The Importance of Pranayama

pranayama
Image credits: Pixahive

Every day you do things to recharge. You might plug your phone in or your car. You might even upgrade to the latest model of a product to ensure that it’s optimized for usage. And yet, we deprive ourselves of sleep and are inundated with data, news and stress. When and how often you unwind is important and a key element to recharging our brains is in our breathing.

What is Pranayama?

Pranayama is derived from the Sanskrit root words for life (prana) and ayama (for extension). It’s a type of yoga for breathing exercise that helps reduce stress and improves mental clarity. With a burst of energy, we can improve our physical and mental health and have a better outlook on life. Hence, yoga includes breathwork which is breathing exercises that can reboot the mind.

Pranayama breathing is a type of Ayurveda meditation that uses mantras. This process is also part of a particular meditation technique referred to as sudarshan kriya.

Let’s cover pranayama yoga practices and how to incorporate them into your daily life.

Exploring Prana

Prana is a powerful type of energy force. Ancient yoga practices describe it as a universal life force that separates what’s living from what’s dead. Also referred to as chi, this vital life force runs through your body in different energy centers which are your chakras. You also have energy channels which are called nadi. Because prana is essential to life, it can also be seen throughout the world.

Picture all the people in the world and the universe, for that matter as having this breath or energy. However, it doesn’t stop there. This energy is also an important aspect of our consciousness. Referred to as kundalini shakti, it’s a creative power that’s manifested universally.

To maintain your energy levels or prana, you receive nourishment and nutrients from several sources. Four categories exist as different prana levels. These include what you eat, when you rest or sleep, your mental state or frame of mind and your breathing.

As an example of prana, consider what you eat. If you have meat, which is dead, that’s negative prana. However, fresh foods instead of canned or processed foods can include high prana. It’s also why so many are choosing a vegetarian diet that is more nourishing. While food is an important part of prana, the most vital is our breathing. That’s because without breathing, you can’t live.

High Versus Low Prana

Your mental state is often determined by the level of prana that runs through your energy channels. Called nadis, these are very subtle but easy to block if you’re too busy or distracted with work or school, for example. Your prana, if low or insufficient, can be blocked and lead to fear, worry, tension, doubts or other types of stressful emotions. In turn, they can affect your health. The answer then is to have high prana.

High prana is when you are in a happy state. It might include a carefree mind, good sleep at night, and a positive and refreshing outlook. Hence, the flow of your prana, in this respect, is continuous and consistent. To help you have high prana, pranayama breathing techniques are recommended.

How Pranayama Works

If you were to explore pranayama (breath control) based on the ancient Patanjali scriptures, Sutra 2.49 outlines pranayama with the following definition about the cessation of the breath:

तस्मिन् सति श्वासप्रश्वासयोर्गतिविच्छेदः प्राणायामः॥४९॥

“Tasminsati shwasaprashwasayorgativicchedaha pranayamaha” (II. Sutra 49)

This is based on the root words tasmin (state of asana) sati (being), shwasa (inhalations), prashwasa (exhalations), gati (movement), vicchedaha (breaking), and pranayama (the regulation of your breathing). By way of example, this is comparable to Hatha Yoga and Kevala Kumbhaka or how to spontaneously stop respiration.

Examples of the types of pranayama exercise techniques that you can do might include exercises like bhastrika pranayama or bhramari pranayama. Other types of exercises are ujjayi breathing or nadi shodhan pranayama, which is breathing through alternate nostrils.

Below you will find helpful information like pranayama benefits, videos and instructions on the different breathing exercises.

Pranayama Benefits

One of the essential keys to reducing stress and maintaining a calm presence is knowing how to regulate your core breathing. With the right kind of breathing, you can increase your awareness and open the chakras. You’re also better able to manage brain fog, distractions or difficult events and traumas.

Psychology Today described Pranayama as a way to reduce stress and inflammation, give the immune system a boost and lower blood pressure. In particular, a study published in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine Therapies found that stress-related markers in saliva were decreased with only 20-minutes of yoga breathing. Additionally, relieving stress goes beyond rhythmic breathing. More than 65 studies have explored the health benefits of pranayamas and sudarshan kriya as ways to improve one’s quality of life.

Because pranayama uses rhythmic breathing and other techniques which we’ll explore, there are several benefits. These are some of them:

  • Calming a nervous mind and removing anxious, worrying or panic-induced thoughts
  • Boosting energy levels, clarity and focus as a way to combat mental fogginess
  • Giving you a better outlook, improving your state of mind and increasing calmness
  • Slowing the aging process as it reduces stress factors and lowers and regulates blood pressure and the heart rate
  • Improving the immune system, mind-body coordination and prana (energy levels)
  • Unblocking the chakras and nadis as it expands the aura and spirit
  • Optimizing your overall health

What Is Your Breathing Like?

