If you’ve ever taken a yoga or meditation class, you may have heard of the ancient technique called pranayama. What is pranayama breathing and its benefits?
In Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language in which many Hindu scriptures and classical Indian epic poems are written, prana means energy while, yama means control. In Ayurvedic medicine, a natural healing practice that has been in existence for at least 5,000 years, pranayama breathing is one tool for promoting physical and mental health — along with other practices like meditation, yoga, herbal treatments and repeating inspirational mantras.
In yoga and meditation, the breath is considered the major flow of life-force that both energizes and relaxes the body. According to the Yoga Sutras, a collection of Indian stories on the theory and practice of yoga that is thousands of years old, pranayama (breath work) is one way to advance towards spiritual enlightenment.
Much more recently, studies tell us that breath control has many of the same benefits that are associated with meditation, including relieving anxiety, increasing energy, improving focus and fighting insomnia, just to name a few.
What Is Pranayama?
Pranayama is the ancient Sanskrit term that describes the regulation of the breath through certain techniques and exercises. Other ways that people refer to pranayama are as “yoga breathing” or sometimes “meditation breathing.”
What does pranayama mean? While most people relate pranayama with control of the breath, the word pranayama can also be divided into prana and ayama, where yama means to ‘restrain’ or ‘control’, but ayama means the opposite: to not do that. In this way, pranayama can be thought of as both a controlling and freeing practice that helps improve one’s energy and well-being.
Breath control and awareness — including through pranayama, yoga and meditation— is said to positively affect energetic nerve channels that run along the spine.The idea behind pranayama is that by controlling the breath, we can move past emotional blocks that hinder the flow of our prana, or our life energy. According to the Ananda Yoga Encyclopedia, “through pranayama techniques a person can redirect energy through the deep spine … there are various ways of controlling breathing, with the goal being to withdraw one’s senses from the outside world. ”
Pranayama is a mind-body practice that is all about controlling the speed and depth of breath. Because breath control helps with both the rhythm/flow of performing yoga poses, and also relaxes the mind for meditation, pranayama is considered to be an integral part of yoga.
There are many different forms of pranayama breathing, some which focus more on inhalation, on exhalation, or on moments of stillness between breath. Depending on the type of pranayama you practice, you may focus your attention mostly on the body (such as the belly, chest or nostrils) as it breaths, on the timing of the inhalation and exhalation (for example, if you’re trying to breath rapidly or slowly), or on the number of counts in each inflow and outflow.
Pranayama consists of four stages:
- The mindful pause after inhalation
- The mindful pause after exhalation
What are the different types of pranayama? While there are dozen of different variations in existence, some of the main pranayama types include:
- Ujjayi pranayama, which is a common type of breathing technique to practice during yoga classes. Ujjayi is translated as “victorious” breathing, according to Yoga Journal. It involves taking long, smooth breaths that are both energizing and relaxing.
- Alternate nostril breathing (also called Nadi Shodhana or Anuloma – Viloma), which is a calming, balancing breath practice.
- Basic Abdominal breathing (see below for instructions on how to do this).
- “Shining skull cleansing breath” (also called Kapalabhati breathing), which is a stimulating, energizing technique.
- “Cooling breath” (also called Sitali Pranayama), which is used to quiet the mind and calm the body. It is said to “add moisture to the system” and to soothe a Pitta dosha imbalance. Performing this technique involves curling the sides of your tongue and breathing in through your mouth.
- Kriya yoga breathing, in which you sit in a relaxed position with your hands on your hips, breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, then breath for 4 seconds.
- “Humming Bee Breath” (Bhramari), in which you inhale slowly and deeply through the nose and on exhalation make the sound of ‘m’. This is a smooth, even and controlled breath in which the exhalation is longer than the inhalation, making it beneficial for dealing with tension, anxiety, anger and stress.
- “Bellow’s Breath” (Bhastrika), in which you take deep breaths in and breathe out forcefully and quickly through the nose. As you inhale your abdomen moves outward as your diaphragm descends. This technique is used to warm the body, clear the nasal passageways and improve circulation.
4 Pranayama Benefits
1. Serves As a Form of Meditation
Pranayama breathing can prepare the mind for deep meditation because it enhances physical awareness, calms the body, and enforces introspection. Steady, slow, focused breathing is said to help quiet a restless mind and to draw attention inwards, which prevents overstimulation.
2. Helps Relieve Anxiety Through Deep Breathing
Happy breathing is described as being rhythmic, while stressed breathing is irregular and interrupted. Pranayama techniques can help to strengthen the whole range of the respiratory organs and to deepen/lengthen the breath. Deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system which has natural calming effects. Slow, deep breathing is one way to counter overstimulation, turn off the “fight or flight response,” and handle stress more effectively.
Studies have found that breathing techniques (that can be considered pranayama) can help with the physical and mental symptoms of stress, including anxiety and depression. Breath control practices are now being included in “mindfulness-based psychotherapy” and yoga interventions — referred to as Integrative Breathwork Therapy (IBT) — that studies suggest offers support for those seeking treatment for anxiety and depression.
