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Milkail Baranov: "Neurophysiology of Pranayama"

Presenting my joined work with the project  neuroyogalab.ru.

For the first trial research project we chose a complex technique which out of convenience we decided to call with a shorter name of “prana-dharana”.  “Prana-dharana” is especially interesting as it combines the most powerful parts of yoga practice “kriya yoga in Lahiri Mahasaya lineage” which includes techniques described in the 15th century scripture “Hatha Yoga Pradipika” by Swami Swatmarama (chapters 3 and 4)

This practice of pranayamas, bandhas and mudras can’t be mastered from books due to very specific context and laconism of description. This practice survived to present days only by being transferred  personally within the lineage of teachers that starts from Lahiri Mahasaya. Siddha Yogi Babaji is considered the founder of this tradition and Lahiri Mahasaya’s Teacher.

The techniques for work with awareness in kriya yoga are different from the techniques used by the majority of modern hatha yoga schools. Due to its complexity this practice demands quite a long preparation period and mastering a number of preliminary stages. After mastering all the main elements we receive a powerful complex technique which consists of a combination of mudras, bandhas, drishti, mantras and awareness rotation, which are used during quite long kumbhakas (breath retention). Due to the fact that when receiving this practice the student takes a number of vows and one of them is keeping this practice a secret (these practices can only be passed on by a Guru who received a right of disclosure from his Guru), this article does not provide any technical detail and specifics though it does convey its essence.

The research itself is quite interesting on its own because instead of seeing the effects of separate, independent techniques we can see the actual result of the practice of a sequence of exercises of traditional hatha yoga meeting raja yoga.

What did we explore:

  • the activity of different areas of the brain during the practice of prana dharana.

What did we find:

  • the specific influence of pranayamas with awareness rotation on the interhemispheric asymmetry;
  • how the brain activity in different areas changes during this practice;
  • how the same awareness rotation technique works in different conditions  - with and without hypoxia.

Dear friends! The results of this in its own way unique research turned out to be extremely interesting. But in order to combine and analyze these results in detail we are planning to study a group of ten advanced practitioners – the most advanced practitioners of complicated pranayamas of kriya yoga. We shall do a complex of psycho physiological measurements of the effects of this practice, analyze the retrieved results and format them to be easy to read. For this group research we need your financial support – a donation that will be used to pay for technical support and work of professionals. We will gratefully receive a donation from anyone who is genuinely interested in a serious, systematic approach to the study of an enormous heritage of traditional yoga techniques. The results of this research will be published and most likely a report will be made on this interesting and poorly studied topic.

Goals and purposes of the group study:

— outline the universal effects of the given pranayama technique on the brain activity of all participants of the study;

— discover the specific influence of this yogic exercise on people with different types of hemispheric dominance;

— study the possibilities and perspectives of conscious control over the brain rhythms;

— study the difference of brain activity during a rhythmic breathing with and without hypoxia;

— discover how well the hypoxic breathing techniques can balance the work of both brain hemispheres;

— see how the breathing techniques with hypoxic cycles can be used for improving brain activity and estimate the correct execution of the method;

— outline the main psychological effects of the practice and compare them with physiology.

Part 1

What awoke the interest

Before we proceed to the detail description of the research it’s necessary to explain why we were so interested in it and give a more detail explanation of the specifics of “prana dharana” technique.

The main challenge in interpreting a yogic experience and especially the state of consciousness which the practitioner wants to reach, is that the modern “civilized” practitioner integrates this state into his personal coordinate system and in most cases this personal system is far from traditional. Of course the mind of the modern fan of ancient psychological techniques is inevitably affected by the cultural environment and the corresponding language of thinking. So the deeper the immersion into the culture and language of the tradition, the higher the chances to understand correctly and later accept its values by integrating them into your lifestyle.

The traditional coordinate system presents a sort of a “map of consciousness” necessary to interpret a practical experience in accordance with values and goal-setting.  This system of creating interconnections exists in any serious tradition – it’s impossible to transfer the knowledge without a quality feedback. As the accumulated and comprehended practical experience turns into knowledge, a new language of thinking starts to form for the disciple. Up until this point the student may not even notice how his mind is changing or not know what to do with the states of mind he achieves during practice. Speaking in other words mistakes and errors of interpretation are inevitable on different stages as the mind of a practitioner is imperfect.