Is your breathing technique choppy, smooth or shallow? Are you aware of how you breathe? Consider a newborn baby that breathes slowly. Their tiny hearts might be racing (to compensate for heat loss, to fuel their growth), and yet, they take very slow breaths.

A Baby’s Breathing Compared to That of an Anxious Person

Look at someone who is resting and watch how their chest rises and falls. Are they agitated or anxious? Stopping to cough a lot? Then, examine how you might sleep at night. Some people suffer from sleep apnea, or have very uneven breathing. Others are sound sleepers and their breathing is very smooth and consistent.

When we have even breathing, we’re more at rest and the brain receives this signal as a time to unwind. However, if we’re panicked for example, we may have shallow or choppy breathing. Our heart rate and blood pressure go up and send signals to the brain to release endorphins which calm the “fight or flight” hormones.

Alternatively, if we start to suddenly breathe deeply, our bodies receive a large supply of oxygen and the brain gets a signal to relax. Hence, it’s important to be aware of your breathing and when it changes. Because your breath is linked to how you feel and your emotions, you can harness that energy and at times redirect it.

Directing and Rerouting Your Emotions

Pranayama works along the same lines. Like steering a car in traffic, you can help determine the direction of your emotions based on your breathing. This is useful in boardrooms, in labor in a birthing room or with other types of emotionally charged states.

Consequently, pranayama breathing techniques can help you overpower any emotion you don’t want. You can then redirect yourself to achieve the result you do want, i.e., inner peace, calming and being centered, not scattered.

As an example of the emotion-breath connection, consider an actor or actress. For an emotional scene where they experience loss, their breathing is likely slow or very soft. If they were to express fear, their breath would be much faster.

It’s easy to see how we might be able to manipulate the mind into changing our emotional state. And, if you play cards, your breathing techniques might mean you always have the perfect poker face with every hand (and no sweat, palpitations or other tells!).

Pranayama Techniques

Maybe you’re interested in different types of pranayamas to lead a healthier lifestyle. Perhaps you want to add breathing exercises to your yoga routine. Because breath control is based on ancient Indian yoga, you have the foundation for regulating how you breathe.

Bhastrika (Bellows Breath)

Purpose: To increase energy

Example: See an example of Bhastrika here

If you find yourself wanting to learn how to do pranayama, maybe you’re tired or have low energy. Try a few rounds of bhastrika. Increasing air into the body is an inner heat stroking that activates the brain and can improve concentration and clarity of thoughts. Not only can you use it to calm a busy mind but the rapid inhalations and exhalations provide an instant energy boost. You can receive fresh oxygen and remove lung and body impurities.

Bhramari (Humming Bee Breath)

Purpose: To induce sleep

Example: Here’s an example of Bhramari

Are you finding yourself lost in thought? Mind buzzing? Can’t sit still? Bhramari is recommended as a way to calm a busy mind. Named after the Black Indian Bee, this soothing exercise can help block negative emotions (anger), lower hypertension and promote better sleep. Added benefits include that it can also improve memory and concentration.

To do this breathing technique, put your thumbs in your ears and let your remaining fingers rest on your forehead or eyes. Then, inhale deeply through your nostrils. Next, make a steady and low humming sound like a bee from the back of your throat when you let out your breath. Do it 10 times in a row for the maximum benefit. This is similar to chanting “Om” in that you are making an echoing vibration. Hence, it’s best to do this in a seated position. You can also do this at night before bed.

Dirga (Three-Part Breath)

Purpose: Calms the mind and body and reduces stress by improving lung function

Example: See an example of Dirga here

Dirga is an excellent way to reduce stress. This simple breathing technique is usually reserved for the start of a yoga routine. It can remove distractions and help to calm the mind, body and nervous system.

Because Dirga increases lung capacity, you will work through deep inhalations and exhalations in three areas. These are the abdomen, rib cage and upper chest region.

Kapalbhati (Skull Shining Breath)

Purpose: Aids in digestion

Example: See Kapalbhati done here

One of the most important pranayama breathing exercises is kapalbhati. Derived from root words kapala (forehead) and bhati (shine), it unblocks energy channels, can help the skin glow and it can detox the body and mind.

Kapalbhati is technically a shatkriya-cleansing technique that incorporates passively inhaling and then forcefully and actively exhaling. This core-strengthening exercise is also linked to improving digestion and losing weight.

As a complicated technique, it’s best performed under the supervision of a yoga instructor. Note: If you feel dizzy after starting, stop right away.

Kumbhaka (Full Breath Retention)

Purpose: It expands lung capacity

Example: See Kumbhaka done here

Kumbhaka is a simple step that can help improve your lung capacity. This is a deep-breathing technique that can increase your oxygen supply as it expands your diaphragm. It also gives you a cleaner respiratory system because you’re taking a deep breath, holding it as long as you comfortably can and then slowly releasing it.

