Every breath you take: physiology and the ecology of knowing in meditative practice
Wasser International Journal of Dharma Studies
Every breath you take: physiology and the ecology of knowing in meditative practice
As a physiologist interested in contemplative practice and meditation I have enjoyed the opportunity of lecturing to students engaged in the study of contemplation. My pedagogic role was to expose them to some of what we know of the biological phenomena that are or may be taking place during various meditative states - explicating for them the details of how the human body actually works. In the course of working with students and faculty engaged in meditation I formulated the following questions relating biological science and contemplative practice: What should a practitioner or a teacher of meditation know about basic human anatomy and physiology? Is it necessary for someone engaging in contemplative practice to understand how the human organism is actually put together and how it works? Will knowledge of how the various organs work with one another enhance one's ability to meditate or can we dispense with this information and suffer no consequences in our practice? The fundamental importance of somatic or physical phenomena in meditative practice (for example in control of breath, heart rate, or metabolism) and most people's lack of understanding of basic human anatomy and physiology led me to answer yes to all of these questions. In this paper I outline the physiological knowledge and particular insights I have found useful for enhancing a person's understanding of how we breathe, how we regulate our heart rate, and how we control our metabolic rate in 'control' or non-meditative states and the kinds of changes we might expect in a meditating subject. I link what is perhaps the fundamental principle of physiology, the concept of 'homeostasis', with the balance and integration of the body systems sought by people engaged in contemplation. Mind-body harmony or an enhanced awareness of this linkage between the mind and the body can, in my opinion, be more fully realized when coupled with an understanding of what Hippocrates called, 'the nature of the body', that is, what the body actually does and how it does it.
What should a practitioner or a teacher of meditation or any contemplative practice
know about basic human anatomy and physiology? Or should we be asking, is it
necessary for someone engaging in contemplative practice to know anything about how the
human organism is actually put together and how it works? Will knowledge of how
the various organs work with one another enhance one's ability to meditate or can we
dispense with this information and suffer no consequences in our practice?
It is, of course, true that people have been engaged in meditation and other
contemplative practices for millennia without a strictly scientific understanding of human physiology.
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Physiological understanding is a far more modern development. There are also multiple
and not mutually exclusive approaches to describing how the human organism works in
addition to the "western"/empirical approach. These include ayurvedic, chi, and body
energy-based ways of knowing, which tend to understand the body as indissolubly tied to
the surrounding environment and cosmos. Thus our question reduces to, "Is it useful to
have a western, scientifically empirical understanding of the 'nature of the body" when'
engaged in meditation or when instructing others, particularly university students, on how
Although I am not an expert on meditation and have had only limited experiences to
date as a practitioner, I am a professor of physiology and have spent years conducting
research and teaching students the ways in which the human body is put together and
how its parts function. New students in my undergraduate courses typically know very,
very little about how we actually breathe, how we regulate our body temperatures and
metabolic rates, how our hearts function, and so on. The structural and functional
complexity of an organism as complicated as a human being is formidable; but people, in my
experience, find learning about this intricacy fascinating and are also amazed at the ways
in which all of the myriad parts of a person are integrated and work with one another. I
like to say that physiology is an 'integrative' science. While we might study or teach about,
for example, the heart or more broadly the cardiovascular system as a separate, distinct,
anatomical entity, that part of you is connected physically to many other parts or organ
systems and works with and is effected by them in complex ways. It is this connectedness
that allows an organism to achieve homeostasis, the condition of balance where all of the
animal's physical parts are working within their normal design parameters. We humans
are built to maintain aspects like our body temperatures, breathing rates, depth of
breathing, and all of our biochemical parameters within specific, acceptable limits and we have
built-in control systems that monitor these variables and, when we are healthy, return
them to the acceptable range when they start to deviate. I would argue here that, generally
speaking, the meditative or contemplative state is also a kind of homeostasis — a state of
balance — and therefore understandable in terms of basic physiological principles.