The main difficulty for interpretation is the subjectivity of the different states that one may experience. Even if there existed a common coordinate system there couldn’t be a 100% guarantee that the different people doing the same practice would have the same result.  The same terminology does not guarantee achieving the same state, using the same words every person conveys their own very specific experience. Of course the range of these experiences is limited by the accuracy of the practice that one performs on one side and on the other side by the fact that the “correct” experiences have their own characteristic signs. For example pratyahara is characterized by the cessation of perceiving surrounding objects by means of sensory organs, the sign of dharana is focusing the mind on just one chosen object, the sign of dhyana is when the mind is “dissolved” in the object etc.

But only developing the ability to recognize the current state of consciousness, an undisturbed observation of its activity, can prevent the mind from going into a free and uncontrolled flow of fantasy.

There are also some indirect signs of a “correct” inner state – the person’s behavior in everyday life. Especially when they are facing complicated, unusual and stressful situations.

Based on the combination of those signs you can evaluate the effectiveness of a given practice, once again indirectly. Whilst a technically accurate sizing and objective comparison of results from different people is simply impossible in terms of a traditional coordinate system. This makes an objective and independent analysis of results impossible as well. The Tradition doesn’t seek that analysis. An opinion of a spiritual leader whose authority is never questioned and a quote from a primary source text is enough for the Tradition. If it does come down to a “check” the only obvious criteria of reaching a full realization is a demonstration of a super power (siddhi). But for some personal reasons those realized yogis don’t rush to publicly perform their siddhis so we can’t really use this criteria until we ourselves reach that level.

And besides that some side effect questions arise. In what conditions can you adequately “transfer” something from one system to another? In this case – draw parallels between traditional representation about the effects of a practice and the neurophysiologic indexes. It is obvious that a self-sufficient system can’t be understood correctly when studying it only from the “outside” – by reading the sacred texts and having chats with the spiritual teacher. It is impossible without experiencing certain states of consciousness and having a certain sizing of those experiences. But the deeper the submersion of the mind into a new coordinate system the greater the changes in the type of thinking and the more the loss of a state of an independent observer which is very important in the scientific paradigm.

Possibly this peculiar barrier between the different cultures and types of thinking can be overcome to a certain point due to the fact that in Indian tradition there seems to appear more and more people who have come to yoga from western culture.

Part 2

Specifics of pranayama techniques chosen for this research

At this stage the international yoga community has accumulated sufficient amount of material on the physiology of breathing techniques used in hatha yoga. Compared to what we had 15-20 years ago it can be called a sea of information, thereby many aspects and algorithms of forming a practice on a beginning stage become obvious.

And despite this variety of information there’s extremely little research in the area of neurophysiology of pranayama. For comparison it’s enough to search for that kind of research in the web… and not find any. The material that exists is mostly the research of the effects of shatkarmas, bandhas, breathing vyayamas and basic pranayamas on the different systems of the body (cardiovascular, respiratory, nervous etc.) You may also find the research on the effects of meditation techniques of yoga and Buddhism. But there’s absolutely no research of pranayama combined with techniques of control over consciousness and state of mind.

This situation developed for a number of reasons.

1) Most practitioners only focus on applied aspects of pranayama – promoting health, therapeutic, fitness effects. Very few people practice pranayama as a system of techniques for training and controlling awareness and even less people practice it regularly as a sadhana.

2) Pranayama techniques combined with dharana and as a preparation for dhyana can be rarely come across in popular literature. Actually in most books they are only mentioned as some perspective that’s far from real life. If there is a description there’s no clear system which one could use for self practice. This is caused by the specific oral transfer of knowledge in the Indian tradition where for quality communication a personal contact with the teacher is required and the  student is carried through certain states of mind. And the different techniques are only the means by which this state of mind can be achieved. The language of thinking is equally important. The student slowly masters this language throughout his educational process and makes it “his own” very gradually by matching his own personal experience with the “standard” described in the scriptures. Questions inevitably arise. And those questions can be answered during a darshan  (communication with the teacher) only on condition that the question is asked correctly as regular practice does not call off self-reflection.

