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Pranayama: The Breath of Life

May/25/2022 / by Sweta Vikram
Image credits: Shutterstock

Many years ago, I was learning from Dr. Vasant Lad, an Ayurvedic physician and the founder of The Ayurvedic Institute, who was leading this profound workshop on pranayama.

If you know me, you probably know that I am very active and love movement. Somewhere, my subconscious was trying to figure out if I could do breath work while getting in some form of movement. Or whether I needed breath work sitting down when I had a daily asana practice and did cardio training?

I raised my hand, and said, “But Dr. Lad, do we need to do pranayama every day? It takes up so much time.” You should have met the minute-counting New Yorker in me who used to find sitting down and stillness sacrilegious.

Dr. Lad smiled at me.

“Oh dear! You don’t have 10 minutes to give life to your life,” he asked. Dr. Lad has a wonderful way of teaching, where the message sits with you but doesn’t make you feel small. From that day until now, even if I have seven minutes, I will do pranayama. I might skip my cup of tea but not breath work. How can I not add life to my life? I have heard other teachers reiterate what Dr. Lad said, “If you don’t have the time, skip yoga asanas but not pranayama.” That’s how important pranayama can be.

Pranayama is the ancient practice of controlling your breath. The term pranayama is derived from several Sanskrit roots: prana, meaning “vital life force”; yama meaning “control”; and ayama, meaning “extension” or “expansion.” The breath is symbolic of prana, and pranayama can be understood as a method to extend and expand vital life force energy through the deliberate control of respiration. You control the timing, duration, and frequency of every breath and hold. Also, you purposely inhale, exhale, and hold your breath in a specific sequence.

Some common pranayama techniques include ujjayi breathing (victorious breath), bhastrika pranayama, bhramari pranayama, and nadi shodhana pranayama (alternate nostril breathing). There are many more. Some are meant to calm the nervous system while others are meant to energize the nervous system. Nadi shodhana is the first pranayama in the classical yogic texts. Ideally, other classical pranayamas should be attempted only after practicing nadi shodhana, as instructed by the teacher, for a specific period.

Depending on your Ayurvedic dosha and imbalances, different kinds of pranayama are recommended. For vata dosha, nadi shodhana works very well. It both releases physical tension and calms the mind as well as reduces tension. Cooling sitali breath is great for pitta dosha as it cools and calms it. This is also a great pranayama for summer season (pitta), or if you are feeling frustrated, irritated, or angry. Kapha dosha is heavy, sticky, cool, and oily. It benefits tremendously from bhastrika, which has the opposite qualities to stimulate Kapha. It also removes excess congestion from the lungs. Always work with an experienced yoga and Ayurveda practitioner before starting your pranayama practice. There might be contraindications, and you want to be sure your body can endure these breathing techniques.

Benefits of Pranayama

According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, pranayama is a preparatory practice, which features as the fourth limb in Patanjali’s eight-limbed path of yoga. It sets up practitioners and yogis for meditation.

  • Increases vital energy
  • Decreases stress
  • Enhances the quality of sleep
  • Improves lung function
  • May enhance brain function
  • Reduce cravings
  • Strengthens respiratory system
  • Increases mindfulness
  • Helps relieve chronic stress
  • Helps with PTSD
  • Calms the flight or fight response
  • Harmonizes, purifies, and neutralizes the secretions of the endocrine system and thereby influences thought and behavior.
  • Alleviates heart disease
  • Normalizes blood pressure

When your prana flow or energy channels are blocked or restricted, you may experience a lack of focus and negative emotions like anxiety, fear, worry, tension, depression, anger, and grief. When your prana or energy channels are open and flowing freely and smoothly When the mind is calm, focused, happy, positive, and enthusiastic, it’s a sign that your prana is flowing freely and smoothly. What does this mean? Through the skillful and conscious use of our breathing, we can affect and regulate our emotional states. By the way, it’s better to practice pranayama on an empty stomach. If you have the option to practice it outdoors, get some fresh air into your lungs.

The physical body that is exposed to the processes of yoga is freed from old age, disease, and death.” ~ Shvetashvatara Upanishad

DisclaimerThe content is purely informative and educational in nature and should not be construed as medical advice. The information is not intended for use in the diagnosis, treatment, cure, or prevention of any disease. Please use the content only in consultation with an appropriate certified medical or healthcare professional. If you are looking for advice from a trained yogi and Ayurvedic coach, contact me here.

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