For the purposes of this article I would like to focus on three specific physiological
'systems' that I feel are particularly relevant for practitioners and teachers of meditation: the
respiratory system and how we actually breathe; the cardiovascular system and how our
heart actually functions; and the metabolic and thermoregulatory systems and how our
body generates and processes energy. The information I discuss here will be most useful for
practitioners of those kinds of meditative practices that focus on breath and breath control
(pranayama), control of heart rate and blood pressure, and control of body temperature
(g Tum-mo meditation). Pedagogically, my method involves posing questions about my
students' own bodies and their own personal experiences with and awareness of the way
their bodies work. We then explore the scientific answers to these questions together
utilizing specific physical activities or 'maneuvers' that help illustrate just what is going on
inside. I present here both the questions posed and the detailed answers that follow.
Respiration–how we breathe
"In this limitless world, our throat is like a swinging door. The air comes in and goes
out like someone passing through a swinging door. If you think, "I breathe", the "I" is
extra. There is no you to say "I". What we call "I" is just a swinging door which moves
when we inhale and when we exhale. It just moves; that is all. When your mind is
pure and calm enough to follow this movement, there is nothing: no "I", no world, no
mind nor body; just a swinging door." (Roshi 1995)
Do you usually think about breathing? Are you conscious or aware of taking air in
and out of your lungs? Many students of meditation and yoga appreciate the primacy
of breathing and of specific breathing practices such as pranayama. Thus, when I teach
respiratory physiology to either my physiology students or to students of contemplative
practice I sometimes begin by asking them if they had been aware of their breathing
prior to my posing the question. The answer is always 'no' and this opens the door for
me to begin to explain the underlying science of why this is so.
Humans and other mammals are fortunate that here on planet Earth we have an
atmosphere composed of a relatively large percentage of oxygen (a bit under 21%) and
that air, our 'respiratory medium' has a low density and is not very viscous. This means
that air is easy to move around; it doesn't require a lot of energy or effort to, for
example, move air in and out of our lungs. We all basically know this as, for all
practical purposes, one never gets tired or fatigued from breathing (even during extreme
exercise it is not the respiratory system that fatigues and limits performance).
Anatomically, humans have a 'tidal' respiratory arrangement. This means that we move air into
and out of our lungs through the same set of tubes (the trachea, the primary bronchi
leading to each lung and the subsequent smaller and smaller bronchioles). Air is moved
into these tubes and down to the inner reaches of the lung on inspiration and out again
on expiration. Not all animals utilize a tidal system in this way, the classic example
being fish. Fish, of course, are water-breathers and are removing the oxygen they need
from that dissolved in the water. They live in an environment where the availability of
oxygen is far less than in air and fish have to deal with the fact that the density and
viscosity of water is quite high. This means that a fish must exert a great deal of energy
moving water across their 'gas exchange surface' (gills). Fish get around this serious
problem by being 'unidirectional breathers'; water is moved in one direction only across
the gills, not back and forth as is the case with air-breathing animals like humans.
For us, air is moved in and out of the lungs by generating a pressure difference between
the outside of the body and the inner reaches of the lung itself. This difference in pressure
is referred to as a 'pressure gradient' and we call this phenomenon where a gas (or a
liquid) moves from a region of higher pressure to one where the pressure is lower, 'bulk
flow.' Thanks to the low density and viscosity of air, we don't need to generate a very large
pressure gradient in order to move a sufficient volume of air in and out of our lungs with
each breath. For an adult human, this pressure difference is very small and the volume of
air moved, known as the 'tidal volume' is about 0.5 liters. How is this modest pressure
gradient generated — in other words — how do we really breathe?
We need to take another look at lung and thoracic (chest cavity) anatomy in order to
understand this properly. Every organ in our bodies, such as those in the chest like the
lungs and heart and those in the abdomen (stomach, intestines, liver etc.) are covered
on their outer surfaces by a thin sheet of connective tissue known as the 'visceral
pleura.' There is a second connective tissue sheet on the inner side of the chest and
abdomen. The entire inside of your torso is lined by this second, thin sheet of tissue that
is known as the 'parietal pleura.' In the chest, there is a small space between the lungs
and the chest wall, thus between the visceral and parietal pleurae. We call this the
'interpleural space' and it is filled with fluid. This liquid acts to connect or 'couple' the
lung to the chest wall. In other words, in a healthy and functioning human respiratory
system, one could say the lung is 'stuck' to the inside of the chest and when the chest
moves — either in or out with in-breath or out-breath — so does the lung.