 In other words the prana  dharana techniques require more time resources, preliminary preparation, motivation and dedication.

About the term “prana dharana”

Very often (and by mistake) some preliminary stage practices are considered pranayama – the practices for development of breathing muscles, enhancing blood circulation in organs and tissues, stimulation of digestive system, cleansing and toning kriyas for respiratory and digestive systems, therapeutic exercises for prophylactics and treatment of different health problems. All of those are classified as shatkarmas or prana-vyayamas.  But most of those techniques with some changes can also be a part of pranayama – in case they are used to develop an ability to control one’s awareness.

The term prana is used to describe a universal vital force, or energy for vitality, and the term dharana means a process of concentrating, “accumulating” awareness. Dharana is a process of transition from a stagnant, absent or wandering state of mind (a state of involuntary awareness) to a unidirectional state – ekagrata (voluntary awareness) which can be controlled.

Peculiarities of the practice

The basis of this technique is a rhythmic rotation of awareness:

— the movement of awareness is strictly tied to the rhythm of the breath, its ratio and focus points inside the body;

— simultaneously an audialization is used – a mental recitation of bija mantras in focusing points;

— the number of bija mantra repetitions is defined by the ratio of inhale, exhale and retention;

— eyes are focused in drishti.

All this allows to achieve sensory deprivation (a limited admission of external signals into the brain). All main sensory organs are switched off from all external objects and the awareness is directed only to internal objects and processes:

— sensations inside the body which appear as a result of controlling the different parameters of breathing (work of respiratory muscles, manipulation of bandhas, controlling the autonomic tonus);

— counting the ratio of the breath and the number of breathing cycles (mental count);

— focusing points inside the body (free awareness rotation);

— mental repetition of the bija mantra;

— drishti – special eye position, when the eyes are still and defocused which should have an effect on the parts of brain that are responsible for visual information processing.

Having a specific work with awareness is the main sign that defines whether a certain breathing technique can be classified as pranayama or not.

It is important to point out the main peculiarity of this psycho technique  - when performing it the practitioner concentrates not just on one object but on several at the same time. In this way he limits the flow of external information from three main sources: visual, audile and tactile. The practitioner retains and focuses his awareness on the whole process simultaneously instead of its separate parts.

As all of this happens along with performing kumbhakas (breath retentions) and is accompanied by a mild hypoxia of tissues so this type of training has its physiological characteristics.

Hypoxia load

The term “hypoxia” in the medical sphere is generally associated with tissue damage and for this reason usually means something negative and undesirable. Tissue hypoxia that restricts the body from functioning properly usually develops for the following reasons:

— major blood loss (less blood causes less oxygen in the tissues);

— critically low hemoglobin concentration in blood;

— rarefied air (in mountain areas at altitude of over 2500 meters; in rarefied air the oxygen flow form lungs into blood is restricted which results in the lack of blood oxygenation (mountain hypoxia));

— damage of respiratory organs or respiratory system diseases– asthma, bronchitis, pleurisies, pneumonia, tuberculosis (chronic hypoxia);

— local tissue hypoxia which can be caused by chronic muscular cramps, local edema and restricted capillary blood flow – the factors which limit blood oxygenation (during trauma or diseases of the musculoskeletal system)

Why breath retentions in pranayama are considered a hypoxia load 

It is important to understand that hypoxia mechanisms which sooner or later lead to tissue damage can be different as the hypoxia development can be affected in different ways. In the case of pranayama practice that involves kumbhaka (free breath retention) one can not only influence the development of hypoxia but also voluntarily regulate its level.

It is common knowledge that the nervous tissues are most sensitive to hypoxia so when approaching pranayama one of the preparatory stages includes techniques for optimizing the cerebral circulation. Besides there exist some natural adaptation mechanisms which cause blood supply of the brain to increase instead of decreasing during a mild hypoxia. And during  acute hypoxia the blood circulation of the brain is the last to suffer. So if one doesn’t have any direct contraindications and follows the safety rules, a practice of a wisely formed technique of breath retentions which is characteristic to pranayama is not only safe but also very beneficial to health. A correctly chosen “dose” of hypoxia stimulates anaerobic processes in tissues, promotes capillary blood flow, and the mental aspect of these practices develops the ability of voluntary control over awareness and allows to psychologically relax in stressful conditions.

