Pranayama – Guide to Yoga Breathing

We never forget to charge our smartphone at night or early in the morning before heading to work; but have you ever considered recharging your mind? The secret lies deep in your breath.

Introduction to Pranayama

pranayamaOnly a few acts of purification are greater than Pranayama. Similarly to a goldsmith who removes various impurities in gold by heating the precious metal in hot furnaces via blowpipes that produce a gust of hot air, yogic aspirant dispels several impurities from your mind, body and the senses through concentrated and deeply focused breathing, which is known as Pranayama.

Pranayamas are breathing exercises based on yogic principles that can quickly boost your energy levels, improve mental clarity, cut down stress, and enhance your overall physical health.

What is Prana?

Prana is an essential and subtle type of energy that lies at the core of the entirety of one’s manifestation. In yoga, prana is often considered the sum and origin of all energies of the universe or macrocosm. It is a cosmic energy. This word can be broken down into its Sanskrit origins, pra meaning “prior” or “to posses past existence,” while ana, refers to a single element, or one basic unit, anu, which underlies material and existence.

You can see Prana as the aggregate sum of energies that enliven the nature and human beings. Being humans, we tend to receive this invigorating force abundantly in the form of the air we breathe, but it is also found in the water we drink and food we eat. We also absorb it through our skin.

What is Pranayama?

Pranayama is defined as the control of breath. It is often true that on the level of existence, the most perceivable manifestation of Pranayama is considered to be a person’s breath. It is, therefore, also the easiest on which to act on.

girl meditatingSo, most yogis rely on their breath, for assimilating, absorbing and manipulating this crucial and vital energy. However, there is an even deeper meaning of this word as well. Your breath is not the sole vehicle for prana. Prana can be expressed as a force, energy or power that manifests in the universe, both subtle and physical. In addition, prana also manifests in beings as different mental, physical and psychic processes.

The fine and subtle nerve movements in a living organism and mental powers are in fact just some of the specific manifestations of prana. The various activities of our 5 senses are expressions of prana that vibrate at specific frequencies.

The main theory behind Pranayama is that we all have emotional or physical blocks in our bodies. These blocks usually restrict the flow of breath and, therefore, prana too, which is the life energy. Because of this we tend to feel unwell and blocked or stuck both emotionally and physically. By consistently practicing Pranayama we can clear these blocks so that prana and your breathing can flow freely, and your body will function – providing you with a fresh and enhanced mind. You will feel calmer and more serene, at total peace with yourself.

Pranayama concentrates on one or more of the 4 elements of breath. These are:

• Inhalation
• Internal retention
• Exhalation
• External retention

Origin and History

The word Pranayama is Sanskrit and originates from the word prana (meaning universal energy), and yama (meaning to control). So, we can infer that the literal definition or meaning of pranayama is controlling of or holding on to the vital or universal force, mostly through your breath and therefore, this makes pranayama the practice of controlling one’s breath.

pranayama historyThe breathing exercise is a conscious attempt at stabilizing the flow of apana and prana (the two unique types of energies whose dynamic and fluid movements are closely associated to breathing), and brings them in a state of harmonious or balanced interaction. The practice dates back to the origins of yoga and ancient India, and has been around since 5th and 6th centuries B.C. The term Pranayama is found in early yoga texts like Hatha Yoga Pradipika and Bhagavad Gita.

Pranayama could be learned on its own or in a yoga class. In yoga classes, it is usually sequenced depending on the various effects it brings. For instance, a class can begin with breath awareness and breathing to calm both the mind and body and draw your focus inwards. Kapalabhati is a practice that could be incorporated to invigorate and activate your core and to calm down at the end. Vinyasa Yoga and Ashtanga Yoga are generally used by breathing throughout the duration of the class to the point of Savasana for creating focus, heat and awareness in your body.

Benefits of Pranayama

Benefits of practicing pranayama are intangible and tangible. Nature has endowed us with prana, which is the ultimate and free source of power available to all human beings. Properly utilizing this free and potent energy source can bring considerable and noticeable changes to our vitality, health and self-confidence. We cannot simply declare that prana is equivalent to oxygen in the atmosphere; it is a common misconception and needs to be dismissed.

pranayama benefitsThe oxygen we inhale is also brimming with this vital energy called prana. It is difficult to mention all the different benefits of this practice, as there happens to be a number of subtle changes such as clarity of thought and mental peace that occurs in the mind. Practicing Pranayama on a regular basis helps in improving overall wellbeing and health by enabling your prana and breath to flow in your body. It can help enhance your mood, energy levels, sleep and digestion.

There are various types of Pranayama; and these different kinds have certain benefits. For instance, Kapalabhati Pranayama, which is also known as skull shining breath is used for detoxifying and energizing our body with a very fast rhythm. It uses strong and constant abdominal contractions for expelling the breath, toning down the abdominal muscles too. Other forms of this practice entail relaxing or balancing such as Nadi Shodhana, often called alternate nostril breathing or Sama Vritti, which involves inhalations and exhalations of the same length.

