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One-Minute Meditation with Bhastrika
Yoga, including asana, pranayama (breathing), and meditation, became popular in the US in the 1960s and 70s when yogis from India were shown to be able to control aspects of their physiology that were previously thought to be involuntary.1
Based on these early Western studies, yoga has become a well-studied science, proving its ability to mitigate degenerative impacts of stress on our physiology. While I believe all three aspects of yoga are equally valuable and mutually enhancing, some experts suggest pranayama is the most important.1
I have written articles on the science of pranayama techniques, such as kapalabhati and brahmari, but today’s article is on the science behind bhastrika, or bellows breathing. I have been teaching bellows breathing as part of my One-Minute Meditation for decades with amazing clinical results, such as resetting inner calm on demand in times of stress and training the body to function from this calm center.
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Bhastrika Effect on Brain Function
The practice of bhastrika induces central nervous system excitation, as reflected on an electroencephalogram (EEG), with activation of temporoparietal cortical areas, producing brainwaves similar to the gamma frequency bands.7
Gamma brainwaves are seen in states of universal love, altruism, and higher virtues. Gamma is above the frequency of neuronal firing, so how it is generated remains a mystery. It is speculated that gamma rhythms modulate perception and consciousness, and that a greater presence of gamma relates to expanded consciousness and spirituality.8
The subjective experience during bhastrika is most often of excitation, followed by emotional calm, with mental activation and alertness.7 The calming effect is shown by reduced sympathetic (fight-or-flight) response and increased parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) activity.1,7
Cardiovascular Benefits and Stress Management
In one study, 50 healthy men ages 18-25 practiced bhastrika for 12 weeks while being evaluated for changes in cardiovascular health and autonomic nervous system function.
Their 12-week practice included the following instructions: “Sit cross-legged. Keep the body, neck, and head erect. Close the mouth. Inhale and exhale quickly ten times like the bellows of the blacksmith with a hissing sound. Start with rapid expulsions of breath following one another in rapid succession. After ten expulsions, the final expulsion is followed by the deepest possible inhalation. Breath is suspended as long as it can be done with comfort. Deepest possible exhalation is done very slowly. This completes one round of bhastrika. Rest a while after one round is over by taking a few normal breaths. Start with the next round. Practice up to three rounds.”1,5
This study showed the first five benefits in the following list. (The last three are from other studies, discussed below.)
Benefits of Bhastrika Breathing
- Increased parasympathetic activity
- Reduced basal heart rate
- Decreased stress response from holding breath (increased valsalva ratio)
- Reduced sympathetic (fight-or-flight) stress
- Reduced blood pressure
- Quicker reaction time
- Decreased distractibility
- Greater aerobic performance
Increased Reaction Time and Focus
The practice of yoga has also been shown in numerous studies to increase reaction time. The study above suggests a stress-handling benefit after 12 weeks of practicing bhastrika, but is there an immediate effect? A handful of studies set out to see if the practice would have an immediate effect on reaction time, and results were impressive.
In one study with 22 healthy school-age boys, reaction time was measured immediately before and after nine rounds of bhastrika. There was a significant improvement in reaction time, both visually and auditorily, suggesting improved sensory-motor performance and enhanced processing ability of the central nervous system. Researchers conclude this effect may be due to “greater arousal, faster rate of information processing, improved concentration and/or an ability to ignore extraneous stimuli. This is of applied value in situations requiring faster reactivity, such as sports, machine operation, race driving, and specialized surgery. It may also be of value to train mentally retarded children and older sports persons who have prolonged reaction time.”2
In another study to evaluate reaction time and ability to ignore extraneous stimuli, two groups of 35 volunteers were evaluated. One group was a control and the other performed bhastrika. The results following 18 minutes of bhastrika pranayama found an immediate effect in reducing distractions and blocking unnecessary responses to extraneous stimuli.3
A similar study was done on special needs kids, who often have slower reaction times. The results also showed improved reaction time, which is linked to improved processing ability. The study concluded that bhastrika may be used as an effective means of improving neuromuscular abilities in special needs kids.
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Bhastrika Outperforms Running in Lung Function Tests
In a study of 30 men ages of 18-30, half practiced bhastrika for 15 minutes each day and the other half ran for 15 minutes per day. They performed these activities six days a week for one month.
The bhastrika group saw significant improvements in numerous lung function tests compared to the running group. Forced vital capacity, forced expiratory volume, peak expiratory flow, and maximum voluntary ventilation of the lungs were all higher in the bhastrika group. Only the peak expiratory flow rate and maximum voluntary ventilation improved with the running group, but not as much as measured in the bhastrika group.
Researchers concluded that adding pranayama to athletic training could greatly enhance aerobic performance in healthy individuals and athletes.6
Have you tried bhastrika breathing? What did you notice?