Dr. Sundar Balasubramanian is a Cell Biology researcher. He is currently studying mechanisms involved in resistance to cancer therapy at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC). He is also a Yoga Biology researcher. A pioneer in the area of research combining Pranayama and salivary stimulation, he discovered Yogic breathing promotes salivary secretion, and it contains factors that are important for our healthy living. His recent book is PranaScience: Decoding Yoga Breathing.
How long have you been teaching pranayama and what led you to start practicing pranayama?
I have been teaching Pranayama actively for the past four years. Although I have been practicing for several years since my childhood, only recently I started teaching them to others in organized classes and workshops. Before starting to teach, I wanted to do some groundwork via my research to establish that Pranayama is a scientific practice. That’s why I waited until I conducted the research in this area.
What might your average day look like as a yoga and pranayama teacher and researcher?
I am an early bird! I get up around 4 am. I take my ginger tea and get to my yoga practice, which lasts for around 1 hour. This is largely a combination of Asanas and Pranayama. I am not only a researcher of Yoga, but also a cell biology researcher. So I need to catch up with the literature in that area, and work on projects related to that. My lab work is up to 60% on cancer research, which is a substantial amount of time away from my Yoga research. I spend most of my Yoga research time in conducting classes, writing project proposals (of course, we need grant money to conduct research!), discuss with my collaborators, and in public relations. In the evenings when I do not teach Pranayama classes I go to the gym with my teenage son. I enjoy reading Tamil literature, and listening to music. Throughout the day, on several occasions I have the habit of incorporating some breathing exercises. I hum a lot. I chant or sing when I drive. Pranayama gives me the necessary energy to go through my busy day and keeps me sane!
How does your background in science aid your teaching and understanding of how pranayama works?
Like dissolves like! Pranayama is a scientific practice. Only it has not been approached that way until recently. Starting from the anatomy and physiology of breathing, the neuropsychological effects of breathing regulation, and now our research showing proteomic level changes in biomarkers, Pranayama is easily understandable and explainable using existing scientific principles. Of course it has other dimensions that could be religious or spiritual. But my major goal is to approach Pranayama with my understanding of cell biology. People are able to connect with me well because I speak a language that they understand.
Please explain how yogic breathing stimulates salivary secretion and what benefit’s this has for our health?
There are several ways this could be answered. Yogic breathing comprises of over fifty different exercises, and each one will have a different effect on salivary stimulation. Some of the exercises that we studied, for example the Pranava Pranayama, and the Thirumoolar Pranayama stimulate parasympathetic activation. This is linked to increase in salivation. This is helpful because of the quality and quantity of saliva. Quality refers to the variety of molecules that are expressed in the saliva following the practice. These molecules have a great impact on our physical and mental health. Quantity of saliva is improved, which is generally helpful in relieving from dry mouth conditions.
How do you measure the saliva to see these effects?
We measure the composition of saliva using a wide range of biological techniques. For example, in our recent research papers we have used an ELISA technique, similar to what is used in a pregnancy test. We have also used some advanced variations of this technique called multiplex immunoassays where a number of compounds can be analyzed simultaneously. We also used another sophisticated method called mass-spectrometry in which the compounds are fragmented and separated based upon the molecular mass and then identified based on their protein sequence. We are the first ones to use these methods to study the molecular changes due to Pranayama in saliva.
Please explain how we might be able to reduce tumour formation through pranayama and meditation?
Our research shows that molecules that are known to function as tumor suppressors are stimulated following Pranayama practice in normal individuals. This opens up a possibility that stimulation of such proteins could be helpful in the prevention of tumor formation. We are currently working in this line. While Pranayama has a direct effect on tumor formation is yet to be established, this practice is definitely helpful in symptom management among cancer patients and caregivers according to research by us, and others.
Can chanting or mantra be used instead of pranayama for the same benefits to be found?
I consider chanting is a combination of breathing regulation, neuronal stimulation due to vocalization, and meditation. One could use chanting effectively in place of Pranayama. Singing in groups has shown positive results in quality of life improvements among practitioners. Chanting also can be done silently within mind, without vocalization of the chant, during breathing exercises and meditation.
Please describe how often you feel we should practice pranayama on a weekly or daily basis to see these effects according to your studies.
It is best to practice at least 2 or 3 times every day. Each session could last for 15 minutes. If you have a good 30 minutes that would be ideal in the morning and evening. Throughout the day, whenever you get a chance, say once every hour or so, just take a look at the breathing. Try to change the breathing pattern, try to slow it down, and try some humming. The regulated breathing will become your second nature. You will no longer take breathing for granted. You will start regulating it, and can reap the benefits from this practice.