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Home » The Science of Yogic Breathing: Sundar Balasubramanian (Transcript) 

The Science of Yogic Breathing: Sundar Balasubramanian (Transcript) 

Sundar Balasubramanian at TEDxCharleston

Full text of author Sundar Balasubramanian’s talk: The Science of Yogic Breathing at TEDxCharleston conference. In this talk, he explains what breathing does give and do to your body. He says a deep breath relaxes and creates significant beneficial changes in physiologically relevant biomarkers.

Best quote from this talk: 

‘Mind is a monkey. It’s not a normal monkey. It’s a drunken monkey, stung by a scorpion!’

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: The Science of Yogic Breathing by Sundar Balasubramanian


Sundar Balasubramanian – Radiation oncology researcher

Hello, Vanakkam!

I’m a Cell Biologist trying to study Ancient Science, using modern biological techniques.

You may be laughing if I ask you how many of you are breathing. I certainly hope you all are.

But do we really pay attention to how we breathe? Do we know how to regulate our breathing?

Because regulated breathing has a lot of health benefits. There are so many ways to regulate breathing. Yogic breathing or pranayama is just one of them.

If you all could join me for one long humming! Please sit up and take a nice deep breath. Fill your tummy. Fill your chest and Hum!


Thank you.

Isn’t it wonderful!

Now you learnt one yogic breathing technique and you are one step closer to your better health. By the end of this talk, I will convince you that yogic breathing is good for health.

I’m from India, from the state called Tamil Nadu. We speak a language called Tamil. Tamil is also an ancient culture and civilization. We practice a natural medicine called Siddha medicine. I was born in a small village called Karambakkudi.

My grandmothers were medical practitioners. We practiced Siddha medicine. My grandmother served as midwives as well. They helped young women deliver babies and take care of their young infants.

Our grandfathers were medical practitioners as well. When I was little, my father and uncle would teach me yoga. As a child I didn’t like it, just like my children right now.

When I was in high school, my father would send me to one of my uncle’s Siddha clinics. As soon as you enter into the clinic, you can smell the wonderful aroma of cumin, coriander, cinnamon, cardamom and so many herbs! It’s a wonderful aroma!

One side you will see freshly squeezed leaf extract; the other side you will see the boiling decoction of barks and roots.

My uncle is a very wise man. He would feel the pulse of a patient and then would ask a question: ‘How long have you been having this tummy ache?’

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Or, ‘How long is the chest pain bothering you?’

Then he would give them those natural medicines. I was so fascinated by this. I was wondering what is in these natural compounds that make them feel better.

I vividly remember we were always often visited by one grandfather. He would talk about yogic breathing. And he would just show the sky and he’d say ‘I’m going to drink milk’. And then start inhaling!

It looked strange to me at that time.

But I was wondering what is in the air that nourishes him. I wanted to understand the chemistry behind it.

I took my Chemistry from my Bachelor’s degree. I was fortunate to go to a college where I can do yoga, meditation, chanting and get a degree in Chemistry. Later I applied that Chemistry into biological systems. Did my Masters and PhD in Biochemistry. Came to this country to do research in Cell Biology.

All these years I’ve been carrying yoga with me. During tough times I found a lot of relaxation from yoga.

I was wondering what is in yoga that changes me? How is it good for me?

One important clue came from one of my visits to India. I bought this book called Thirumantiram written by Saint Tirumular several centuries ago.

There was one chapter I was fascinated to. It was on Yogic breathing. I found one song or poem or sutra on how to do the yogic breathing. I decoded the meaning of it. I devised a method to practice it.

After some time of practice one fine morning, I found there was small salivary stimulation. I was surprised, maybe it’s just one day.

But every time I practiced there was more salivary stimulation. I thought ‘Wow! This is a great way for people with dry mouth conditions.’ Say Sjögren’s syndrome, radiation therapy, aging and so on.

As a biochemist, I also know that saliva has so many compounds. It is not just a digestive fluid. It has proteins, hormones, growth factors and so on. One of them was nerve growth factor. As the name says it is a protein that helps the nerve cells/the neurons to grow, survive, withstand stress and live longer.

And nerve growth factor is reduced, found in lower levels in Alzheimer’s patients. So nerve growth factor is administered as a therapeutic agent to those patients.

I was thinking that this may be a great way to treat or prevent Alzheimer’s disease. So I went to an eminent scientist in this area. I told him my idea. He said, ‘I like this idea. I trust you but I want to verify it!’

You probably are familiar with the term ‘trust’ and ‘verify’.

So I went home. Did the yogic breathing exercise, brought the sample to the lab. Tested it. Yes there was more induction of nerve growth factor. Or maybe it’s just me.

So I called my son 10 years old by then. I asked him to do the exercise. And he looked at me and said, ‘You want me to spit in this tube? Yeww’ Well that’s what fathers do to their children.

He did the exercise and gave me the sample. And then I tested it. Yes there was more nerve growth factor in his sample also.

Then I conducted a clinical trial: one group of people with control; one group of people doing the yogic breathing exercise.

Now I have a name for the yogic breathing exercise – Thirumoolar Pranayamam. So those people who did the yogic breathing exercise had more nerve growth factor. So proof of principle.

Not only nerve growth factor. We found later 22 different proteins – growth factors, hormones and those are involved in various conditions, including cancer, immune response, stress and pain. We are so thrilled by this finding.

You may be wondering what is there in this speech, that is going to make me better, right?

This is my proposal. So yogic breathing stimulates salivary secretion. And the saliva, the compounds or the principles in the saliva say nerve growth factor or several other factors in the saliva can be:

  • transported to the central nervous system through specific transport mechanisms
  • Or it can be absorbed into the bloodstream and available throughout the body
  • Or it can just stay there in the oral cavity to help us fight germs

This is a fascinating idea. That you can change your behavior, or you can practice something that will change the components. And lets you feel better physically and mentally.

Now I’m taking this to the community – to cancer patients, seniors, mental health patients, students and even school children in India – where Yoga is not yet accessible.

Remember this is just one poem from the book which contains 3,000 poems. There’s vast amount of literature which is not yet transcribed from palm leaf manuscripts. Not yet translated into English. My goal is to make a bridge with that Ancient wisdom.

I want to end my story with one more message from Thirumantiram. By the way this is me. My only picture from when I was little. Don’t you like the bowtie.

We all want to control our minds. But controlling the mind is not easy. Mind is very elusive. As the Eastern philosophy puts it: ‘Mind is a monkey. It’s not a normal monkey. It’s a drunken monkey, stung by a scorpion!’

It’s crazy. We cannot control it.

But Tirumular says there is an easy wayMind cannot travel on its own. Mind needs a vehicle. Mind is using a horse. That horse is your breathing.

So if you want to control the mind, the rider, you have to control the vehicle, the horse – the breathing.

So controlling the mind is possible, by controlling the breathing. Therefore whether you sing, chant or hum, or practice sophisticated yogic breathing techniques, mind your breathing. It will improve your health.

Thank you. Vanakkam!

Resources for Further Reading:

Breathing Happiness: Emma Seppälä at TEDxSacramento (Transcript)

Meditation – The Single Most Important Skill Needed Today: Dr. Shyam Bhat (Transcript)

Max Strom: Breathe to Heal at TEDxCapeMay Conference (Transcript)

BREATHE: Joe DiStefano at TEDxLugano (Full Transcript)


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