Adaptation mechanisms

During a hypoxia load both short term and long term adaptation mechanisms are registered.

Short term adaptation

If a breath retention session is long enough, longer than 15-20 minutes, we have observed several adaptation stages (they can also be considered the signs of the hypoxia stage)

1. Decreased heart rate

Advanced practitioners may experience their heart rate drop to 35-40 pumps per minute. The longer the retention the more vivid the effect. But at the same time the impact volume (the amount of blood which is pumped by the heart in one beat) increases and the normal blood flow is sustained.

2. Expansion of small capillaries

As a result of retentions there is a significant increase of СОconcentration in the blood and decrease of oxygen level. When СО2 is accumulated the small capillaries start to expand and the oxygen enters the tissues from the bloodstream better. At this stage the temperature of the body may increase which can cause sweat to come out.

3. Centralization of blood circulation

If the breath retention is long enough and in the process of its repetition a low oxygen level in the blood is maintained a blood circulation reconstruction occurs. Peripheral vessels taper and vital organs like brain, heart, lungs start to receive more blood.

4. Body temperature decrease

This is one of the signs of blood circulation reconstruction and tissue hypoxia due to the decrease of peripheral blood flow.

Long term adaptation

1. Increased volume and vital capacity of the lungs due to systematic training of respiratory muscles, proliferation of the capillary network in the lungs and optimization of work of the entire respiratory system.

2. The proliferation of mitochondria in cells and the increase in the power of oxidative enzymes due to regular dosed hypoxia.

3. Adaptation of the respiratory center (the threshold of sensitivity of the respiratory center to the accumulation in the blood of CO2 decreases, the duration of the "comfort zone" on the respiratory arrest increases).

4. As a result the retention time increases and the discomfort sensations decrease.

Part 3

Technical report


In this research we used psycho physiological equipment Electroencephalograph "Encephalan-EEGR-19/26" (manufacturer – Russia). The analysis of brain  rhythm dynamics allows to evaluate individual peculiarities of functional condition, determine the dominance of specific brain rhythm dominance,  the profile of the lateral organization of the hemispheres, the dynamics of indices of the autonomic nervous system (work of the heart, respiration, muscle tone and blood supply of peripheral vessels).

Pulse Oximeter brand ChoiceMMed MD300М.


  1. Measurement in the initial state with closed and open eyes (6 min.).
  2. Cognitive test with the count (1 min.).
  3. The dynamics of activity when performing 12 cycles of samavritti pranayama without kumbhakas 1:1, when one breath cycle lasts about 40–45 seconds (10 min.). This breathing technique was performed with khechari mudra, inner rotation of attention and mental audilization.
  4. Samavritti pranayama with kumbhakas 1:4:1, when one breath cycle lasts about 140–150 seconds (15–20 min.). This breathing technique was performed with khechari mudra, inner rotation of attention and mental audialization. So the work with awareness was similar but performed with hypoxia load. The hypoxia level registered by the pulse oximeter dropped to a maximum of 88–89, alongside which we registered a significant drop in heart rate on long retentions – up to 40 pumps per minute.
  5. Measurement of the final state with natural breathing (8 min.).

In addition, along the way, we measured peripheral capillary blood flow, and the maximum capillary expansion toward the end of the session increased to almost 4 times. In other words, there was a measurement of the tone of the blood filling of the vessels (amplitude of the systolic wave).

Before and after measurements, cognitive tests were carried out-it was necessary to count out three times aloud from 100 to one (in reverse order) for 1 minute.

Analysis of the results of an EEG study using hypoxia performed by Mikhail Baranov

1) In the initial state

We observed a dominance of alpha rhythm evenly distributed from the posterior zones of the brain to the anterior. It is important to note that in most people the alpha-rhythm index is observed only in the rear leads, that is, in this case the initial state was already different from the "usual" one.

