Is it the breath or the meditation?

Photo by Ian Stauffer

By Luciano Bernardi and Nicolò Francesco Bernardi

Yoga helps us discover the golden thread that connects the apparently separate dimensions of our lives—exercise, relaxation, nutrition, respiration, meditation, spiritual development…The strength of these links in yoga practice and philosophy is one reason so many are drawn to yoga, and partly explains its effectiveness.

Yet when we attempt to put yoga under the microscope of Western science, these intricate interconnections make it challenging to understand how yoga works, because everything seems to be influencing—and is influenced by—everything else.

I (Prof. Luciano Bernardi) led a research team at the University of Pavia, Italy, to tackle this challenge. I’ve been practicing yoga since 1993 and have been especially fascinated by the effects of yogic breathing, documenting its benefits in various scientific publications. When 25 years later my son, Dr. Nicolò Bernardi, became passionate about meditation practice, a friendly family dispute arose. Meditation is certainly good for you, but when we meditate, often our breathing changes as well—whether consciously or unconsciously. So the question is, are the benefits of meditation caused by the meditation, per se, or by changes in respiration that occur during meditation practice?

We put our heads together and created an experiment to produce specific breathing patterns under controlled conditions, both with and without concurrent meditation. The team, which also included Drs. Marco Bordino and Lucio Bianchi, studied 80 participants, half of whom had previous meditation experience (from different schools of meditation). Strikingly, we found that only when meditation was present was there a reduction in heart rate and, interestingly, a reduction in arterial and cerebral oxygen saturation. Thus, it seems that meditation induced a state of profound relaxation, with very real physiological correlates, that was independent of respiration. On the other hand, slow and deep respiration alone, independent of meditation, had positive effects on heart rate variability (a measure of the nervous system’s resilience). Other important findings: Meditators had lower blood pressure, slower breathing, and better oxygen saturation (a measure of how efficiently the body is using oxygen) compared to non-meditators.

So the dispute had two winners: Certain effects appeared to be more related to the meditation component, whereas other benefits may be more related to the respiration component. This is the first study that successfully disentangled these two types of effect. It’s also the first to show that meditation may positively affect the amount of oxygen available in our body tissues as well as in our brains, a question that could have not been addressed without the systematic analysis of respiratory pattern during meditation. Access the study here.

Luciano Bernardi, MD, is Professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Pavia, Italy. After retirement, he is presently affiliated with the University of Helsinki, Finland.

Nicolò Francesco Bernardi, PhD, graduated with a psychology degree in Milan, Italy. He applies a holistic approach to organizational development and change management projects at Concordia University, Montreal, Canada.