Increasing Oxygen Supply to the Tissues and Reconciling Prana with Western Medicine

Do you ever wonder about just how Yoga supports and improves your wellbeing? Do you struggle to explain to family and friends just what a wonderfully straightforward  health regime Yoga is and why you love it?

How much do you know about anatomy and physiology and how it relates to Yoga?

Holy Isle May 2010 053Later this month, we’re privileged to be hosting Dr Ruth Gilmore on our ‘Anatomy and Physiology for Yoga Teachers’ weekend course. This workshop programme is a compulsory part of the Harmony Yoga teacher training course, but it’s also an open programme. That means you’d be welcome to join us even if you’re just curious  about anatomy and physiology and how it relates to Yoga and particularly if you’re not yet familiar with Vinyasa Krama Yoga ad would like to experience it, no strings attached.

Ruth is about to retire, following a fascinating and unique  career as a university lecturer and a Yoga teacher and therapist. So this is your last chance to study with her.

You might enjoying reading these anatomy and physiology questions, as presented to Ruth Gilmore in her renowned ‘Ask Ruth’ column that appeared in ‘Yoga and Health’ magazine. They, together with Ruth’s clear and informative answers, are included here with her permission.

I’m told that breathing more deeply increases the amount of oxygen in the blood.  Bearing in mind what you have written before in ‘Yoga and Health’ about the dangers of hyperventilation, will slow deep breathing still be beneficial in having this effect?  Alternatively, are there any other ways of increasing the oxygen supply to the tissues apart from deep breathing? 

First of all, unless you have severe respiratory disease, deep breathing will not increase the amount of oxygen in your blood.  I know that this is disappointing to the many yoga practitioners who think that it does, but it’s easily checked out with modern measuring devices.  The reason is simple – the amount of oxygen doesn’t need to be increased because it is maximal already.  The blood contains molecules of haemoglobin that are beautifully designed especially to pick up oxygen in the lungs and transport it to the tissues.  When leaving the lungs to go round the body the arterial blood is absolutely saturated with oxygen, in other words, the haemoglobin is carrying as much oxygen as it possibly can – thus, having any more oxygen in the lungs makes no difference.  This also means that money spent at so-called ‘oxygen bars’, buying some breaths from an oxygen cylinder, is money wasted – the increased sense of well-being often reported can be explained by the placebo response.  The degree of oxygen saturation in the blood can be easily measured by a small device that clips over a finger, or on to the ear lobe.  This shows percentage saturation in a non-invasive way – no needles, in other words.  Normal arterial saturation is constant at about 98% in most people.  If someone has severe respiratory disease the arterial saturation can drop, and this is an indication that they need supplemental oxygen therapy – but most people fortunately don’t come into this category.

You ask about other ways to increase the oxygen supply to the tissues.  The body can do this very well for you when required – it does it every time you exercise!  Working muscles require more oxygen and they get it by an increase in the rate at which the blood goes round the body.  The heart rate speeds up and the heart beats more strongly, to deliver more blood per minute (and therefore more oxygen, too) to the muscles.  This increase is perfectly matched to the degree of exercise – a good example of the body’s intelligence in dealing with everyday changes.


As a Western-trained medical scientist who is also a yoga teacher, how do you reconcile the  concept of prana with your background and training?

Actually without a great deal of trouble at all!  It is true that the Western approach to human biology and medicine is very ‘physical’, with the emphasis being on understanding the body as a system of complex mechanical units.  Anatomists began by using the naked eye to examine structure, and then gradually developed ways of magnifying their view, so as to be able to identify tissues, cells and the tiny structures within cells.  In parallel with this, biochemistry and other related disciplines have explored the molecular structure of the building blocks of the body, leading to current understanding of the genetic code, and the whole subject area of molecular medicine.  Within this complex physical body the life force is somehow present, in a way that cannot yet be explained ‘scientifically’.  In contrast to this view, the Eastern approach has been primarily energy-based, with the individual being seen as a mass of energy, or life force, which becomes manifested as a physical body.

In my work over the years I have been very fortunate to have spent much time with the dead.  This has taught me a great respect for individuals, and at the same time has encouraged me to think about the body in a way that brings the Eastern and Western views together.  A dead body is a wonderful machine – it has all the organs, each one a marvel in design, also the blood vessels, nerves, bones etc.  But it does not work, because it has no energy to drive the body systems.  Every aspect of our functioning is powered by energy – it takes energy to maintain body temperature, to drive the blood around the body, to supply and transport nutrients, to bring about movement in the muscles and to send nerve impulses from and to all parts.  Sometimes the power is expressed as electrical energy (in nerve conduction), sometimes as chemical energy (at nerve synapses), sometimes as heat (body temperature), sometimes mechanical force (movement).  Modern physics accepts that energy can be neither created nor destroyed, but is just transformed into different forms, and we experience this happening in ourselves every day.  So in my yoga practice I can use an asana to stretch and work the physical body, while accepting that it is bound to have an effect on my energy, prana, chi, call it what you will.  No-one can have much connection with yoga without soon at least experiencing how some practices are calming and others stimulating, and as one develops a personal practice one becomes more attuned to the changes that occur at more subtle levels.  Yoga has helped me in my scientific work and teaching by giving me a more balanced and holistic view of the body-mind, while I never cease to wonder at the magic of it all.

(c) Ruth Gilmore



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