Pranayama is a Sanskrit word which translates into “extension of the prana or breath”. It is a practice in yoga that involves the regulation of your breathing through specific techniques and exercise. “Prana” means life-force and it is the life-force or vital energy that pervades the body.
Deep breathing and its varied techniques have a long list of benefits. Diaphragmatic breathing is recommended for various diseases. Both are part and parcel of Pranayama. The most obvious benefit is the deep relaxation of the mind and release of stress from the body. You can feel this almost immediately. There are however, a number of additional advantages.
The mental and emotional connection to breathing patterns cannot be overstated. Everyone knows that a deep breath calms the mind. The body learns from the mind. Muscle ranges are set and learned. Breathing patterns are also learned. Your body knows that when you breath fast, you want to move. Hence, it activates the sympathetic nervous system and readies for action. When you slow down your breath, you activate the parasympathetic nervous system which readies the body to relax. Our normal everyday lives require us to mainly use the sympathetic nervous system. Pranayama activates the parasympathetic system which triggers the relax response. This can correct autonomic nervous system imbalances.
Another side note to this is that , you consciously tell your brain to relax with a bodily function. Your body learns how to relax on command from your mind. This overflows into your everyday life. Regular practice of Pranayama will make you a more relaxed and calmer individual who is able to think clearly.
The various different forms of Pranayama speed up and slow down your heart rate in healthy intervals. This helps in maintaining the cardiovascular system, and helps the transfer of oxygenated blood to all parts of your body.
Yoga in general, and Pranayama in particular are great for the lymphatic system. A lot of the important organs of that system, from the tonsils onto the spleen, benefit from Pranayama. Diaphragmatic breathing is great for the movement of lymphatic fluid, which doesn’t have a pump like the heart.
Pranayama teaches us to use the full range of our lungs and diaphragm for proper breathing. It also stretches all the muscles adjoining the rib cage in order to shift it to make room for enlarged lungs. This helps in aligning all the muscles for proper posture. It also teaches us to empty lungs completely resulting in efficient toxin removal.
Massages your inner organs with rhythmic breathing patterns.
Though most forms of yoga are safe to practice across the board, it is advised that people who want to practice different Pranayamas should at least have some prior experience doing yoga. Since there may be adverse effects of hyperventilation or over-breathing resulting in oxygen loss, it is best if Pranayama is practiced under the supervision of a guru.
Certain breathing exercises are not advised for the following people;
- Those who suffer from hypertension or low blood pressure.
- Those recovering from a recent heart attack
- Those with chronic heart conditions.
- Pregnant women.
- Women who are menstruating.
- Those with bronchitis or severe breathing issues.
- It is best to be checked out by a professional practitioner before you begin your Pranayama journey.
How do you practice Pranayama?
The best time to practice Pranayama is early in the morning, especially on an empty stomach. It is ideal to perform it outdoors so that you have plenty of fresh air.
There are three stages to practicing Pranayama:
Kumbhak (restraining your breath)
There are a number of different types of Pranayama. However that number varies from person to person. Here are few most popular types of Pranayamas:
1. Nadi Sodhana: You begin in a seated cross legged position, your spine stretched and back straight. With your thumb, pressed down on your right nostril, use your left nostril to breathe in deeply. Hold your breath for a beat and then switch your thumb so that you are now pressing down on your left nostril, and then exhale from your right nostril. Repeat this process, alternating between your nostrils by breathing in through one and exhaling through the other. You can repeat this 10-15 times.
2. Shitali Pranayama: This particular Pranayama is effective for cooling down the body. You begin in the same seated position and prepare your body for the Pranayama by taking five to six deep breaths. Then make an ‘o’ shape with your mouth and begin to inhale deeply. Always exhale through your nose. This can be repeated 5-10 times.
3. Ujjayi Pranayama: This Pranayama is about mimicking the sounds of the ocean waves. It may sound a bit awkward to perform but it will help relaxation immensely.
You being in a seated, cross-legged position and begin to breathe through your mouth. While you inhale and exhale, try and constrict your throat in a way that resembles someone choking you. The result will be a sound that is similar to ocean waves or a gentle rush of air. If done correctly, you will feel the air on the roof of your mouth. In the second phase of the Pranayama, you close your mouth and breathe through your nose. However, you must continue to use the same constriction on your throat. You can repeat this 10-15 times in total.
4. Kapalabhati Pranayama: This Pranayama begins in a seated position, with you breathing normally 2-3 times. After this, you must inhale deeply and exhale with force, sucking your belly in as you expel all the air. When you inhale again, your belly should go back to the same position. You should repeat this 20-30 times.
5. Bhramri Pranayama: In this Pranayama, your eyes and ears will be closed. You close your ears with your thumb and close your eyes with the help of your fingers. Take a deep breath and exhale with a chant of OM. Repeat 10-15 times.
6. Bhastrika Pranayama: This is beneficial for the winter months when you need to retain warmth in the body. You begin in a seated, cross-legged position and begin inhaling and exhaling at a very fast rate continuously. It may be difficult to keep your breathing going continuously but try your best to stay consistent. After a few rounds, hold your breath in the end and exhale slowly to finish.
7. Viloma Pranayama: This Pranayama can be divided into two parts;
Start by breathing normally. Once you are relaxed, you inhale for 2-3 seconds and pause. Hold your breath for two seconds and then begin inhaling again. Pause inhaling for 2 seconds and then slowly begin again. Continue to inhale in intervals until your lungs are full of air. Exhale slowly and gently until you have expelled all the air.
This is the exact opposite of what you do with paused inhaling. You inhale deeply and in one go but then remember to pause periodically while you’re exhaling.
8. Anuloma Pranayama: This is similar to Viloma Pranayama since it also encourages alternate nostril breathing. Inhaling and exhaling is done with one nostril but the other nostril is partially open as opposed to completely blocked.
Regular practice of Pranayama also increases focus and concentration and helps with a number of medical ailments such as anxiety, depression, hypertension, headaches, and gastric problems.