In order to inspire, we increase the volume of the chest, thereby increasing the
volume of the lung; since the lung is mechanically coupled or stuck to the chest wall
thanks to the liquid in the pleural space. This increase in volume is exactly what we
wish to do in order to generate a lower pressure in the lung than outside the body.
Why lower? Now we have to introduce a little bit of basic physics to our discussion.
Boyle's Law (named for the 17th century Anglo-Irish chemist, physicist, and natural
philosopher) states that in a closed system (a sealed beaker or our lungs) an increase in
volume results in a decrease in pressure of the system and a decrease in volume results
in an increase in pressure. This is due to the forces being generated by the moving gas
molecules contained within the system. For example, the more room these molecules
have to move around in, the less likely they are to collide with one another or with the
walls of the container and it is these collisions that are responsible for creating the
pressure. So, when you increase the volume of the lung (by increasing the volume of
the chest), you decrease the pressure inside the lung. Gas then moves from a region of
higher pressure (the environment) to a region of lower pressue (the inside of the lung).
This is in-breath or inspiration. The opposite occurs during out-breath (expiration)
where we decrease the volume of the chest and thus the lung, increasing the pressure
inside compared to the room pressure and so, out comes the gas! We do not suck or
push air into our lungs — the lungs are not muscular organs — they are filled and
emptied via the physical principle of Boyle's Law described above and the fact that they
are mechanically coupled to the chest wall and must move (change volume) as the
volume of the chest is changed.
How do we change the volume of the chest in order to breathe? In order to inspire,
we must contract one and only one skeletal muscle, a very special one called the
diaphragm. The diaphragm lies between the thorax and abdomen separating them
completely into two body compartments. It is a sheet-like, dome-shaped muscle and is not
attached to the lungs directly. Rather, when we wish to inspire, the diaphragm contracts
(shortens) causing it to flatten out and move downward towards the abdomen. This
contraction also moves the ribs outwards slightly. In other words, a contraction of the
diaphragm increases the volume of the chest, and thus the lungs, decreasing the
pressure and allowing air to flow from where the pressure is relatively higher (the room) to
where it is now relatively lower. On expiration, the diaphragm relaxes and returns to
its original higher and flatter position resulting in a decrease in chest and lung volumes,
an increase in pressure in the lung and the consequent movement of air out of the lung
and back into the room.
Thus, in physiological terms, inspiration is an active process because it requires the
contraction of the diaphragm whereas expiration is considered a passive process as it
relies solely on the elastic properties of the lung and chest wall. In this context, you
may think of the lung and chest as a balloon that is filled on inspiration. On expiration,
air flows out of the body and these structures return to their original shapes/sizes the
way a balloon deflates or the way a spring or rubber band returns to its original shape
when the tension is released.
Now there are some additional skeletal muscles in the chest, neck and abdomen that
can play a role in breathing but these are all 'accessory' muscles of either inspiration or
expiration. They are not required for a person to adequately breathe and are brought
into play only when we make the demand on our respiratory systems to 'breathe more'
by which I mean move more air in and out of the system every minute (for example
How long can you hold your breath?
“Yogiraja Vaidyaraja, the so-called “burying yogi”… often spent two or three days
buried in a box several feet underground to demonstrate his devotion to his followers.
