This article is about Prānnāyāma given by Patanjali Maharshi, and I will describe the scientific explanation of the benefits of the Pūrakam and Kumbhakam Prānnāyāma. It is normally understood and proved that the heart of a person at rest pumps around 70 ml of blood in each contraction of the heart (systole -- technical term), and the blood contains 60 ml of oxygen for every liter of blood in the tissue capillaries. Under strenuous exercises these values change to 800 ml and 190 ml, respectively. Strenuous exercises cause high blood pressure, increase the cardiac output with a rise in the body temperature, and increase the carbon dioxide intake. A person who has a defective heart or is physically handicapped may not be able to perform strenuous physical exercises. Patanjali Yōga Shāstra describes about Prānnāyāma but does not give us any proof of the benefits. Since he was a Maharshi his descriptions should have been scientific and thoroughly proved those days. Since we do not have the description of Patanjali Maharshi’s proofs today this is an attempt to give a proof to the benefits of Prānnāyāma.
PŪRAKA PRĀNNĀYĀMA AND ITS BENEFIT
First, let a person at rest in the sitting posture inhale air such that the air intake is at the least three times the normal intake, this is called as Pūrakam. Then, let the person hold the breath by controlling the air passage for 20 seconds or more, this is called as Kumbhakam. The following changes should be observed during this period.
During normal breathing atmospheric air enters the lungs. Inside the lungs exchange of Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide from lungs to blood and from blood to lungs takes place. After inhaling air, the lungs will have more concentration of Oxygen than the concentration of Oxygen in blood. Similarly the concentration of Carbon Dioxide is more in the blood than in the lungs. Therefore due to diffusion, gases will flow from regions of higher concentration to the regions of lower concentration. Oxygen flows from lungs to blood and Carbon Dioxide flows from blood to lungs due to the diffusion process occurring at the lungs. The Oxygen in the blood will form Oxyhemoglobin and will be detached at the sites of the cells. The cells use up the Oxygen and produce energy and release Carbon Dioxide. This Carbon Dioxide is carried away to the lungs and is diffused out to the alveolar space. From here the Carbon Dioxide is released into the atmosphere due to exhaling the air.
From the part (1-1 & 1-2) we understand that the increase in the Carbon Dioxide level in the lungs due to holding the breath will decrease the diffusion of Carbon Dioxide from the blood to the lungs. This will increase the lung ventilation [Ref. (1)]. Due to this increase in lung ventilation a larger area of the lung space is available for diffusion of Oxygen into the blood. Therefore during this Kumbhakam (holding the air without exhaling or inhaling) the blood will be carrying more Oxygen than in normal breathing. Also the diffusion of Carbon Dioxide into the lungs from the blood will decrease. Due to burning of Oxygen at the cell sites more and more Carbon Dioxide is released into the blood and the pressure of Carbon Dioxide increases inside the blood. This triggers the detachment of Oxygen from Oxy hemoglobin at the cell sites [Ref. (2)]. Therefore more utilization of Oxygen takes place. Also the increase in the Carbon Dioxide levels in the blood will trigger lower heart beat rate. These all changes occur during the Pūrakam and Kumbhakam Prānnāyāma.
From the above paragraph it is clear that more Oxygen intake is possible due to Prānnāyāma and no strenuous exercises are required to increase the body energy levels and for burning more carbohydrates. After Kumbhakam the air should be exhaled slowly and the process should be repeated. Through these breathing exercises (Prānnāyāma) one can achieve a greater supply of Oxygen to the cells without risking the heart.
Reference (1): Best & Taylor’s Physiological Basis of Medical Practice, 10th edition, Williams & Wilkins, Baltimore/London, April 1981. Section-6, Chapter-4, Page 6-64.
Reference (2): Best & Taylor’s Physiological Basis of Medical Practice, 10th edition, Williams & Wilkins, Baltimore/London, April 1981. Section-6, Chapter-1, Page 6-13, 6-14, 6-15.
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