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Can Pranayama control emotions?

Alternate nostril breath

We are all familiar with instances when our emotions can control the breathing rhythm. For example, when we are very angry or agitated, our breathing is very uneven, fast and shallow. When we are very sad, we breathe uneven, sobbing breaths. When we are calm or engrossed in some pleasant activity, like listening to some soulful music, our breathing is very gentle, even and soft. When we are trying to thread a needle, we naturally suspend our breathing as we attempt to move the thread through the hole. These examples demonstrate that our breathing pattern is a good indicator of the state of the mind that we are experiencing at a given time.

From the perspective of yoga, the reverse of the above situation is not only true but highly desirable. Which is to say that by controlling our breathing pattern, we can potentially control our emotions. All of us, at one point of time or another, are overtaken by negative emotions like anger, jealousy, hatred, greed etc. There are other times when we experience positive emotions like love, compassion, tenderness etc.

When we are physically hurt, or have some physiological ailment, we can go to a doctor and get some treatment. Medical science has progressed enough that it can now treat some of the very serious diseases which, only  a few decades ago, were considered untreatable. However, when we look at some of these emotional problems like anger etc, there is no known treatment that a medical doctor can provide. At best, these problems are categorized as neurotic or psychotic and you may be advised to go to a psychiatrist or a ‘shrink’ for treatment. How successful these treatments are is highly debatable.

Everything in the universe has a natural rhythm of its own. The sun, moon and all the stars have a rhythm. The earth rotates around the sun and around its own axis in a fixed rhythm. Day and night have a rhythm; ocean waves ebb and flow in a rhythm. Within our body, our heart beat, blood circulation, breathing, flow of all fluids, all have a rhythm. As per principles of physics, all matter is nothing but vibrations – atoms and molecules vibrating at various frequencies. Consider water (H20) for example. Its molecular structure doesn’t change whether it is in the form of ice, water or vapor; the only change is in the vibration frequency of the molecules with resulting change in its state.

When we go deeper into our mind, every thought, emotion and feeling has a natural rhythm of their own. For example, the emotions of love and anger represent two different vibrations. In addition to the vibrations, every emotion or feeling is also represented by a certain configuration of neurons in our brain. As we know, there are billions of neurons in our brain. They are all interconnected in a huge mesh of networks. Each thought, feeling and emotion is represented by a certain configuration of these neurons. Depending upon the trigger, one of these network configurations gets activated which vibrates at its own natural frequency giving rise to a specific emotion (anger, for example).

Let us now turn our attention to the practice of yoga and see how yoga might help in dealing with these emotions. At the physical level, the practice of asana (physical postures) involves moving/stretching the body in a rhythmic manner, synchronizing the movement with our breathing pattern. When we practice pranayama, all breathing practices involve rhythmic breathing. According to Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, pranayama involves three variables – ‘desha’ (location), ‘kala’ (duration) and ‘samkhya’ (count). In addition, the breathing can be subtle and gentle or brisk and forced. Based on these variables, a very large number of breathing techniques have evolved. Most of the techniques practiced today are taken from the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, an authoritative text on Hatha Yoga.

During the pranayama practice, when we are breathing rhythmically, it is likely that the frequency of vibration might match one of the natural rhythms of an emotion (anger, for example). There is a principle in physics according to which when two waves of similar frequency collide with each other, their force can get magnified many times. It is well known in military circles that soldiers marching in step over a bridge can cause harmonic oscillations which can make the bridge collapse. That is why the soldiers are asked to break step while crossing a bridge.

Something similar happens with our emotions when their frequency matches the rhythm of the breathing pattern. In this case, even a hidden emotion can come up to the surface making it easier for us to deal with it. Likewise, it is equally likely that the neuron configuration for a given emotion might get disturbed to an extent that the force of the emotion gets weakened. With practice, these emotions can eventually be brought under control quite effectively.

I have attempted to give a somewhat scientific explanation of how the practice of yoga involving rhythmic breathing patterns can positively influence our patterns of emotions. When our emotions are under check, we can perform all our actions more objectively since  we are not stressed out due to negative emotions. This will lead to a happier and more fulfilling life.

 I hope you will find the above useful and convincing enough that it will motivate you to practice yoga (pranayama, in particular) on a regular basis. I would love to receive your feedback. Please leave a comment in the comment box and send it in.

17 comments to Can Pranayama control emotions?

  • Pranayama is the sacred bridge between body and mind- as I write in my recent article for Integral Yoga Magazine–a bridge that can carry us past anxiety and depression.

  • Roger Ehrlich

    The truth of the above has been manifested to me through bicycling, music and dance, as well as yoga. I suspect that if the bicycling had been invented Patanjali and other sages might have recognized it as especially complementary to yoga.

    Practicing bicycling through varying terrain one can quickly learn to maintain an ideal rhythmic cadence through shifting gears as the terrain changes while maintaining an equilibrium between your muscular exertion and your breathing. Finding this harmonic rhythm prevents anaerobic muscle exhaustion and getting ‘winded’ and certainly allows more endurance (or ‘kala’) and maximum mental as well as physical benefit from one’s excursion.

    I’ve found singing a song in my head with the right mood and rhythm helps synchronize my exertion and breathing, and that the same principle is easily applied to hiking and jogging varied terrain by making smaller steps when going up hill. Surely animals and practiced laborers do this automatically.

    I believe the connection between rhythm, breathing, mood, and controlling ego and fluctuations of the mind is also reflected in the culture of music and dance. I wonder what else science has learned about particular cadences and their emotional power!

  • Subhash

    Roger, what you are saying about all activities that involve rhythmic breathing is so very true. Even during our asana practice, we always encourage breathing pattern to be synchronized with the physical movement. Just being aware of the breathing itself is very calming for the nerves. Thanks for bringing out such an important aspect of the yoga practice as it relates to all physical activity.