For the purposes of Green’s test, the yogi was sealed in the lotus position in a completely
airtight cube… After nearly eight hours in the airless box, the yogi signaled his desire to
be let out, complaining that he had received three electric shocks from the equipment…
readouts showed that his breath rate had dropped to less than four breaths per
minute,…” (Robbins 2008)
How long can you hold your breath? During a breath hold, what causes you to finally
give up and resume breathing? Although there are reports of yogis being buried alive
and surviving for long periods of time (days or weeks) these are mostly anecdotal and
may not represent actual occurrences. I like to show my students a film clip from 1929
in British-controlled India of a yogi buried for an hour and a half, after which he is
disinterred and is undamaged by the experience. I then ask students to hold their breath
as long as possible. Prior to the breath-hold, they are free to hyperventilate a bit if they
wish, breathing in and out deeply five or six times. Most untrained humans can only
hold their breath for about a minute or so after which the urge to breathe (air hunger
or dyspnea) becomes so overwhelming that they must resume breathing.
The obvious next question I ask is, 'what exactly forced you to resume breathing'?
Many students answer that they must have run out of oxygen and their lack of this vital
gas forced them to stop the breath-hold maneuver and start ventilating the lung with
air again. This is a reasonable answer but is, in fact, wrong. At the end of a period of
voluntary apnea (voluntary breath-hold) there has actually been no significant change
on the amount of oxygen in your blood (98% of which is bound to the hemoglobin
protein in the red blood cells). In other words, you have plenty of oxygen on board to
provide all the cells of your body with what they need to produce energy and keep you
alive. The 'break point of voluntary apnea' has nothing to do with oxygen and
everything to do with carbon dioxide (CO2) which is busily building up during even a rather
short period of breath-hold and it is this increase in CO2 that forces you to breathe
again. The body's level of CO2 is the controlling parameter in humans under almost all
physiological and environmental conditions and it is CO2 that regulates breathing.
Students naturally want to know where this carbon dioxide is coming from since there is
essentially none in the air we breathe. After all, along with the approximate 21%
oxygen, our earthly atmosphere contains about 79% nitrogen and only 0.03% carbon
dioxide. The answer then? We make CO2 as an end product of our body’s metabolic
chemistry and the regulatory control of carbon dioxide levels in the body is handled for
us by a control center made up of a group of nerve cells located in the brain that
monitors blood CO2 levels and commands us to breathe more or less in order to keep that
level where it ought to be. When you breathe less or, more dramatically, hold your
breath, CO2 builds up in the body and blood, while the opposite occurs when you
breathe more (hyperventilate).
At this point I also introduce my students to the sport of breath-hold diving and
point out that the world record for 'static apnea' (holding one's breath while facedown
and motionless in a pool) is over 20 minutes! This is quite extraordinary and the
competitors increase their abilities to breath-hold by prior hyperventilating on pure oxygen.
This decreases the amount of carbon dioxide in their bodies to below normal levels
thereby increasing the time it takes to build up to a level that will force you to breathe.
They also take advantage of meditative/relaxation techniques to decrease their
metabolic rates, which will also slow the rate of carbon dioxide production.
Meditators have also demonstrated the ability to lower their metabolic rates
significantly. In one study, oxygen consumption (a measure of metabolic rate) during meditation
in three subjects showed a 16% decrease within less than 30 minutes (Wallace and Benson
1972). When we speak of metabolism or metabolic rate what we are really considering is
the sum total of all of the chemical reactions taking place in every cell throughout the
body. These chemical reactions are governed by physical laws including those of
thermodynamics and include reactions that produce heat (exergonic reactions) and those that
consume heat (endergonic reactions). It simply isn't possible to measure the
thermodynamic changes in every chemical reaction in a living being and what we do instead is
consider overall metabolism as the body's heat production, which is something that can
be physically measured in the laboratory. This method, known as direct calorimetry, is
also technically demanding and most metabolic physiologists measure oxygen
consumption or carbon dioxide production instead (indirect calorimetry). There is a direct
correlation between the amount of oxygen consumed by a person per minute and the amount
of heat they are producing. This 'caloric equivalent of oxygen' varies depending on the
type of substrate (nutrient) being metabolized (carbohydrate, fat, protein, or a mixture) so
you also have to know this in order to accurately calculate a metabolic rate based on
Chemical reactions (and hence metabolic rates) are also quite sensitive to changes in
temperature; in the case of a human being, body temperature. As temperature goes up,
so does metabolic rate and as temperature decreases we see a corresponding decrease
in metabolism. Humans (even meditating ones), as a rule, do not experience large
swings in core body temperature (that is the temperature deep within the chest or
abdomen) and the decrease in metabolism seen in Wallace and Benson's (1972) study
cannot be attributed to this temperature effect. Naturally, the lower one can decrease
metabolism, the slower the utilization of oxygen and, importantly for humans, the
slower the production and buildup of carbon dioxide in the body. This depressed
metabolic or 'hypometabolic' state increases the time it takes for CO2 to reach the point
where a person must stop breath-holding (the break-point of voluntary apnea).