Along with this, there was a weak activity of beta-rhythm (active consciousness), but low delta-theta frequencies were absent, that is, there was no meditative immersion.

2) In the cognitive trial

We observed a clear dominance of the right hemisphere compared to the initial state. Theta rhythm increased and the delta-rhythm began to arise which was absent in the initial state.

In other words, at the beginning of the cognitive task, the cortical activity (the mobilization of the organism) was temporarily activated, and then the rapid adaptation and entry into its internal rhythm occurred. The further solution of the cognitive task occurred automatically, without strong activation of consciousness.

It is interesting to note that already here the alternation in the same rhythm of two states of brain activity began to manifest itself:

1) beta-rhythm which was caused by the necessity of activation in order to process information,

2) theta- and delta-rhythms in the state of deep meditation.

Fig. 1. Comparison of the initial state with closed eyes and cognitive test.

3. Technique of rhythmic breathing without hypoxia

This technique caused the subject to have a clearly expressed alpha rhythm with dominance of the right hemisphere, without active inclusion in the process. Activity of other rhythms of the brain decreased.

4. Technique of rhythmic breathing with hypoxia

In the start of hypoxia we observed the prevalence of alpha rhythm in the right hemisphere of the brain which signified participation in the process. And then switching from one breath cycle to the next the two hemispheres alternately turned into work, with the increase of voluntary awareness. It is important to note that the brain worked as a "swing", and arbitrary control of these rhythmic switches between the hemispheres due to the breath cycles with retentions was observed (this phenomenon is very unusual and, perhaps, unique).

During hypoxia the work of both brain hemispheres balances. The inclusion of voluntary attention grows from cycle to cycle in combination with a deep meditative state.

Therefore when performing a rhythmic breathing technique with hypoxia three alternating stages can be observed:

  1. Initial state in the start of performing the breathing techniques with hypoxia: clear dominance of the right hemisphere of the brain with alpha-delta-rhythms.
  2. Pause and rearrangement: prevalence of clear preparation for a new action (alpha-rhythm) combined with involuntary awareness (beta-rhythm) – between the breath cycles.
  3. Stabilization of the right and left hemispheres of the brain: deep meditative state (delta-alpha-rhythms) combined with a clear involuntary awareness (beta-rhythm). By the middle of the cycles with hypoxia, there is an increase in attention to bodily sensations and visualizations (the beta-rhythm sharply increases).
Fig. 2. Comparison of the transition from alpha and a little beta state to delta-alpha with mobilization and increase in the powers of all brain rhythms.

After hypoxia, during normal breathing, the accumulated state is preserved as during hypoxia, which is expressed in an increase in the alpha-rhythm activity, with an apparent right hemispheric asymmetry.

Fig. 3. Comparison of the phases of natural breathing after hypoxia. Comparison of the stage with hypoxia and the background state with closed eyes. In the initial state, a low level of activation of the brain was observed, with reduced attention and thought processes (beta-rhythm). With hypoxia, right hemispheric asymmetry with predominance of alpha rhythm (10-13 Hz) is amplified – as a readiness to engage in any activity.
Fig. 4. Comparison – background with closed eyes and penultimate cycle with hypoxia.

Final state

The accumulated altered state of consciousness is preserved, in addition to the apparent predominance of the right hemisphere, the left one, including the activation of the alpha rhythm, also turned on. In other words, the work of the hemispheres remains balanced.

Fig. 5. Comparison of the initial background state with closed eyes and natural breathing after hypoxia.


  1. The given technique is for the subject a basic instrument which allows to voluntarily and quickly switch brain activity from right to left hemispheres. Which possibly equalizes the contribution of each of the hemispheres to the work of the brain and thereby optimizes its work.
  2. When being involved in activity the right hemisphere clearly dominates and during hypoxia the subject manages to balance the right and left hemispheres by voluntarily alternating them. These alternations are clearly involuntary and not accidental as their synchronization with breath cycles is observed.  

The author is grateful for the help and active participation in the project to Valentina Tsvetkova (teacher at Yoga108 Centre http://www.yoga108.com/).