  • Subhash, great to bring more attention to pranayama. I find as a yoga teacher that it’s often overlooked in classes. Especially vinyasa style classes, which is the style I teach. It’s as if the physical emphasis on the postures has overwhelmed more subtle aspects of the practice. Have you noticed this? Pranayama is more “subtle” but so powerful. I try to include in every class, but find students who may be comfortable with postures, are not at all familiar with nadi shodhana or kapalbhati, and so one has to ask each time and really instruct them.

    • admin

      Kala, I teach the Integral yoga style which you can label as being more traditional. Pranayama is an integral part of the routine that I teach. So in every class I include about 15-20 minutes of pranayama. I think it is unfortunate that in most classes that are taught these days, especially those in health clubs and gyms, the emphasis is mainly on the physical aspect of yoga. Some of the current yoga teachers in India are promoting pranayama as being even more important than the asana practice. Baba Ramdev who is perhaps the most popular and well-known in India is leading the effort to make pranayama as a part of daily routine in everybody’s life. I am so glad to see that you are doing your part in promoting pranayama in your classes.

  • Robin Dagha

    Hi Subash,

    Good article. I am a very emotional person, my problem is my emotions are very exaggerated.I become angry on small or no issues at all, similarly I become sad or fearful for petty reasons. Even sometimes I get happy or excited for no reasons at all. This was not the case till I was 17 years old. This is giving me trouble in life. Can I control it by practicing only Pranayam. Previously I had joined a yoga center for pranayam for 3 months but had to discontinue due to lack of time. In how much time can one see results. Thank you.

  • Subhash

    Dear Robin,
    To control any problem, you need to understand the cause of the problem and then apply appropriate techniques of yoga to handle the problem. Exaggerated emotions could be caused by some traumatic experience which has left a deep impression in your sub-conscious. In yoga we relate it to the ego as the ego is the one that stirs up emotions based on what is in the sub-conscious. So, my suggestion would be to study the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali to develop a better understanding of how the mind functions, how the ego takes over and causes all kinds of emotional disturbances. Practicing pranayama, along with developing this understanding, is likely to give you much better results. Among the pranayama techniques, you need to focus on those that involve slow, deep breathing – e.g., alternate nostril breathing, cooling breaths, Bhramari (humming bee), Ujjayi pranayama etc. In terms of how soon you can see the results, that is almost impossible to say – it is all a combination of the regularity of practice, an understanding of the underlying principles, proper diet, a lifestyle that promotes positive thinking, a good meditation routine etc. I wish you all the best.
    – Subhash

  • Robin Dagha

    Hi Subash,
    Thanks for your reply, I would like to add something, which I didn’t do in previous post, when I was 14 I had a minor accident in which I was hit on my nose and due to which my nasal septum is bent towards my right nostril. Even during nadi-sudhi I can spot out that passage of air is slower in right side than on left side, can this be the cause of problem. I didn’t have any traumatic experience whatsoever in my life. If the above stated reason is the cause then is there any special exercise that I can do, I don’t want to undergo any surgery etc.

  • admin

    I don’t believe that a deviated septum could be the cause of the emotional turmoil that you mentioned earlier. Unfortunately, not being a medical person, I really can’t suggest how to treat the septum issue. In general, I recommend “jala neti” as a means to keep the nasal passage clean. I hope it helps.

  • Vidya

    Dear Sir,
    I feel extremely disturbed. I am extremely emotional and small things can make me cry or angry. No matter how much I try, I am not able to control my emotions. This is hampering big time in my professional life. Can you please help me with a solution. No matter how good or bad situation is, I want to control my emotions. I will be grateful if you can help me with this.

    Thank you.

  • Veena

    Dear Sir, Could you please help me control my emotions.

    • Hello Veena,
      I am sorry that you are having trouble with emotional outbursts. Emotions are a result of our samskaras which are the latent impressions stored in our sub-conscious. In order to control the emotions, we need to learn how to make the samskaras weaker. Moreover, it is the ego (ahamkara) which relies on these samskaras to pull up pre-programmed responses in the form of emotions to every situation. The practice of yoga helps in both these areas – weakening the samskaras as well as sharpening the intellect so that we are then able to respond to situations more realistically. I suggest a regular regimen of yoga practice with more emphasis on pranayama and meditation to get a control over the emotions. In addition, I also suggest that you study Patanjali’s yoga sutras so you can better understand how the mind functions and how to develop better control over it. A good place to start would be to read the commentary by Swami Satchidananda.

  • Mansi Mehta

    This is a great explanation. But may I request clarification that when two waves of similar frequency come together there could be a possibility of constructive interference or destructive interference. What i mean is that in one case, as explained they may cancel out each other i.e. breathing rhythm may cancel or control anger rhytm. Why wouldnt there be a possibility of constructive interference where there is a summation of amplitude..where breathing vibration matches with anger vibration the amplitude of anger vibration would increase..I am asking this from a physics or sceintific perspective

    • Hi Mansi,
      I must admit that I am not an expert on the science behind these breathing techniques. The way it was explained to me is as follows:
      When two waves of the same frequency collide, their amplitude always goes way high. They never cancel each other. The idea is to make the amplitude so high that the neuron network representing that wave, and effectively a particular emotion, gets weakened, and possibly can collapse over time. When the network gets weaker, that emotion loses its intensity under the same triggering event.
      I hope this helps.

  • Sagar

    Hello Everyone
    I started practicing Sudarshan kriya & It really worked for me in gaining control over negative emotions. I see my self as a different person now. One can give it a try.
    Nice article Subhash.

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