At this point in my lectures I like to introduce my students to some non-human
animals that are particularly adept at entering a controlled, hypometablic state, and as a
consequence are able to breath-hold for an extraordinarily long time. Seals and whales,
mammals that are highly adapted for diving, exhibit a suite of anatomical and
physiological adaptations that optimize their ability to reduce overall oxygen consumption
(and carbon dioxide production) and stay underwater for, in some cases, hours. I also
teach them about the truly remarkable ability of some turtles to reduce their metabolic
rates to 10% of their oxygen-breathing levels when forced underwater with no access to
air (Jackson 1968). They do this with no change in their body temperatures. The
phenomenon is solely a function of making oxygen unavailable and allows these
animals to effectively (although not indefinitely) live without oxygen.
The breath-hold exercise also allows me to begin to discuss the control of ventilation
(breathing) in humans that is quite unusual compared to say, control of heart rate or
body temperature. The students have just demonstrated to themselves that they can
voluntarily and easily control the way they breathe — up to a point. In other words,
ventilation is under both voluntary and involuntary regulatory control. We don't usually
think about breathing at all and we breathe successfully when we are asleep or
otherwise unconscious. Yet we can hold our breath for a short while or alter how deep each
breath is (change the tidal volume) or increase or decrease the number of breaths we
take each minute (change the respiratory frequency). Ultimately, however, the
involuntary system will 'win' and reestablish control over the way in which we breathe.
When you meditate and bring conscious awareness to your breathing, you are
activating the neural pathways associated with conscious control and overriding those that
typically cause your breathing pattern (depth of breath and rate) to be a completely
unconscious process. In general, our bodies 'know' how much we should breathe in
order to meet the metabolic demands of the moment (need for oxygen and the need to
remove the excess carbon dioxide we are producing). An altered breathing pattern (for
example, breath of fire in Kundalini yoga) is something that you are imposing on the
body. This may account for the difficulty in correctly and effectively engaging in various
breathing regimens while meditating. It also explains the fact that you cannot maintain
an imposed, voluntary, breathing pattern indefinitely. Over time, you will ultimately
revert back to the unconscious and optimal pattern (optimal in terms of metabolism,
not necessarily in terms of your meditative goals). As in all things, practice improves
the ability to establish and maintain an imposed voluntary breathing pattern but you
will always have to engage the thinking and planning portions of the brain located in
the cerebral cortex to continue breathing this way.
Cardiovascular physiology-how our heart beats
"Having visited there (Mysore) before, I once witnessed a demonstration given by the
pupils followed by an extraordinary feat by Shri Krishnamachacharya, the teacher.
He lay on the floor and then proceeded to stop his heart beat for several minutes
much to the astonishment of several physicians who had come with their stop watches
and stethoscopes. 'I would have pronounced him dead', said a German doctor after
the examination." (Devi 1967)
Is it possible to consciously control heart rate? Heart rate and related cardiovascular
parameters such as blood pressure or stroke volume (the volume of blood pumped
from the heart with each beat) are, from a physiological perspective, not considered to
be things that we can control consciously. The heart itself is quite extraordinary in that
it exhibits the property of 'autorhythmicity'; that is to say it is capable of beating on its
own without any input or signaling from the nervous system and in the absence of any
signaling from chemicals in the blood. This built-in or intrinsic heart rate is determined
by the beating frequency of a specific anatomical region of the heart, the sinoatrial
node, located in the upper right-hand corner of the right atrium (right upper heart
chamber). The cells of the sinoatrial node are capable of spontaneous depolarization,
which means that they rhythmically generate an electrical signal that then spreads
through the rest of the heart driving the overall heart rate.
