The word Pranayama is derived from the Sanskrit root words prana, meaning breath or “life-force”, and “yama”, meaning control or restraint. Breathing is an involuntary task that is essential to our lives. The purpose of pranayama is to control our life-force to enhance physical and mental health. Pranayama helps us gain greater control over our breathing and recognize the power that it has over balancing the mind and body.
What is Pranayama?
Pranayama is designed to teach us how to be conscious of our breathing and to be aware of the life and energy force that is inside us. Pranayama is often combined with asanas (yoga postures) to strengthen our bodies and master our breathing. The practice of pranayama is crucial for those looking to enter into a meditative state.
Pranayama techniques include four parts:
- Puraka (Inhalation)
- Antara-kumbhaka (Meditative retention of the breath)
- Rechaka (Exhalation)
- Bahya Kumbkaha (Meditative retention of the breath)
Each pranayama consists of retaining breath and taking a brief pause after inhaling and after exhaling. When the breathing sequences are repeated it allows the body and mind to gain full awareness of the individual’s breathing.
Benefits of Pranayama
When practiced correctly, Pranayama can have many benefits on the body, mind, and overall wellness of an individual.
1. Reduce and Prevent Stress
Stressful thoughts may trigger the body’s fight or flight response. This causes your body to react and respond to perceived threats by giving you a burst of energy and epinephrine — more commonly known as adrenaline. This can make you feel short of breath, anxious, and frustrated. The increase in stress hormones causes your blood pressure and heart rate to rise and also causes shallow and fast breathing.
The 4-7-8 pranayama technique is extremely effective in reducing stress and relaxing the body.
- Empty the lungs completely by exhaling through the mouth
- Inhale through the nose while counting to 4
- Retain the breath and count until 7
- Exhale completely through the mouth while counting to 8.
- Make a whooshing sound while exhaling.
This exercise can be repeated as many times needed. It is a great method to master control of your breathing even in stressful situations.
2. Reduce Heart Rate and Blood Pressure
Pranayama’s deep breathing techniques can help to reduce the stress levels, heart rate, and blood pressure. When more oxygen is let into the body, it relieves strain on the muscles and chest. This relaxes the body and makes breathing easier. Increased oxygen levels in the body also allows the blood to flow more freely, improving circulation.
The 4-7-8 Pranayama method (above) can be used to reduce heart rate and blood pressure as well.
3. Burn Extra Calories
Whether combined with asanas or practiced on their own, pranayama techniques can help burn calories and potentially lead to weight loss. Although it may be a slow process that requires dedication, deep breathing techniques can help burn extra fat due to the increase in oxygen levels in the body.
Bhastrika Pranayama is one technique that can help give energy and power to the body. It is believed to raise metabolism and help the body burn off excess fat more quickly.
- Start in a seated position with your back straight and eyes closed
- Relax the stomach muscles and place your palms on your knees
- Start breathing forcefully through your nose. Breathing should be powerful and rhythmic. Inhale and exhale quickly (one second for each)
This pranayama can be repeated for up to 5-10 minutes. The breathing exercise will expand and contract your diaphragm, and will give you a burst of energy if performed correctly.
4. Release Toxins
Many pranayama techniques can improve one’s health by releasing toxins and revitalizing the body. Pranayama can even be used to relieve cold symptoms and sinus infections.
Kapalabhati, or the “Skull-Shining” technique, is extremely useful to detoxify the body. It is believed to improve digestive health, increase energy, clear the nasal passages from mucus, and even warm the body.
- Start in a seated position with your hands cupped on your lower abdomen
- Fill the lungs to almost maximum capacity
- Quickly exhale completely and contract the lower abdomen towards the spine
- Repeat the inhale and exhale up to ten times in quick succession.
- Relax, and prepare for another round.
Kapalabhati should not be performed by pregnant women or individuals with high blood pressure.
5. Relax the Mind and Body
Pranayama techniques utilize deep breathing techniques that are designed to maintain control of your breathing. The goal is to become more aware of your body and mind, and the world around you. This will gradually help you remain calm even in difficult and distressing difficult circumstances.
Nadi Shodhana, or alternate nostril breathing, has a calming and relaxing effect and can be practiced daily.
- Empty the lungs completely
- Close the right nostril using your thumb and inhale through the left nostril
- Fill the lungs completely, and briefly retain the breath
- Close the left nostril using your thumb and exhale through the right nostril
- Pause briefly and repeat the process on the other side
- Repeat the cycle up to ten times for each nostril
Practicing Nadi Shodhana every day can balance the body and help you maintain a peaceful and happy mindset.
6. Strengthens the Body
When combined with asanas, pranayama becomes an extremely powerful way to strengthen the body. Focusing on breathing allows an individual to push their bodies further into a posture and keep their mind focused.
Ujjayi Breathing is frequently combined with asanas in Vinyasa Yoga. Meaning “to conquer” or “victorious breath,” Ujjayi breathing is a technique that can give you greater control over your body and more awareness of your mind-body connection.
- Fill the lungs completely
- Contract the throat slightly
- Exhale through the nose
- Continue to inhale and exhale at regular intervals
Pranayama is extremely beneficial to both the mind and body. Deep breathing techniques have many benefits, including relieving stress, decreasing high blood pressure, improving circulation, relaxing the body, and creating intense focus.
Practicing pranayama daily will give you a greater awareness of the role your breathing plays in maintaining your physical and mental well-being.