is the most important, dynamic bridge between mind and body, making Pranayama one of the most crucial yogic practices.
The word Pranayama has two components: Prana (which means vital energy) and Ayama (which means expansion or extension). Thus, the word Pranayama means expansion or extension of the dimension of Prana.
When it comes to Pranayama practices, there are four vital aspects of breathing: (1) Puraka (inhalation), (2) Recaka (exhalation), (3) Antah Kumbhaka (or internal breath retention) and (4) Bahih Kumbhaka (or external breath retention). A highly advanced stage of Pranayama that occurs during intense meditation is known as Kevala Kumbhaka (or spontaneous breath retention).
Pranayama Benefits in General
Stress (either mental or physical) is known to cause cardiovascular morbidity. In one study, the practice of various Pranayama techniques over the course of two months was shown to reduce levels of stress and low frequency of heart rate variability (HRV) spectrum (indicating reduction in the sympathetic drive to the heart), and an increase in a high frequency of HRV spectrum (indicating an increase in the parasympathetic output to the heart, along with an overall reduction in low frequency/high frequency ratio, thus indicating an optimum sympatho-vagal balance. Therefore, Pranayama produces a relaxed state, wherein parasympathetic activity overrides sympathetic activity.
Regular practice of Pranayama was shown to reduce sympathetic tone within a period of just 7 days. Another study successfully reported that changes in autonomic responses to breath-holding is most probably due to an increase in vagal tone and a decrease in sympathetic discharges. In those individuals with arrhythmia and hypertension, practice of Pranayama has proven to produce a significant reduction in indices of ventricular repolarization dispersion and optimum control of blood pressure, respectively. Hence, when it comes to Pranayama for heart health, studies indicate a positive association.
Slow and Fast Pranayama for Heart
In a prior study on slow Pranayama techniques (such as Nadi Suddhi, Mukhabhastrika, Savitri and Pranava Pranayamas) which were practised for 20 minutes each day for a total duration of three months, it was demonstrated that Pranayama modulated ventricular performance by increasing parasympathetic activity, while simultaneously decreasing sympathetic activity.
Diverse types of Pranayama types were shown to produce diverse physiological responses. For instance, with the practice of Savitri Pranayama (which is a form of slow, rhythmic, deep breathing) there was a subsequent reduction in heart rate, rate pressure product, and double product. On the other hand, with the practice of Bhastrika Pranayama (which is a form of bellows-type rapid, deep breathing) there was an increase in all the aforementioned parameters.
In several other studies, both fast types of Pranayama (such as Bhastrika, Kapalabhati, and Kukkuriya Pranayama) slow types of Pranayama (such as Pranava, Savitri, and Nadi Sodhana) were shown to be highly efficacious in reducing overall stress levels. Further, the beneficial effects on cardiovascular parameters were observed only after the practice of slow Pranayama/breathing types and not after fast Pranayama/breathing types.
Thus, it can be concluded that Pranayama for heart health is a successful phenomenon.
To Sum It All Up
Since ancient times, Pranayama is known to relieve stress and stabilise autonomic functioning of the body. Its immense potential in reducing blood pressure makes Pranayama a promising, non-pharmacologic tool to reduce blood pressure in pre-hypertensive individuals. Diverse types of Pranayama techniques were shown to produce diverse effects, wherein slow types of yogic breathing techniques were shown to improve cardiovascular health as well as autonomic variables, which may be useful for the prevention and management of cardiovascular diseases.