In humans, the built-in rate of signaling by the sinoatrial node is about 100 beats per
minute whereas the normal human resting heart rate is typically somewhere between
50 and 80 beats per minute. What is responsible for this difference? While the heart is
capable of beating without any connection to the nervous system, in our bodies nerves
do connect to the heart and influence its function. The nerves that leave the brain and
spinal cord and connect to our various organs, skeletal muscles and other body parts
can be divided into the 'somatic' and the 'autonomic' nervous systems. Somatic nerves
are those that leave the spinal cord and connect to skeletal muscles allowing them to
contract and generate force. The autonomic nervous system is itself divided into two
parts (divisions), the sympathetic and the parasympathetic and leaves the brain and
spinal cord to innervate our internal organs and glands. Most of our organs are 'dually
innervated.' In other words, they are connected to and influenced by nerves from both
the sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions of the autonomic nervous system. In the
case of the heart, the vagus nerve leaves the brain and sends branches to the sinoatrial
nodal cells. The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system and its role
in heart function is to slow down the intrinsic rate of contraction of the sinoatrial cells
and therefore the heart rate as a whole. Healthy humans have a high degree of
'parasympathetic tone,' i.e. relatively lots of signaling from the vagus nerve compared to the
sympathetic nerves that also connect to the heart and when stimulated, increase heart
rate. This parasympathetic tone is responsible for our resting heart rates being about
70 beats per minute rather than the faster intrinsic rate of the sinoatrial node itself.
Reports of yogis being able to actually stop their hearts from beating altogether have not
been scientifically validated (see Wenger et al. 2002). However, it does appear possible to
modulate heart rate and blood pressure to some extent via relaxation methods and
meditative techniques. In physiological terms what must be happening here is a change in the ratio
of sympathetic (stimulatory, increasing rate) versus parasympathetic (inhibitory, decreasing
rate) tone (activity) throughout the body. This will have a direct effect on the activity of the
sinoatrial node and therefore the entire heart (Amihai and Kozhevnikov 2015).
How exactly these mental disciplines increase parasympathetic tone is less clear
although there are nervous connections between higher brain centers in the cerebral
cortex and those parts of the brain (hypothalamus and brain stem) responsible for the
autonomic (unconscious) functioning of the heart and other organs. In my teaching I
use the example of heart rate modulation during meditation as a way to explain not
just how our hearts actually beat, but also to introduce elements of neuroanatomy and
neurophysiology, particularly the way in which neural signaling from the cortex (higher
brain centers) can influence what are normally automatic and unconscious aspects of
“During the practice of g Tum-mo yoga, ‘prana’ (literally, ‘wind’ or ‘air’) is
withdrawn from the scattered condition of normal consciousness and is made
to enter into the ‘central channel’ inside the body. Then, through the alleged
dissolution of these winds in the central channel, the ‘internal heat’ is ignited.
The physiological changes are, therefore, a by-product of a religious practice.”
(Benson et al. 1982).
Can you consciously control and manipulate your body temperature? Humans, like
most mammals are 'homeotherms.' This means that we closely and carefully regulate our
internal, deep body temperatures (core temperatures) around a specific temperature and
that we engage physiological control systems to make sure this temperature never varies
very much. For an adult human, this core body temperature is about 37°C (98.6°F) and in
a healthy individual will only range by 1 or 2 degrees above or below. I ask my students to
consider what we mean when we say 'body temperature' for in fact, there are many
different temperatures found at different places in our bodies. Along with deep core
(maintained at around 37°C) the temperature of our skin varies depending on environmental
temperatures and is influenced as part of the regulatory control we use to maintain core
I often have my students consider what is happening in their bodies when they are
heating up, either because of a high environmental temperature or from exercise
(where the heat is coming from an increase in metabolism). They know that when
they are getting hot, they will start to sweat and also notice a change in the color of
their skin. In order to eliminate extra heat we change the amount of blood flow
directed towards the surface of our bodies and we see this as a reddening or flush
(particularly obvious in fair-skinned individuals but occurring in everyone).
