Pranayama is a Sanskrit term often translated as “controlling the life force” or “controlling the breath.” Breathing is a natural and involuntary action that we do every single second. Our bodies need oxygen to function properly. In the practice of yoga, pranayama involves techniques that utilize the breath in order to reduce stress and increase physical and mental wellness.
What is Pranayama and How Does it Work?
Pranayama is the practice of controlled breathing techniques. Pranayama exercises are designed to create a balance between the mind and body, and to help us alter our mental state. Some techniques are calming, while others stimulate the mind and body. Advanced practitioners can also use pranayama to enter into a deep meditation. By directing the flow of oxygen going in and out of the body, pranayama gives the practitioner greater control over the mind-body connection. With practice, you can learn to regulate your thoughts and emotions simply by controlling your breath.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga
Although the practice of yoga dates back many thousands of years, the great sage Patanjali distilled yoga into eight basic steps that can bring a person all the way to enlightenment, or samadhi. When each step is done properly, one can gradually progress to higher and higher stages of self-realization. Pranayama is the fourth step on this eight-fold path:
- Yama (moral restraints)
- Niyama (moral imperatives)
- Asana (yoga postures)
- Pranayama (controlling the breath)
- Prantyahara (withdrawal of the senses)
- Dharana (full concentration)
- Dhyana (deep meditation)
- Samadhi (state of enlightenment)
Practicing pranayama helps us become aware of our breathing. Controlled breathing makes it easier to practice the yoga asanas, and is also a crucial aspect of deep meditation. Over time, numerous breathing exercises have designed for different purposes. However, the main objective is to enhance self-awareness and introspection. Without pranayama, one cannot successfully reach samadhi, the ultimate goal of yoga practice.
The Four Parts of the Breath
Pranayama can be practiced combined with asanas and meditation, or it can be practiced on its own. Each pranayama technique consists of four parts:
- Puraka (inhalation)
- Antara-kumbhaka (meditative pause after inhalation)
- Rechaka (exhalation)
- Bahya Kumbhaka (meditative pause after exhalation)
Paying close attention to each of the stages of pranayama practice can help you gain greater awareness and control over your breath. Each pranayama technique includes a brief pause for retaining breath and reflecting internally. These exercises can be difficult for beginners, so it is important not to strain yourself. The act of inhaling and exhaling should be smooth and steady, even when exhaling after a retention of the breath. If you find yourself struggling with a certain practice, it may be best to take it a bit slower, or to try a simpler technique.
There are a variety of pranayama techniques that are used for different purposes. They can be practiced while doing physical yoga poses, or simply on their own. While each technique has its own benefits, they all are designed to reduce stress, improve physical and mental health, and improve overall well-being.
Known as alternate nostril breathing, Nadi Shodhana is a relaxed form of pranayama that has many benefits for the body, including:
- Stimulates blood flow. Nadi Shodhana increases the amount of oxygen that is absorbed by the body. This is believed to improve circulation and purify the blood from toxins.
- Reduces anxiety. This technique uses a calming and relaxing breathing exercise. It is effective in reducing stress and anxiety, and can be used to combat insomnia.
To practice Nadi Shodhana, follow these steps:
- Start by emptying the lungs completely.
- Use a finger to close the right nostril while inhaling through the left.
- Fill the lungs to their maximum capacity, and pause in slight meditation.
- Then, use a finger to close the left nostril, and exhale through the right.
- Pause before repeating the process on the other side.
It is recommended to complete up to ten cycles of Nadi Shodhana. However, make sure that the breathing is fluid and smooth. It takes time to get used to pausing, so don’t be hesitant to stop if you need to.
This pranayama is known as the “skull shining breath”. This technique can revitalize the body and increase energy. Some benefits of this practice include:
- Warms body tissues. Because of the quick breathing, Kapalabhati is believed to warm the body. In many forms of yoga, it is known as a kriya (cleansing technique) that increases internal energy. This technique makes an individual warmer due to its effect on the body’s internal energy.
- Releases toxins. Kapalabhati was designed to “shine the skull”; its breathing technique is believed to provide relief from sinus infections, clear nasal passages from mucus, and clear the toxins from your airway.
To practice Kapalabhati Pranayama, follow these steps:
- Assume a comfortable seated position and sit up straight.
- Take a deep breath to fill your lungs almost to maximum capacity.
- Exhale forcefully through your nose, as you contract your lower abdomen towards your spine.
- Repeat the inhale and exhale up to ten times in quick succession.
- Relax, and prepare for another round.
This method takes a lot of practice, as many are unable to contract the lower abdomen properly. To help focus concentration on that area, cup your hands and place them on your lower belly. This will make it easier to engage your abdomen in this pranayama. Note: Kapalabhati should not be practiced by pregnant women or by those with high blood pressure.
Ujjayi Pranayama is most frequently used during vinyasa yoga. The word Ujjayi is a Sanskrit word meaning “victorious” or “to conquer”. It is primarily used while doing asanas to provide extra strength to the mind and body. Benefits of ujjayi pranayama include:
- Calms the mind. Ujjayi Breath is often used in combination with asanas because of its relaxing effect. This technique requires focus and control of one’s breathing, which in turn focuses the mind. Ujjayi can also help individuals enter a meditative state.
- Strengthens the body. This pranayama helps individuals “conquer” and master their physical strength. The breathing exercise allows the body to be pushed further in yoga postures. It simultaneously creates a relaxing and energizing experience.
Ujjayi Breath should be performed with a straight spine. However, it is typically the primary breathing technique used throughout every asana in Vinyasa Yoga. It is important to maintain a steady and calm breath while practicing the asanas to derive the most benefit. To perform Ujjayi, fill the lungs completely and slightly contract the throat, and then exhale through the nose. Continue to inhale and exhale in this way at regular intervals. This exercise can be completed as many times as needed. However, it is important not to overly tighten the throat. If you find yourself becoming dizzy or nauseous, stop immediately and speak with your yoga instructor.
There are many other pranayama techniques that may be used to have calming and stress relieving effects on the body. Pranayama can also help with insomnia, warm or cool the body, and strengthen the body and mind. Pranayama is a powerful tool that must be practiced safely in order to have the desired effect. Whether you are practicing pranayama on its own to assist your physical yoga practice, keep the following guidelines in mind:
- Return to normal breathing if you experience dizziness, nausea, or any discomfort.
- Don’t excessively force or hold your breath. Pranayama involves fluid and smooth breathing, unless holding the breath is a prescribed part of the technique. You should be able to smile while performing pranayama. If you can’t, just do what you can. Many techniques require practice.
- Consult a healthcare provider before starting. If you are pregnant, have high blood pressure or heart conditions, vertigo, asthma, or any pre-existing health conditions, speak to your doctor before practicing pranayama.