Ashtanga Yoga and the Circulatory System (part 1)

Heart and Tongue

I didn’t want to separate the organ systems into groups because I didn’t want to give the impression that the systems work independently of each other. This seems like a, ‘No shit Sherlock’ moment, but I didn’t realize this very basic concept until a Human Systems Development class in college. Until that point I believed that the digestive system worked with food. Period. The respiratory system dealt with gas exchange, oxygen and carbon dioxide. Period. And the circulatory system dealt with blood. Period.

I didn’t recognize that the nutrients from the food we eat are carried around in the blood stream to their targets. Or that the organs, ALL of the organs, are made from the food that we eat. That all of the organs are supported by the blood that enriches them with oxygen and nutrients. I also didn’t realize that the lungs needed the contractions of the heart muscle to bring the oxygen around the body in the blood. I thought these gasses floated around inside of us, like the broken down bits of food. They eventually would get to where they were going.

There was this big “Oh!” Moment for me in that freshman class followed by this bit of anger for being taught the systems independently and lead to believe otherwise. 

For this, and other reasons, I am not going to separate the Respiratory and Cardiovascular systems. I will attempt to put the pieces together into one category. But please understand that these systems are unified with the other systems to form the perfect being that you are. 

“your heart is one of the masterpieces of creation. It is a phenomenal instrument. It has the potential to create vibrations and harmonies that are far beyond the beauty of pianos, strings, or flutes. You can hear an instrument, but you feel your heart. And if you think that you feel an instrument, it’s only because it touched your heart. Your heart is an instrument made of extremely subtle energy that few people come to appreciate.” - The Untethered Soul Michael A. Singer

When you ask a 3y to point to themselves they point to their chest. Most adults do this as well when talking about themselves. There is a reason that we point to the heart and not the head when talking about ourselves. The heart is the center. It’s function is vital to the essence of who we are on our spiritual journey.

You can be alive without brain wave activity, but when the heart stops it’s sinus rhythm, so does our journey with this lifetime.

The heart is self-sustaining. That little guy doesn’t need you to think about it doing it’s job. In fact it’s usually doing much better without our involvement. For instance, remember when you first walked into the Mysore room and you see a few bodies contorted like a pretzel and there is this odd sound of breathing and silence in the room. Remember what it was like when you have to actually remember the asana the teacher taught you only 5 seconds ago.  That panic, the fright, the thought’s that arise, those are us interfering with the heart doing it’s job of chugging along at a steady pace making sure you get to the end of your spiritual journey. 

The heart is one of those organs controlled by the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is the part that runs automatically. It doesn’t require cognitive thought. However, thought, along with emotions, things we see or hear, and a few other factors, do effect the heart rate via chemicals in the blood and neurotransmitters.

The neurotransmitters come from the brain via the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is divided into two groups, the sympathetic, and parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system increases the heart rate by releasing epinephrin into the blood. The parasympathetic system slows the heart rate by releasing acetylcholine.

Acetylcholine is released from the vagus nerve to slow down the heart rate. Comprised mostly of sensory nerve fibers, the vagus nerve relays information to the brain about how we feel. Parasympathetic nerve fibers in the vagus nerve are responsible for control of the heart, lungs, and the digestive track. It is also responsible for stopping peristalsis (digestion), sweating, and part of our speech. In the Su Wen, chapter 9 from the 2nd century BCE it states that ‘the heart opens to the tongue.’ The heart governs our ability to choose words. 

Speak from the heart. Listen to what it has to say.

Exercise this connection.

When we think of exercise, we commonly think of working out skeletal muscles and the heart muscle. The heart normally contracts 50 to 100 times in a minute when at rest. The heart receives a signal from the vagus nerve to contract, moving blood throughout the body to provide oxygen and nutrients to the organs. If something disrupts this impulse we can experience; Shortness Of Breath (SOB), lightheadness, chest pain, fainting, or palpitations (an uncomfortable irregular sensation in the chest like “flopping”) A resting heart rate above 100 is a sign that the heart is not providing enough oxygen to the body, or that there is an electrical malfunction.

