In class the other night, our teacher Nella shared a story about being on vacation and seeing a tortoise. She was told that the tortoise only breathes 3 to 4 times per minute, and interestingly enough also happens to be one of the longest living animals on earth. She told us to imagine ourselves breathing like the tortoise, as slooowly as possible so we could have long healthy lives.
The following excerpt from The Mind Unleashed has some fascinating facts on breathing rates and life spans:
How Do You Breathe?
Much of the science of yoga was gained from watching nature and her creatures. Ancient saints and sages noticed that animals with low respiratory rates, like the tortoise, but also like the elephant, and the other animals listed in the chart below lived longer life spans with a controlled, long breath. You will also notice, though, that as the speed of respiration increases, the life span of the animal shortens.
|Animal||Breathing rate, breaths/min||Life span, years|
|Elephant||4-5 (lying down)||70|
Poets and sages knew better. For example, in a sloka (verse) from the Bhagavad Gita we learn:
“When, like the tortoise which withdraws its limbs on all sides, he (a sage) withdraws his senses from the sense-objects, then his wisdom becomes steady” (Chapter 2-58)
Additionally, here is a couplet from Tirukkural: “If a man learns to control his five senses in one birth as the tortoise, that power will stand by him in his seven future births.” (Kural 126)
Pranayama DefinedPranayama is a Sanskrit word that means literally life force, or an unseen energy, which runs like currents through the body ‘prana,’ and ‘ayama’ which means control, or extension of the life force. Just having an increased life force, without knowing how to control it, is rather useless, according to yogic wisdom.
It can take an entire lifetime to master all the breathing techniques or ‘control of life-force techniques’ offered through yogic science, from Samavrtti, Ujjayi, Kumbhaka, Anuloma Viloma, Kapalabhati, and Sithali, and more, but alternate nostril breathing, or Nadi Shodhana also called Anuloma Viloma, has been scientifically proven to increase life span.
When the respiratory rate decreases the heart doesn’t have to work as hard to pump blood throughout the body. Our nervous system then calms down and takes a much-needed break, also. You can think of it like the conservation of energy in physics, or putting fewer miles on your car so it will last longer.
A Danish study, for example, published in Heart, suggests that a higher resting heart rate is an independent predictor of mortality — even in healthy people that are in great physical condition.
Danish researchers gave physical exams to 5,249 healthy middle-aged and elderly men beginning in 1971. In 1985 and 1986, they tracked survivors, of whom there were 3,354. Of these, 2,798 had sufficient data on heart rate and oxygen consumption for the analysis. Researchers followed them through 2011.
After controlling for physical fitness and many other health and behavioral factors, they found that the higher the resting heart rate, the greater the risk for death.
The numbers were quite telling:
Men with a resting heart rate of 50 beats per minute or less compared to those with 71 to 80 beats per minute has a 51 percent greater risk of mortality. At over 90 beats per minute the risk tripled.
The lead author and researcher at Copenhagen University Hospital Gentofte, Dr. Magnus Thorsten Jensen explains:
“If you have two healthy people, exactly the same in physical fitness, age, blood pressure and so on, the person with the highest resting heart rate is more likely to have a shorter life span.”
That’s where pranayama comes in, and specifically alternate nostril breathing. Not only does this breathing practice “increase cardiac autonomous modulation” (a long-winded way of saying, help out the heart and sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems) but it also lowers the resting heart rate. It gives profound rest to the entire physical and energetic system, while also invigorating it.