Breath control techniques are often left out or minimized in modern yoga classes as they can feel awkward and weird. Traditionally, pranayama was practiced to cultivate a vibrant experience of energy and to purify the body and mind—but now science has discovered several positive effects that yogic breathing techniques have on physical health.
In this study, a team of researchers in South Carolina measured the effect of pranayama by looking at participants’ saliva samples to track inflammation biomarkers. They chose a pranayama technique outlined in a text that isn’t as well known to many yogis in the West: Thirumoolar’s “Thirumanthiram.” Despite the fact that he is widely considered a contemporary of Patanjali, the exact dates and details of Thirumoolar’s life are not known. He wrote the “Thirumanthiram,” a collection of over 3000 poems that lay out guidelines for topics related to ethics, yoga, and devotional exercises, around the 10th century CE or earlier. While other techniques and texts have been employed for scientific studies of yoga, the “Thirumanthiram” has not, making it valuable to researchers whose goal is to add to the existing body of knowledge on yoga practices and health.
Researchers chose Poem 568 for this study. This poem, nested in a larger section on pranayama, details a straightforward alternate-nostril breathing exercise.
568: Puraka Kumbhaka Resaka Alternated–Cleansing of Nadis
Purakam is to inhale by left nostril matras six and ten
Kumbhakam is to retain that breath for matras four and sixty
Resakam is to exhale thereafter for matras two and thirty
Thus alternate from left to right and right to left
With Kumbhakam in between.
The title of the poem refers to “nadis,” points in the body through which prana, or life energy, flows. For devotees and practitioners, this exercise would be used to cleanse the body at the physical and subtle levels. On top of that, the text claims that practicing breath control “makes the body light,” “gives supreme strength,” “purif[ies] the body,” and “leads to immortality” and “mastery of death.”
Thirumoolar outlines three parts in this pranayama: “Puraka,” the inhalation technique, “Kumbhaka,” the breath retainment technique, and “Resaka,” the exhalation technique. The matras the poem refers to tell us how to count the breath: a matra is the smallest rhythmic unit in a particular rhythmic pattern of music, roughly the length of a syllable. For its modern-day participants, the study ascribed two counts to an inhalation, eight counts to a hold, and four counts to an exhalation. Participants chanted the sound of “Om” and then practiced this breath technique for 10 minutes in two cycles throughout the session.
The researchers measured biomarkers in saliva that corresponded to inflammation in the body, and found that there was, indeed, a decrease in multiple biomarkers at the end of the study. Inflammation has been connected to ailments from cancer to depression, and recognizing inflammation early is quickly becoming a key part of illness prevention and treatment.
Researchers, who found that the results of the study match others focused on breath, movement, and mindfulness techniques outlined in yogic texts, add to a growing body of modern scientific knowledge focused on ancient yogic practices. These studies have found that pranayama and asana lower stress, reduce blood pressure, alleviate chronic pain, change metabolism and insulin secretion, and even have calming, healing effects on others.
It’s not up for debate: Incorporating breath awareness and simple pranayama techniques into daily life has benefits beyond what practitioners see on the surface. It can change everything from physiological processes to the effects we have on people around us. The technique outlined in the “Thirumanthiram” is just one of the many simple, accessible methods of practicing conscious, controlled breathing. I invite you to try this method, or select another one to practice for just a few minutes every day (a great list is here).
Pranayama can be challenging for beginners, so be sure to check out this article for tips as you incorporate breath control into your life and practice with more regularity. Do you practice any pranayama techniques? What effect have they had on your life?