Monday, November 8, 2010

Pranayama and Pain Relief: A guest post

This is the first installment in a series of guest posts about Yoga and Healing.  Stay tuned for more - and if you have a story to contribute, please get in touch with me: lagitane at mac dot com. ;)

Today's post is special because it looks at how modern science is validating knowledge that both ancient and modern yogis have discovered through their experiences.  And even better, it's presented by a *real* scientist! :)

John Fossella PhD is a former neuroscience & genetics scientist who, in May of 2010, decided to stay at home and raise his 2 children.  He also started a yoga practice @ Alluem Yoga in Cranford, NJ and so now is just slowly starting to realize the physical and mental benefits of yoga.  In the midst of practice, practice and more practice, he wonders just how – in terms of physiological and brain systems – the gradual transformation of the body and mind occurs (or in his case, will hopefully occur) and how the modern scientific view relates to ancient yogic medicine and philosophy.  He is blessed to be able to share his practice with his 2 boys who are enrolled in the kids yoga program @ Alluem. 

He blogs about his experiences with the practice of yoga over at Sutra Science, and about genetics and self-discovery at Genes to Brains to Mind to Me.

Pranayama destroys all pain and sorrow

In Chapter 8 of B. K. S. Iyengar's Light on Pranayama, he quotes the Bhagavad Gita (VI 17) saying, "Yoga destroys all pain and sorrow". Nice! and this is just one of dozens of poetic and inspiring sentiments that are woven into the otherwise detailed and rigorous methods described by Iyengar for the training of the lungs, diaphragm and intercostal muscles. Although I know the training is extensive and will surely take many years to master, I can't help wonder how much pain and sorrow, realistically, might be alleviated by the mastery of something as basic as - you know - breathing?
How might this work? I mean, pain is something that happens in your body and in your mind. How might mastery of deep and controlled breathing alleviate pain?
It turns out that there is a scientific research journal - Pain - that is dedicated to these types of questions. A recent article, "The effects of slow breathing on affective responses to pain stimuli: An experimental study" [doi:10.1016/j.pain.2009.10.001] by Alex Zautra and colleagues investigates the role of breathing in relief from chronic pain. The authors base their research on a specific neuroanatomical model of emotion and pain regulation:
The homeostatic neuroanatomical model of emotion proposes that the left forebrain is associated predominantly with parasympathetic activity, and thus with nourishment, safety, positive affect, approach (appetitive) behavior, and group-oriented (affiliative) emotions, while the right forebrain is associated predominantly with sympathetic activity, and thus with arousal, danger, negative affect, withdrawal (aversive) behavior, and individual-oriented (survival) emotions. ... The homeostatic neuroanatomical model of emotion suggests that central sensitization of pain in FM patients results in part from a relative deficit of activity in the parasympathetic branch of the ANS required for down-regulation of negative emotion and pain experience.
In basic terms, the researchers suggest that if one can increase activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, then one will experience relief from pain. So they want to evaluate whether deep breathing increases activity of the parasympathetic nervous system? In Chapter 4 of Light on Pranayama (Pranayama and the Respiratory System), Iyengar provides many detailed anatomical drawings of the musculature, skeletal and neural machinery related to breathing, but unfortunately no details on the role of parasympathetic vs. sympathetic nervous systems per se. The authors however, point to a previous study that showed slow breathing increases activation of bronchiopulmonary vagal afferents and produces enhanced heart rate variability, which reflects increased parasympathetic tone - so the scientific evidence points in the right direction.
To test the notion themselves, the investigators asked a group of healthy adult females to wear a small thermal device on the thumb that could be heated and cooled to produce varying levels of moderate discomfort (pain). By asking the volunteers to experience the thermal discomfort when breathing normally vs. breathing in a slower, deeper manner, the investigators could begin to assess whether the experience of pain (a self-reported value between 1 and 11) was different between the two breathing conditions.
The results showed that the volunteers self-reported less pain (given the same amount of thermal stimulation) when performing deep, slow breathing.
Very neat. Perhaps not a surprise to yogis 3,000 years ago nor experienced yogis today, but very exciting to see how the practice of Pranayama can engage a neuroanatomical system for the relief of suffering. In a previous post on the neural stimulation of this system - and its relation to Kundalini - it has become even more clear how potent this system can be!
Readers, have you ever experienced the effect John talks about, where slow, deep breathing can actually help relieve your pain? What is your experience with Yoga and pain relief?


  1. Pranayama is a wonderful pain relief. When I'm in Fibromyalgia flare up I cannot practice asana but pranayama helps every time. Also the pranayama I teach in pregnancy yoga to help through labour has had some marvellous feedback!

  2. This is so interesting! I have inflammatory arthritis and have only started practising yoga. It'll be interesting to see whether I can use pranayama when I have a flare up and is unable to do asanas...Personally, I also think slowing down your breathing and focus helps with other pain, such as grief. But I have no scientific proof to back that up!

  3. @Rachel and Sara - thanks for sharing! I think there is almost nothing that can't be conquered if we just keep breathing. One breath after another, every kind of pain eventually passes. :)

  4. Very well said La Gitane

    Breathing and the correct food...