Cutaneous (skin) blood flow can increase enormously as a fraction of total blood flow from
the heart when we are heat stressed and as this warm blood moves to the skin it
carries the heat along with it. If the environmental conditions are suitable, we can
then 'dump' heat from our warm skin to the environment. This vascular (blood
vessel and blood flow) response to a heat stress complements sweating as the two
main mechanisms for heat loss in humans.
The increase in skin temperatures of some master practitioners of g Tum-mo
meditation (Benson et al. 1982) suggests that they are somehow capable of
manipulating blood flow to the skin. This is not something that is normally
considered to be under voluntary control. An alternative hypothesis is that these
masters are increasing the metabolic rate of those regions of their body (fingers
and toes, typically) that are heating up. Remember that heat occurs in our bodies
from either external (environmental) or internal (metabolic) sources. To the best of
my knowledge no direct measurements have yet been made of either local skin
blood flow or regional metabolic rate during g Tum-mo meditation. Nor do we
have a scientific hypothesis for how these monks would be capable of manipulating
physiological systems (blood flow and metabolism) generally considered to be
completely automatic and unconscious.
“Some offer their out-flowing breath into the breath that flows in; and the in-flowing
breath into the breath that flows out; they aim at Pranayama, breath-harmony, and
the flow of their breath is in peace." The Bhagavad Gita
Students and teachers of meditation are already believers in the reality and importance
of these practices for physical health and psychological well-being and they are justified in
this belief from an ever-growing body of evidence-based studies. What they lack, however,
in many instances is an awareness and appreciation of the anatomy and physiology that
underlies what is (or in some cases may be) taking place during meditative practice and I
strongly believe they can benefit from having their questions addressed in terms of the
actual physiological mechanisms at work during meditation. My students often express what
can only be called astonishment and a true sense of wonder when taught about how their
bodies and those of other animals actually work. Since some of what I teach them about
breathing, metabolism, heart beat, body temperature, and other physiological systems is
often counterintuitive and flies in the face of what they have always believed, the impact
of this new knowledge is dramatic. I cannot say with assurance that a sophisticated
understanding of physiology necessarily improves one's ability to enter contemplative states and
practice meditation. However, if the meditator's goal is increased self-knowledge and
deeper self-awareness, then a more precise and analytical appreciation of what is physically
going on inside the body can provide another pathway into the kind of personal
exploration that underlies all contemplative activities.
I also teach students in traditional medicine or biomedical science programs who are
equally unaware of how their bodies actually work and who are also unfamiliar or
skeptical of the benefit of meditative practices (and any other non-western health or
medical tradition). I want to send these students into the medical community with an
open mind about these alternative possibilities and to seriously consider them as
potential adjunct therapies or lifestyle adjustments as they begin their careers in medicine.
I want my students, whether of medicine or meditation, to come away from these
lectures and exercises with an increased understanding of the 'nature of the body'. I also
want them to experience excitement and interest in learning more about what is truly
going on inside of each of us. That a master of meditation should also be a master of
physiology makes perfect sense to me. The ultimate goal of both of these disciplines is
to further the understanding of the total human being as an integrated organism
functioning in harmony with both its internal and external environments.
Amihai , Ido and Maria Kozhenikov . 2015 . The Influence of Buddhist Meditation Traditions in the Autonomic System and Attention. BioMed Research International . http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2015/731579. Accessed 27 Sept 2016 .
Benson , Herbert, John W. Lehmann , M.S. Malhotra , Ralph F. Goldman , Jeffrey Hopkins , and Mark D. Epstein . 1982 . Body temperature changes during the practice of g tum-mo yoga . Nature 295 : 234 - 236 .
Devi , Indra. 1967 . Yoga the Technique of Health and Happiness . Bozeman: Jaico.
Jackson , D.C. 1968 . Metabolic depression and oxygen depletion in the diving turtle . Journal of Applied Psychology 24 ( 4 ): 503 - 509 .
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