According to research published in the International Journal of Preventive Medicine, yoga and pranayama together are a proven and effective method for improving health, helping to prevent and manage disease, reducing stress and anxiety, and improving autonomic functions by triggering neurohormonal mechanisms by the suppression of sympathetic activity. Evidence also supports the belief that breathing and yoga techniques can improve health through down-regulation of the hypothalamo pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic nervous system.
3. Improves Your Mood (Boosting Happiness, Excitement, etc.)
Certain pranayama techniques we can help to alter your physical and emotional state, for example by helping you calm down if you’re feeling angry or nervous, or by getting you more focused, present and excited. The emotions that different pranayama techniques amplify depends on how you change the depth, rate and pattern of your breathing.
Research shows that combining breathing techniques and yoga can help to reduce depressive symptoms in people with major depressive disorder (MDD). For example, a 2017 study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine found that three months of yoga and coherent breathing significantly reduced depressive symptoms in individuals who’d been diagnosed with MDD.
4. Supports Cardiovascular Health
Because pranayama is useful for dealing with the effects of stress, such as by normalizing blood pressure levels/reducing hypertension, studies have shown that slow pranayama practice is beneficial for cardiovascular functions. Both fast and slow pranayama practices have been found to produce different physiological responses; slow, deep breathing seems to be most beneficial for heart health and improving perceived stress.
One study carried out by the Departments of Physiology and Advanced Centre for Yoga Therapy Education and Research found that when participants underwent slow pranayama training for 30 min, three times a week for the duration of 12 weeks they experienced significant improvements in perceived stress, heart rate, respiratory rate, systolic blood pressure and diastolic blood pressure.
Studies also show that yoga and pranayama together can decrease levels of salivary cortisol and blood glucose, offering protection against metabolic conditions including insulin resistence/type 2 diabetes.
How to Practice Pranayama
What type of pranayama techniques are best for beginners? Practicing ujjayi pranayam and alternate nostril breathing is a great place to start. Before beginning these pranayamas, it helps to practice “Basic Abdominal Breathing.” This type of breathing moves the belly, but not the chest. If the chest is moving then this is a sign that you are taking shallow breaths, without using your diaphragm.
Place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. Inhale deeply, using the diaphragm, which will mean that as you inhale your diaphragm will move downward, pushing your abdomen (belly) down and out. When you exhale your diaphragm will move upward and your abdomen/belly will deflate like a balloon.
Here’s how to do Ujjayi pranayama if you’re new to breath control:
- The key to Ujjayi breathing is relaxation, focus and lengthening the breath.
- Ujjayi works by gently constricting the opening of the throat as you breath through the nostrils and avoid mouth breathing, which creates a sound as you breath that is similar to ocean waves.
- Gently pull the breath in on inhalations and gently push the breath out on exhalations, with little pause in between. Try matching the length of your inhales and exhales.
- It may be easiest to start working on Ujjayi breathing while seated, relaxed in a cross-legged position, before moving on to practicing while doing yoga poses (also called asanas). The goal is to work towards maintaining your quality of breath and focus on the breath throughout your yoga practice.
- Sitting comfortably with a straight spine and the crown of your head lifted, bring your right hand towards you nose and use your right thumb to softly close the right nostril.
- Inhale slowly through your left nostril, then close it with your ring finger. Pause for several seconds as you hold your breath.
- Open your right nostril and exhale slowly. Keep your left nostril covered so you only breath out fully through the right.
- With the right nostril open, inhale slowly, then close it with the thumb. Pause again.
- Exhale through the left nostril. Continue this cycle, pausing between inhales and exhales before switching sides. Repeat this pattern five to ten times or more.
How long should you do pranayama breathing for?
Start with about three to five minutes and gradually build up to 10–20 minutes or more, ideally most days of the week to build a steady habit. If you take a yoga class, you may be practicing pranayama for upwards of 60 to 75 minutes, although you might find it difficult to stay concentrated on the breath this whole time.
Which is the best time to do pranayama?
There is no wrong time; any time that you find pranayama helpful, whether it’s to help you start your day with a clear head, to calm you down when you’re feeling stressed, or to help you fall asleep at night, is a good time.
While pranayama is generally very safe, certain techniques might cause you to feel overheated or dizzy, such as those that require fast belly breaths and strong exhales, especially while doing yoga. If you begin to not feel well while practicing, lay down comfortably and return to your normal breath for several minutes.
- What is pranayama breathing? The definition of pranayama is the regulation of the breath through certain techniques and exercises.
- There’s a strong connection and deep history between pranayama and yoga. Pranayama techniques help prepare the body and mind for yoga and meditation by calming you down, bringing your focus inwards and making you more present.
- Pranayama benefits include: helping you to deal with the effects of stress, fighting anxiety, improving focus, relaxing muscular tension, and improving sleep.
- If you’re a beginner, practicing ujjayi pranayam and alternate nostril breathing is a great place to start. Here’s a basic guide of how to do Ujjayi pranayama: sitting with a straight spine, gently constrict the opening of your throat as you breath through the nostrils and avoid mouth breathing. Gently pull the breath in on inhalations and gently push the breath out on exhalations, with little pause in between. Try keeping your focus on your breath, matching the length of your inhales and exhales as you repeat for five minutes or more.
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