We’ve all had someone tell us in moments of upset or panic to stop and take a deep breath. Breathing consciously or in a controlled manner is the heart of pranyama. Conscious breathing brings more oxygen into your blood, and in turn, to your brain. As a result, your nervous calms down and you feel less anxious and more energized.
If you’ve ever taken an aerobics class or worked out with a personal trainer, you’ve been reminded to breathe while you’re exercising. Given that our bodies breathe whether we’re paying attention or not, it may seem like a silly instruction, but at different levels of exertion, many us of hold our breath whether we realize it or not.
The word pranayama breaks down into prana, which translates to life force energy, particularly in the breath and ayama which means restraint or control. The practice of pranayama then, is the practice of controlled, restrained breathing.
At its most basic level, controlled breathing involves consciously prolonging your inhalation and holding it briefly before exhalation. Most people tend to be shallow breathers, utilizing only the top two-thirds of the lungs.
With this pranayama technique, sometimes called long, deep breathing, you seek to fill your lungs all the way to the base and on the exhalation, empty them to the top near your collarbone area. Your goal is to maintain a regular, steady flow of breath from the beginning of each inhalation to the end of each exhalation.
The spiritual theory behind it the practice is that you’re inhaling energy from its source in the universe, savoring it for a moment and then releasing it back to the world with a loving, compassionate intention.
How it Works
Yoga practitioners have been using pranayama for thousands of years to guide them through their yoga and meditation practices. Conscious breathing helps quiet the mind during meditation, and brings fresh oxygen into the body to support it during difficult or challenging yoga poses. Certain pranayama techniques are also thought to help body release toxins.
It’s pranayama’s ability to quiet the mind is that makes it useful during times of intense stress, emotional upset, anxiety or trauma. Anyone can benefit from practicing pranayama anywhere, at any time. You don’t need to wait for a crisis, believe in life force energy or take up yoga to experience its benefits.
Yoga and Pranayama
Even though you don’t need to be a yogi to practice conscious breathing, yoga and pranayama complement each other nicely and are often practiced together.
Different yoga poses create space in different parts of the body; the better your posture, for example, the easier it is to breathe fully into the whole of your lungs. Likewise, the more controlled your breathing, the more focus you’re able to bring to your yoga practice and the more oxygen for your body to rely on when the poses get challenging.
There’s more than one school of thought when it comes to the best way to incorporate pranayama into yoga practice. Some forms of yoga advocate the separation of pranayama from the yoga poses, while others believe conscious breathing is critical to reaping the maximum benefit from asana practice.
In other words, not all forms of yoga include pranayama as part of its practice. Ashtanga yoga is one form that does. When you practice Ashtanga yoga, your movements flow in one-to-one ratio with your breath where movements that cause your body to expand are done on the inhalation and those that contract the body follow on the exhalation. Kundalini yoga is another form of yoga that relies heavily on pranayama to awaken and move energy throughout the body and expel toxins.
In addition to basic long, deep breathing, the most common pranayama techniques include victorious or ujayyi breath, breath of fire and alternate nostril breathing.
Ujayyi or victorious breath is done only through the nose and involves a slight constriction at the back of the throat. Take a long inhale with your mouth closed and when you do, make the sound aaah; repeat on the exhale. When done properly, victorious breath is said to sound like the ocean and is often referred to as oceanic breath. Victorious breath is believed to generate heat in the body and rid the muscles of lactic acid build up.
Breath of fire is most often used in the practice of Kundalini yoga and is believed to relieve fatigue by restoring vitality and energy to the nervous system. Breath of fire is usually practiced for 30 seconds up to 3 minutes.
To perform breath of fire, inhale deeply through the nose and feel your abdomen extend outward. Exhale through your nose as your abdomen pulls back toward the spine. Inhale again and this time when you exhale, consciously draw your abdomen back to toward the spine several times, as if you were pumping a fireplace bellows. The force of your exhale should sound like a long, strong sniff.
Alternate nostril breathing is said to calm a busy mind, help ease insomnia and cool the body. Although it may feel awkward at first, once you get into a rhythm you’ll feel the effects of bringing more oxygen into your system almost immediately. It’s also believed that alternate nostril breathing helps connect the left and right halves of the brain.
To begin, place your right thumb over your right nostril and your right ring finger above your left nostril. Gently close your right nostril and inhale through the left nostril. Inhale to a count of 4. Then, close your left nostril at the same time you release the right and exhale through your right nostril to a count of 8. Then, inhale through your right nostril to a count of 4; release your left nostril and close your right and exhale through your left nostril to a count of 8.