“It has long been claimed by Yogis and Buddhists that meditation and ancient breath-focused practices, such as prānāyamā, strengthen our ability to focus on tasks. A new study by researchers at Trinity College Dublin explains for the first time the neurophysiological link between breathing and attention.
Breath-focused meditation and yogic breathing practices have numerous known cognitive benefits, including increased ability to focus, decreased mind wandering, improved arousal levels, more positive emotions, decreased emotional reactivity, along with many others. To date, however, no direct neurophysiological link between respiration and cognition has been suggested.
The research shows for the first time that breathing—a key element of meditation and mindfulness practices—directly affects the levels of a natural chemical messenger in the brain called noradrenaline. This chemical messenger is released when we are challenged, curious, exercised, focused or emotionally aroused, and, if produced at the right levels, helps the brain grow new connections, like a brain fertiliser. The way we breathe, in other words, directly affects the chemistry of our brains in a way that can enhance our attention and improve our brain health.
The study, carried out by researchers at Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience and the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity, found that participants who focused well while undertaking a task that demanded a lot of attention had greater synchronisation between their breathing patterns and their attention, than those who had poor focus. The authors believe that it may be possible to use breath-control practices to stabilise attention and boost brain health.
Michael Melnychuk, Ph.D. candidate at the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, Trinity, and lead author of the study, explained: “Practitioners of yoga have claimed for some 2,500 years, that respiration influences the mind. In our study we looked for a neurophysiological link that could help explain these claims by measuring breathing, reaction time, and brain activity in a small area in the brainstem called the locus coeruleus, where noradrenaline is made. Noradrenaline is an all-purpose action system in the brain. When we are stressed we produce too much noradrenaline and we can’t focus. When we feel sluggish, we produce too little and again, we can’t focus. There is a sweet spot of noradrenaline in which our emotions, thinking and memory are much clearer.”
“This study has shown that as you breathe in locus coeruleus activity is increasing slightly, and as you breathe out it decreases. Put simply this means that our attention is influenced by our breath and that it rises and falls with the cycle of respiration. It is possible that by focusing on and regulating your breathing you can optimise your attention level and likewise, by focusing on your attention level, your breathing becomes more synchronised.”
The research provides deeper scientific understanding of the neurophysiological mechanisms which underlie ancient meditation practices. The findings were recently published in a paper entitled ‘Coupling of respiration and attention via the locus coeruleus: Effects of meditation and pranayama’ in the journal Psychophysiology. Further research could help with the development of non-pharmacological therapies for people with attention compromised conditions such as ADHD and traumatic brain injury and in supporting cognition in older people.
There are traditionally two types of breath-focused practices—those that emphasise focus on breathing (mindfulness), and those that require breathing to be controlled (deep breathing practices such as pranayama). In cases when a person’s attention is compromised, practices which emphasise concentration and focus, such as mindfulness, where the individual focuses on feeling the sensations of respiration but make no effort to control them, could possibly be most beneficial. In cases where a person’s level of arousal is the cause of poor attention, for example drowsiness while driving, a pounding heart during an exam, or during a panic attack, it should be possible to alter the level of arousal in the body by controlling breathing. Both of these techniques have been shown to be effective in both the short and the long term.
Ian Robertson, Co-Director of the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity and Principal Investigator of the study added: “Yogis and Buddhist practitioners have long considered the breath an especially suitable object for meditation. It is believed that by observing the breath, and regulating it in precise ways—a practice known as pranayama—changes in arousal, attention, and emotional control that can be of great benefit to the meditator are realised. Our research finds that there is evidence to support the view that there is a strong connection between breath-centred practices and a steadiness of mind.”
“Our findings could have particular implications for research into brain ageing. Brains typically lose mass as they age, but less so in the brains of long term meditators. More ‘youthful’ brains have a reduced risk of dementia and mindfulness meditation techniques actually strengthen brain networks. Our research offers one possible reason for this—using our breath to control one of the brain’s natural chemical messengers, noradrenaline, which in the right ‘dose’ helps the brain grow new connections between cells. This study provides one more reason for everyone to boost the health of their brain using a whole range of activities ranging from aerobic exercise to mindfulness meditation.”