It is not uncommon for athletes and yogis to have a lower resting heart rate, below 50 beats per minute. This is because with their training, the parasympathetic functions of the vagus nerve are trained as well. “There will be differences in the steadiness of the aspirants’ rechaka and puraka while practicing the asanas . . . If they concentrate their minds on their breathing only, the state of an asana will be spoiled. If, on the other hand, they concentrate only on an asana’s state, their rechaka and puraka will be spoiled.” - Jois, Yoga Mala.

Our heart rate is directly linked to our breathing. When we inhale the heart rate increases. When we exhale the heart rate slows down. It does this in order to optimize oxygen uptake and carbon dioxide removal in the lungs.* With a smooth, long exhale, the circulatory system (lungs and heart) are telling the brain that we are safe. The optimized gas exchange in individuals who practice activities that slow the exhale rate, minimize the work load of the heart.**

Turtles breathe 4 times a minute and live for over 300 years. Indian philosophy has an idea that an individuals lifetime is predetermined by a set amount of breaths. 

With training we can slow down our breathing and decrease our heart rate, extending our lives. “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.” (Bhagavad Gita II-58)

Pranayama can bring up a lot of fear. The sustained breath holding is similar to drowning. Or training for free diving. FEAR is a reaction to current events, things that are happening to our immediate person. It is common to be in a sympathetic overdrive these days with our anxious and excited lives. We often say that we are busy, and multi-tasking. Jobs, family, asana practice, fruit detox, coffee enema, our minds are all over the place. Far from the wise and steady tortoise. If we experience fear, stress, anxiety, illness, fever, or pain, the heart rate increases. It increases by stimulating the sympathetic system.


Fear and anxiety are different. Anxiety is a worry about a future event. Think like, anxiety is worrying about Kapotasana while having your morning coffee. Fear is actually doing the backbend with Sharathji. OR anxiety is thinking about an asthma attack and not having an inhaler, not being able to breathe, and sitting with your hands on your knees supporting your chest from collapsing. 

Fear and the fear response has been preserved throughout evolution because it ensures our survival by generating an appropriate behavioral response, fight or flight. 

The brain records fear, what caused it, what actions were taken, and will cause the individual to remember details surrounding the situation. With this recording we are able to, sometimes forced to, re-live our fears. Hopefully to have a finer tuned response the next time we encounter the stimuli.

I sat across from Magnolia during pranayama class with Sharath in Mysore. The Pranayama (breath holding) got increasingly more intense each class but she remained calm and poised. She has asthma (under control) but she understands what it feels like to be without air. She understands how to calm her anxious mind and control her breathing. She has developed this skill for her survival. Adaptation. She had practiced pranayama without knowing that she was practicing when she was growing up. She was simply surviving. 

As the pranayama became more difficult, each class Sharath increased the practice, she had an advantage. (if you want to call having asthma an advantage?) Magnolia was able to remain poised and controlled during the long exhale retentions. 


'Practice and all is coming' -Jois

We take comfort in that phrase. Practice and ALL is coming . . . I seldom hear, practice and stress is coming. Practice and fear is coming. 

But they come.

And IF we talk about them, we only talk about them looking back in hindsight. We paint a pretty picture of how we overcame (BLANK) or we didn’t let (BLANK) control us. But, practice and anxiety is coming.

Control your breathing grasshopper.

*Hayano J, Yasuma F, Okada A, Mukai S & Fujinami T (1996). Respiratory sinus arrhythmia. A phenomenon improving pulmonary gas exchange and circulatory efficiency. Circulation 94, 842–847.

**Ben‐Tal, A. , Shamailov, S. S. and Paton, J. F. (2012), Evaluating the physiological significance of respiratory sinus arrhythmia: looking beyond ventilation–perfusion efficiency. The Journal of Physiology, 590: 1989-2008. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.2011.222422