Why You Should Try Pranayama?

Although there are countless reasons of trying this breathing technique, we have compiled a list of some of the most important reasons of practicing Pranayama.

Improves Physical Fitness

One of the major benefits of Pranayama is that it considerably improves your physical fitness and makes your body stronger, leaner and healthier. This is particularly true if you combine it with other asanas in yoga. It also balances the digestive system and stabilizes appetite.

Your face will glow because of the ample supply of oxygen to your skin tissues. Those facing vocal chords problems can benefit from Pranayama as well. Individuals who practice it often gradually become happier and more cheerful. It increases a person’s vitality and vigor to a great extent.

Better Emotional Control

You may have observed that your respiration has a direct link with your emotions. If you have more disturbances and turbulence in your personal life, it has a negative impact on your emotional stability, which increases your breathing rate.

In fact, we would not be exaggerating if we claim that rapid and instable breathing gives cues to an individual’s change of emotions. Therefore, it is often held by experts that through controlling our breathing, we can better control our restlessness, anger and other negative or depressive emotions. Regulated and deep breathing is often helpful in reining and guiding our wild and unfettered emotions to a considerable extent.

Increases Oxygen Absorption

When we breathe normally, we do not use our lungs properly or completely. Rather than taking proper and deep breaths, we have developed a habit of taking rapid and shallow breaths to satisfy our body’s need for oxygen. If you practice Pranayama on a regular basis, your lungs are used more rigorously, which not only strengthens these vital organs but also causes plenty of pure oxygen to enter our bloodstream, enhancing overall health and well-being. Constant and renowned practitioners of Pranayama are famous for utilizing as much as 80% of their lung capacity when breathing.

Averts Unnecessary Thoughts

We often tend to fail when it comes to controlling our negative and fearful thoughts, which end up ruining our peace of mind. Pranayama will help you gain better control over not only your physical self but also over your wandering and unnecessary thoughts. These worrisome, negative, and fearful thoughts tend to produce more nervousness and stress.

These thoughts can meddle with our personal lives in more ways than we usually think. Regularly practicing Pranayama helps us in focusing our thoughts. Even in situations where we have a serious or contentious problem, we can carefully analyze and resolve it rather than allowing it to play with our minds.

Lowers Risk of Hypertension

Elevated blood pressure levels, also known as hypertension, is a medical condition in which our arteries steadily increase blood pressure beyond the normal level needed for healthy functioning of our hearts. Hypertension dwells in our body and operates as a silent killer, but you can easily tame it with healthy and positive lifestyle changes and by practicing Pranayama regularly. The meditative posture used during the technique allows your body to relax and unwind and be stress and tension-free. The calm state of mind contributes considerably in bringing down your hypertension.

There are a number of cases of victims of chronic hypertension, who have maintained their blood pressure at healthy levels by making a few lifestyle changes and doing Pranayama regularly. Moreover, the breathing technique also assists in controlling some psychosomatic illnesses, such as insomnia, diabetes and major depression.

Enhances Concentration and Memory

Regularly practicing Pranayama and yoga will immensely help you in enhancing your concentration, and improving both recent and remote memories, besides intensifying your determination and willpower. In case you are wondering how deep breathing techniques improve memory and concentration, you should keep in mind that Pranayama increases the supply of oxygen to your body including the brain.

It relieves stress, calming your brain so it can function optimally. Deep breaths ensure each cell in your brain receives sufficient oxygen. You will usually feel the positive effects of Pranayama immediately, as they provide you a feeling of peace, tranquility and rejuvenation soon after doing it.

Increases Life Span

Research shows that an animal’s life span is directly proportional to its breathing rate. For example, tortoise, which usually lives for over 200 years, breathes 3 to 4 times per minute. Similarly, whales tend to breathe about 6 to 7 times per minute and have a life span of about 100 years. On the other hand, animals such as mice or rabbits have a quicker respiratory rate and shorter life spans. Practicing Pranayama on a regular basis helps individuals breathe normally at a reasonably systematic pace, which increases their lifespan.

Overall Well-Being

It is claimed that Pranayama purifies around 72,000 nerves in our bodies. Moreover, it effectively balances the flow of energy to all parts of the body. It also accelerates intellectual development and leads to significant improvement in various cognitive functions. Medical practitioners and experts recommend Pranayama for reducing symptoms of oxidative stress. It promotes the development of a steady mind, sound judgment and a keen sense of perception. Last, but definitely not the least, it helps a person with soul searching and leads to enlightenment.

The Different Techniques for Pranayama

pranayama typesThere are a number of different Pranayama techniques out there; most of them are best practiced sitting down on the floor, especially on a folded soft blanket. Here is an example of one pose you can do to connect the body and mind. This kind of rigorous practice is also applicable to padmasana. However, you do not have to worry as most postures will provide good results as long as you keep your back erect from the base of your spine to your neck, while keeping it exactly perpendicular to the ground.