The full paper ‘Coupling of respiration and attention via the locus coeruleus: Effects of meditation and pranayama’ is available here: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/psyp.13091”
“to reach a point we have not reached before”
“In looking at how to deepen (rather than broaden) our personal practice choosing to focus on exploring the breath can be a key to unlocking the mystery of the relationship between body, breath, mind and beyond.
Here we can think of the deepening into our practice arising through progressively slowing the patterning of our breathing. To do this we have to reconsider our practice, not in terms of what we do with our body but what we do with the breath within our body.
This means firstly knowing what is our basic practice breath rate per minute and then progressively slowing that rate as we progress from Āsana, through to Mudrā and then to Prāṇāyāma.
For example when working with Āsana we can start with four breaths per minute, then with Mudrā slow it to three breaths per minute and finally with Prāṇāyāma, slow it again to two breaths per minute.
An accomplished practitioner may be working with three breaths a minute in Āsana, two breaths a minute in Mudrā and one breath a minute with Prāṇāyāma.
Whereas a less experienced practitioner may be working on five breaths a minute in Āsana, four breaths a minute in Mudrā and three breaths a minute in Prāṇāyāma.
The starting point does not matter and is something that is appropriate to the history, health and training of the student. What is more important is that no matter where we start from, the journey into the mystery of the breath and its relationship to the slowing of psychic activity, is through the progressive slowing of our breathing patterns.
This is realised within the long term developmental refinement of the practice limbs of Āsana, Mudrā and Prāṇāyāma within our journey into the evolution of Haṭha Sādhana towards Rāja Sādhana.”
“The spirit of viniyoga is starting from where one finds oneself.
As everybody is different and changes from time to time,
there can be no common starting point,
and ready-made answers are useless.
The present situation must be examined and
the habitually established status must be re-examined.”
– TKV Desikachar
“The greatest gift of practice is faith”
Posted by Michele Harney, Yoga Rathgar & Dundrum – Dublin
“Yoga teaches us that with every action there is both a positive and a negative effect. Anything we do in life will have both a positive and a negative effect. We must recognize what effects are positive and what effects are negative. Then we must stress the positive while we neutralize the negative. In all details of āsana, we must follow this principle.”
-TKV Desikachar – Religiousness in Yoga
“To cure the ills of the body, use the body.
To cure the wandering of the mind,
– Śrī T Krishnamacharya
Some excerpts from an article by Paul Harvey outlining the viniyoga (application) of prāṇāyāma from a Rāja Yoga and a Haṭha Yoga perspective.
“In the Rāja Yoga approach, as delineated in texts such as the Yoga Sūtra, the practice of Prāṇāyāma is focused around developing and refining the principles of attention, timing and number of breaths.
The fruits of this approach are a reduction in confusion (Yoga Sūtra C2 v52) and fitness for the first steps in the meditative process (Yoga Sūtra C2 v53) towards cultivating an experience of being filled with a subtle sense of stillness (Yoga Sūtra C1 v3).
“In the Haṭha Yoga approach, as delineated in texts such as the Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā, the practice of Prāṇāyāma is focused around developing and refining the principles of using two primary channels (īḍā and piṅgalā) through a variety techniques to effect a śodhana (clearing of blockages) of the nāḍī (channels for prāṇa).”
“…..the practice of Prāṇāyāma links the student to the more refined aspects of dhāraṇā (concentration) and dhyānam (meditation) as a seated practice.”
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Yoga as a View, Practice and Tool
Published in Spectrum, The Journal for the British Wheel of Yoga’ the following is an excerpt from the THIRD of a three part article by Paul Harvey cYs.