This technique follows a ratio of 1:1:2. This means that however long it takes to draw in a breath, hold it for that exact time frame. Then, exhale at twice that amount. Use this technique before you start meditation as it can effectively calm the body and mind.

pranayama
Woman breathing through alternate nostrils (image credits: Vanalya/Freepik.com)

Nadi Shodhan (Alternate Nostril Breathing)

Purpose: To increase focus, clear blocked energy channels and improve attention span

Example: See Nadi Shodhan done here.

Having trouble focusing? Try a few rounds of nadi shodhan. This technique is ideal just before starting meditation as it calms the body and mind and increases harmony to the brain’s hemispheres. These are the emotions and logic in the brain. Hence, the left nostril is pingala nadi while the right is ida nadi.

By breathing through the opposite nostril, we’re increasing balance. To complete this, close your eyes and breathe in. Then let the breath out through the opposite nostril. Keep your breaths long and natural. Don’t force them. Try this technique and feel instantly calm.

Sheetali (Cooling Breath Technique)

Purpose: For a cooling effect

Example: See Sheetali done here

Where kapalabhati creates inner heat, sheetali is just the opposite. Sheetali is a refreshing way to reduce anxiety and cool down. However, don’t do this breathing technique if you have asthma or a cold. You’ll also want to avoid it in the wintertime.

To achieve this technique, you’ll work through a series of special rolls with your tongue as you inhale through your mouth. With your tongue taking the shape of an “O,” this breathing exercise is perfect for summer, given its cooling effects.

Ujjayi (Victorious Breath)

Purpose: To build endurance

Example: Here’s how Ujjayi is done.

Ujjayi is ideal for yoga routines. Because it connects the breath with emotions, it’s beneficial for increasing oxygen, lowering blood pressure and creating alertness. It’s also essential for stimulating immunity, memory and speech.

With this breathing technique, you’ll create what sounds like a snoring or ocean sound in the back of your throat as you breathe in and out. It’s compared to the ocean sounds because it’s done very rhythmically to mirror the noise ocean waves make.

To achieve this, breathe in deeply through your mouth and hold the air in your throat like you’re about to fog up your glasses to clean them. Then close your mouth and exhale through your nose but keep your throat tightened.

Note: Only practice these breathing techniques on an empty stomach. Kapalbhati and Bhastrika shouldn’t be performed by pregnant women or those with the following conditions. These include heart disease, hypertension, glaucoma, eye pressure or recent surgery. They also shouldn’t be done by those with imbalance or strong pitta.

FAQs

What is Pranayama and its Benefits?

Regulation of breath or Pranayama is defined as breaking or cessation of the usual manner of inhalations and exhalations. This is based on the root words Prana (universal life force) and Ayama (to regulate). Because the power of breath is so vital, exploring various breathing techniques can help you to increase your life energy and improve your mental state. It’s also why yogis incorporated it into their meditative practices.

Benefits of using breath techniques include reducing anxiety, increasing energy (prana) and improving your mood and outlook. Other benefits include a boost to your immune system and unblocking your chakras and Nadis.

How is Pranayama Done?

Yogic breathing exercises aren’t simply a way to regulate your breath but it’s how you can control your prana through breathing techniques. As an example, you can breathe into and out of the nose in specific patterns to draw in energy. Not only can you improve your physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing but you can bring harmony to your mind, body and spirit.

What Are the Seven Pranayamas?

While there are several pranayamas, a few of them are the most popular especially because they offer healing benefits. Hence even if you’re a beginner with breath control, you’ll find these can help you become healthier. However, it’s recommended that you always work with a yoga practitioner to find the best ones for you.

Below are the most common breathing techniques:

– Bhramari (Humming Bee Breath) to induce sleep
– Dirga (Three-Part Breath) to calm the body and mind
– Kapalabhati (Skull Shining Breathing Technique) to help with digestion
– Kumbhaka (Full Breath Retention) to improve your lung capacity
– Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing) to reduce stress
– Sheetali to cool down the body
– Ujjayi to build up your endurance

Which is the Best Time to Do Pranayama?

To benefit the most from breathing techniques, begin them early in the morning, preferably before sunrise. The weather is usually a bit cooler and your body can benefit from all that oxygen-rich air.

How Many Minutes Should We Do Pranayama?

Pranayama time frames might vary depending on your age, fitness level and your health. Some yogis and yoginis have longer routines while beginners may have very short routines of about 30 minutes. For example, dirga and nadi shodhana are both very easy so you might want to strive for 30 minutes with these. On the other hand, kapalabhati should only be done for 3-4 minutes and under the guidance of a yoga teacher.