Lousy and inaccurate postures often lead to low endurance and shallow breathing. You should empty your bowels and bladder prior to commencing Pranayama. The ideal time for practicing Pranayama is early morning, especially before sunrise when pollution tends to be at its lowest level, and your brain and body are free. But if you can’t manage it in the morning, you can still practice it after sunset, when it is cooler and more pleasant. Please make sure the place you choose for your practice is clean, comfortable and calm.
Some major and well-known types of Pranayama techniques are discussed below.

Nadi Sodhana

This is a famous Pranayama technique you can practice sitting down in a calm environment in a cross-legged stance or position. Then using the thumb of your right hand, gently close the right side of the nose. Now inhale deeply with your left nostril for about 2 minutes. After that close your left nose and exhale with the right nose in a similar way, with your left nose still closed. You should carry on this exercise for a period of about 15 – 20 times.

Shitali Pranayama

The word Shitali is derived from the word Sheetal, meaning cool; this technique will help you in achieving the same. For performing Shitali Pranayama, you should sit in a calm and comfortable position. Crossing your legs, take 5 to 6 deep breaths to prepare yourself for the exercise.

Then open your mouth wide in an O shaped position and start inhaling through your mouth. Then exhale through your nose. Repeat this procedure 10 to 15 times.

Ujjayi Pranayama

The term Ujjayi means sea or ocean, and this technique entails mimicking the sounds of the waves in the sea. To practice this, you must sit in a relaxed position with your legs crossed. When practicing this, you should constrict the throat like something is choking it when you inhale and exhale the air. Then start inhaling and exhaling deeply with your mouth.

This would generate a sound which is very similar to the sound of ocean waves. Closing your mouth, start breathing through the nose, but keep the same tone intact so that you can continue making the exact same sound. Repeat the breathing exercise for 10 to 15 times.

Kapalabhati Pranayama

To practice this Pranayama technique, you must be seated in a comfortable position with your legs crossed. Then deeply inhale and exhale 2 to 4 times. Then inhale deeply and forcefully exhale to draw out all the air. Your stomach must be drawn in, when you exhale.

When you inhale, do it passively without making any conscious effort and your belly will revert to its normal position. Then exhale powerfully again and repeat this procedure 25 to 40 times.

DirgaPranayama

This Pranayama technique is a little different compared to others because you have to lie down on your back rather than sitting down. The breathing technique involves deep exhalation and inhalation.

To perform the exercise, close your eyes while lying down on your back. First take normal breaths then gradually take deep ones, and relax your body.

Slowly take a deep breath accumulating as much air in your belly as you can. Hold your position for a couple of seconds then exhale to draw your stomach to ensure no air is left.

During the next step, inhale deeply, filling up your belly. Then inhale a little more, gently filling up air in the rib cage. When exhaling, do it first from the rib cage then from the belly.

In the last step, deeply inhale and fill up the rib cage and belly with air. Then inhale more, filling your heart with air. When exhaling, do it from your heart, rib cage and belly respectively.

Repeat this entire process at least 5 to 8 times.

Kapalbhati Pranayama

Fill your lungs with air, inhaling normally with the nostrils. Keep the inhalations slow and don’t force them. First, your diaphragm will move downwards, which will enable your lungs to force your abdomen out; then your chest will expand and the collar bones will rise last.

Now exhale using your nostrils forcefully. This will place more emphasis of your breath on exhalations instead of inhalation. Strengthen the exhalation by slowly pulling the stomach in for expelling air. Exhaling will take you less time compared to inhaling. In case of forced exhalation, the contraction of the stomach muscles will help in pushing air out of the body. This does not necessarily mean your exhalation will feel uncomfortable in any way. Take consecutive breaths for about 20 minutes.

yoga class breathingOnce you fully understand and thoroughly practice these breathing techniques, you will be able to make an informed decision regarding which of these techniques can work best for you. Rigorously practicing these Pranayama techniques can have a major impact on both your actions and thoughts. It is important to keep in mind that your thoughts can considerably change your breathing rhythm. You will notice it yourself that when you are happy and tranquil, your breathing will be rhythmic. On the other hand, when you are stressed or anxious, your breathing will usually be irregular or interrupted.

Steady and regular practice of Pranayama will arouse your inner spiritual light, enhance happiness and bring peace of mind. It is almost impossible to discuss and extol all the remarkable effects of Pranayama in an adequate manner. Pranayama is a magic wand which allows you to attain perfection in most spheres of your life. Just a couple of days of regular practice will be enough to convince you how remarkable and glorious these exercises are. Start today, from this very moment and do not procrastinate. You will never regret it.

Did you benefit from this article? Did I miss anything? Any feedback or suggestions would be appreciated – please post in the comments and I will personally respond!

Marcus Stone

Marcus Stone

Soon after graduating college with a degree in Journalism, Marcus decided to pursue his love for yoga and traveled to Rishikesh, India to complete his RYS 500 yoga teacher training. Marcus wants people to know that yoga is for everyone – no matter your race, gender, age, or physical ability. >> Read More
Marcus Stone

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2017-11-08T22:48:13+00:00

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