Pranayama and Brain Waves
by Ra Panajotov
When I was get touched by pranayama techniques during my stay in Paramanand ashram, Indore, I realized what an important door was hidden in my life. I carry this thankfulness in my heart every day. And one more thing: I believe that everyone has this door in his/her own “temple”.
There has been a lot of research examining brain electric activity during mediation, but not as much during pranayama. I have my own experience I would like to share with you.
A few weeks ago I didn’t plan to write this article. I arranged meeting with my friend who has a device (EEG Brain Feedback) to train the brain. I told him about my interest to measure my brain waves during specific pranayama techniques. Usually he uses the device with his clients for increasing the ability to act within active Beta waves so he can help them to keep their concentration for a longer time. It works on EEG (electroencephalogram) principles, and the device measures the brain waves while playing special computer “mental game”. It means there is a task you need to complete and only you can do. It is changing your own mental focus (vibration) by watching on the monitor where the game runs. There is no keyboard, there is no mouse, no joystick or whatever else. You only use the mind. And because we don’t need to work with sight, he switched the monitor off.
I sat in Sukhasana (easy pose) and calmed myself. For this “examination” I chose the alternate nostril breathing in rates of 1-4-2 (inhale – hold – exhale/ purak – kumbhak –rachak) based on heartbeats and slowly increase the rate. I used a metronome set on 72beats per minute (simulating the average heart beat rate) . My friend took the wires (electrodes) and fixed them on my head. Each minute (of 24 minute measurement) the device took a sample of brain waves (delta/theta/alfa/beta/beta2) which you can see on the picture.
Let’s take a look at the characteristics of each wave and how they have been described by Dr. Omanand (Guruji) in his book Galaxy of Yoga – Decoded:
- Beta 14-30Hz Active, alert, associated with tension stress on anxiety
- Alpha 8-13Hz Relaxation, better memory, visualization, rejuvenation
- Theta 4-7Hz Half asleep, partially unconscious, images and thoughts
- Delta 0-4Hz Deep sleep, dreamless or unconscious state. During Yoga Nidra, brain waves are at this level, but yogi is awakened.
The most interesting thing during this technique was the increasing of delta waves. Delta waves are characterized by frequency of 0-4hertz and a normal amplitude of about 15-20. They kept rising during NREM phase of deep sleeping and are also called slow waves.
At the beginning of the examination, when I would breathe for two minutes with both nostrils to set the breath in the body, we could see the amplitude of delta waves were still around 20. In the 7th minute (it means after 5 minutes of pranayama technique) changes started to be visible and amplitude rapidly rose to 37. Then it rose slowly to an amplitude of 52 in the 13th minute, which was the maximum. It then decreased slowly to an amplitude of 28 in 23rd minute. After I finished pranayama amplitude stayed at a normal level.
There is one more thing I would like to add. It was an intensive increasing of cell breathing during pranayama. The sweat ran from my skin to cool the body. One would say it is impossible to just sit and sweat.
Let’s take a look at what T.M Srinivasan says about pranayama and the brain.
First is the definition of pranayama, which is not Prana and Yama, but Prana and Ayama. The difference is quite hidden. The first one we can roughly translate as Breath and Control, second as Breath and Expansion. Pranayama removes all impurities from the nadis (pranic channels) and in a proper practice, pranayama helps the mind become more tranquil, and as a result to transcend the fear of all fears – the fear of death.
There are different techniques of pranayama, focused on inhale (purak), holding the breath after full inhalation (internal kumbhak), exhaling(rachak) or holding the breath after full exhalation (external kumbhak), and as T.M.Srinivasan says “Different types of pranayama seem to influence the brain functioning in specific ways. It is likely that a particular neurotransmitter is released for each type of pranayama.”
There are several cycles in our lives (day-night, year, sleep, eat…) and also nasal breathing, well known to ancient yogis. This cycle is correlated with endogenous glands and it becomes “visible” by changing the nostril breathing. This breath, dominant by one or another nostril is repeated 10 times in a 24-hour period. During the day our nostril breathing is shifting every 2-3 hours.
There is one more interesting thing D.Shannahoff-Khalsa realized during his research, and T.M Srinivasan explains it, “If a person is breathing predominately with the left nostril, that person’s right hemisphere of the brain will be more active, putting out a greater electrical signal than the left hemisphere.”
And T.M Srinivasan continues, “What is known is the fact that the left nostril dominance is associated with parasympathetic response and the right nostril dominance is associated with sympathetic response. If, due to some reason the nostril switching is not proper, then the balance in sympathetic – Parasympathetic inputs to body functions seems to be disturbed resulting in some somatic problems. Brain, cardiac and respiratory functions are coupled strongly through the autonomic nervous system and manipulation of breath could change the activity in these organs.”
There is much more behind pranayama that we cannot see, and we need to understand, not just learn. Think about the abilities we have, that we don’t use too often. Think about how they could help us to reach a higher level of consciousness. And breathe…
- T.M.Srinivasan: Pranayama and Brain Correlates (1991)
- D. Shannahoff-Khalsa: A contemporary view of life force biology: The merging of Kundalini Yoga and the Neurosciences in Energy Medicine around the world, T. M. Srinivasan (Ed), Gabriel Press, Phoenix, AZ, USA, p. 89 – 110 (1989)
- Dr. Omanand (Guruji): Galaxy of Yoga – Decoded, Translation and commentary on Yoga Taravali by Adi Shankar Acharya (2013)
* “Neuron” illustration on the top by Dream Design >>
About Ra Panajotov:
Even in his childhood he never liked the aggressive energy of Ego, later he realized that his awareness was more attached to subtle energies he felt. Than came understanding, that there is a soul and “characteristics” we bring from previous lives. Why? It is possible to find the answer in awareness of life. Recently he is a yoga teacher, running lessons in Czech republic and he feels that his life “mission” is to spread spiritual awareness.
e-mail: [email protected], facebook: Ra Panajotov