“Yoga as a tool is more likely to be the starting point for most students these days in that we often choose a style or approach to Yoga as a starting point in our Yoga experience. There are many, many choices these days, although the common denominator now appears to be based around Yoga teachers rather than Yoga teachings.
For example we can choose from Anusāra, Aṣṭāṅga, Bikram, Dru, Gītānada, Integral, Iyengar, Jīvamukti, Kripālu, Kuṇḍalinī, Sahaja, Scaravelli, Śivananda, Satyānanda, Viniyoga, etc.
Which is fine in itself. However the question that arises is how much do the various ‘types’ actually apply the Haṭha energetic principles of Practice in order to realize the View of Yoga? My own field of expertise lies within the teachings often referred to as Viniyoga, so I can only speak with experience from this perspective.
The primary principle here is that the Practices of Yoga must be adapted to the starting point, potential and needs of the student. Within this premise is a further question how, or even how much, the tools of Yoga utilize the Practice principles of Haṭha, in order to realise the View of Yoga as presented in what is seen as the primary teaching on the goal of Yoga, the Yoga Sūtra.”
Read more on Yoga as a Tool – The Art of viniyoga for developing a Personalized Practice
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Yoga as a View, Practice and Tool
Published in Spectrum, The Journal for the British Wheel of Yoga’ the following is an excerpt from the SECOND of a three part article by Paul Harvey cYs.
“Another irony in the emerging role and identity of Yoga in the West today is with regard to the term Haṭha Yoga. The term is mainly used generically these days to identify and group ‘physically’ based Yoga practices. As a teacher I am often asked in connection with the question what kind of Yoga do you teach, is it Haṭha Yoga?
The irony is that when we look at what Haṭha Yoga really is we find that the physical elements are relatively limited with very few Āsana discussed. Furthermore within the few discussed, the largest group are concerned with sitting, in preparation for practice elements other than Āsana. Here primarily to facilitate a quality of being able to sit still and as if move beyond the physical body.
Here the primary concern and field of activity for Haṭha Yoga practitioners is with regard to the energetic or ‘Prāṇa’ body and its role in helping to facilitate a quality of energetic ‘clarity’ and energetic ‘stillness’ ultimately as a ladder to support the practitioners exploration of meditational states of being.
The role of Haṭha is to help take the student towards the View and to help refine the View. What is important also is that we understand the various influences that exist in the West today in terms of ‘Yoga’. What seems to be in danger of being lost in all of this are the ‘energetic principles’ that underpin Haṭha Yoga because people have become very focused on the physicality, or even gymnastic type influences. It seems that modern Yoga practice is dominated by Āsana and the words Āsana and Yoga appears to have become sadly synonymous.”
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Yoga as a View, Practice and Tool
Published in Spectrum, The Journal for the British Wheel of Yoga’ the following are excerpts from the FIRST of a three part article by Paul Harvey.
“It is interesting these days that as a Yoga teacher the question I am more likely to be asked is ‘What kind of Yoga do you do?’ rather than ‘What is Yoga?’. It’s either that we think we already know what Yoga is or, more likely, that the view is becoming lost within the myriad of ways in which Yoga is offered.”
“In terms of what is presented as Yoga today where is the view? We need to have a view, we need to know how to access it and we need to know how to stabilise and sustain it.
In Yoga the View is explored most eloquently in the Yoga Sutra and its main focus is the relationship between two aspects that constantly interact in sustaining our sense of being and individuality. The two aspects are that of the perpetual activity of the mind or Citta and the ever present quality of stillness inherent within the awareness of Cit. When the Citta dominates we are more in the past than the present and when Cit dominates we are more in the present than the past.
The premise of the Yoga Sutra is that when the past takes over we are more liable to act and interact unskillfully. Even within different aspects of our Yoga practice when a disturbance arises it is because the past has taken over, a memory has arisen. However if there was no past there would be no Citta. Citta is like a vault full of past memories. Within this ever active process we want to create a space between impulse and reaction.”
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