Pranayama is the science of controlling the act of breathing. It affects multiple body systems that act in an involuntary manner such as the autonomous nervous system, circulatory system and the endocrine system.
That’s why controlled breathing exercises performed in pranayama are a powerful tool to regulate the functioning of our brain, our heart and our hormones.
Patanjali (600 BCE), the codifier of yoga science stated that it is possible to control the prana (mind) by regulating the act of breathing.
The positive effects of regulated deep breathing was known to Ayurvedic medical practitioners and yogis more than 5000 years ago. Thus the techniques of pranayama formed an essential part of Ayurvedic and yogic healing practices.
Whether you are a beginner, who has just started with Pranayama or a pro, who has been practicing deep breathing exercises for long, you stand to gain a lot from this post.
What is Pranayama?
It is a set of deep breathing exercises that support physical and mental health. The word ‘Pranayama’ originates in Sanskrit language and it is composed of two root words. ‘Prana’ means breath or life force. ‘Ayama’ means control. Therefore, it is the ‘control of breath’ or the ‘control of life force.’
This is done by removing the pause between inhalation and exhalation or extending it by retention of breath. Regulated breathing in Pranayama regulates the motion of the lungs, heart and the vagus nerve.
Some people refer to it as Pranayama Yoga, because it can be classified as a type of Yoga. In fact, Pranayama is a major component of Yoga, and it can be practiced alongside yoga asanas and during meditation.
In any case, Pranayama makes you focus on your breath. And that is where the benefits lie as regulated deep breathing exercises can modulate the sensitivity of chemo receptors (ones that regulate the acidity levels of the body) and make the mind calm and quiet.
The Three Stages of Pranayama
The act of breathing involves inhalation, means taking in air through the nostrils and exhalation, means taking out air through the nostrils.
In some of the breathing exercises, an additional act is involved, which is holding the breath for a while. This makes for 3 stages of breathing as:
- Purak (slow deep inhalation)
- Kumbhak (retention of the breath)
- Rechak (near complete exhalation)
Health Benefits of Pranayama
Pranayama is much more than just the act of breathing (which happens autonomously, meaning we don’t control and it happens).
The act of controlling the breath introduces a series of actions that positively influence the functioning of different organs across the HPA – Hypothalamus Pituitary Axis.
The benefits of Pranayama are backed by science and multiple research studies. To name a few, here are some of the awesome effects that Pranayama has been proven to have:
1. Stress Reduction
Perhaps you have caught yourself taking a few deep breaths to calm yourself down or take a big sigh of relief after the big rush was over. In those instances, you have unknowingly tapped into the stress alleviating power of deep breathing.
A possible reason for that is the fact that you take in more oxygen when you practice Pranayama. Since, oxygen is the fuel
Regular practice of deep breathing reduces cortisol levels and also calms down the nervous system.
2. Better Sleep
The calming effects of deep breathing exercises help you sleep better. It also helps to reduce daytime sleepiness and fatigue. People who regularly practice pranayama also snore less.
3. Improves concentration and cognitive function
The fact that Pranayama helps you relax means that you can be in charge and function better.
Remember also that these breathing practices improve oxygen supply? The brain functions better when it gets a sufficient oxygen supply.
As you breathe in and then breathe out, you release air from the body. But alongside the air, you also release wastes and toxin buildup from the body.
With the wastes gone, breath can then flow more freely and there will be less obstruction along the body’s pathways. This is beneficial in preventing the accumulation of ama (waste) in the body also.
5. Lowers blood pressure
Another benefit of Pranayama is that it helps to lower blood pressure. High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is when blood pressure gets unhealthily high. This could be dangerous if it gets to some levels.
By reducing stress, Pranayama helps to keep the blood pressure low.
6. Improved respiratory function and sinuses
These breathing exercises work on your respiratory system. Just like your muscles get stronger when you lift weights, your respiratory system functions better when you practice Pranayama.
A study proved that practicing deep breathing for one hour a day for six weeks significantly improves lung function. Pulmonary function tests come back all improved after this period.
Thus, Pranayama strengthens the lungs in cases of asthma, allergic bronchitis, and recovery from tuberculosis and pneumonia.
That is not all. Deep breathing clears the nasal passage and sinuses.
7. Reduces cigarette (smoking) cravings
This is also backed by scientific research.
Practicing Pranayama reduces the craving for cigarettes. This makes it useful for people who are trying to quit smoking. The mindfulness practices of deep breathing exercises also help to deal with the accompanying withdrawal symptoms.
Deep breathing is beneficial on many levels. One benefit opens your eyes to another. However, the few here have been included just to whet your appetite.
8 Types of Pranayama
There are different types of breathing exercises conducted in Pranayama. Meaning you can regulate your breathing in different ways depending on how you inhale, for how long and where you hold the breath in your body, and how you take the breath out.
Let’s look at the 8 primary ways of conducting breathing exercises. You will also find out how you can start doing them quickly and how the specific benefits associated with each of them.
1. Dirga Pranayama (Three-Part Breath)
It’s called the three-part breath because you are breathing into three different parts of your chest and abdomen.
This Pranayama breathing technique is excellent for beginners. It gets you used to filling up your lungs.
How to perform
- Lie down comfortably on your back
- Breathe into the belly, watching it expand with the breath
- When it’s about full, draw in more breath to fill the rib cage
- Finally, take in some more air to fill the chest
- Begin to exhale slowly, starting with your upper chest
- Then release from the rib cage
- And lastly, release the air go from the belly
- Repeat this for 10-20 breaths
- It is good for beginners
- It helps you utilize your lung volume effectively
2. Kapalabhati Pranayama (skull-shining breath)
It is a warming breathing technique that involves involuntary inhalation with a forceful exhalation.
How to perform
- Rest your hands on your knees, bringing awareness to your belly
- Inhale deeply through both nostrils deeply
- Exhale forcefully, pressing gently on your belly with your hands.
- Inhalation should then happen naturally
- Focus on exhalation, inhalation should be passive
- Try for 70 cycles per minute. When you’re comfortable with that, go for a hundred.
- It increases digestive fire
- It raises spiritual energy
3. Nadi shodhana or Anuloma Viloma Pranayama (alternate nostril breathing)
It is most fundamental techniques of pranayama, one that is also balancing for all the dosha and people. This exercise is also known as anuloma viloma as viloma means carried out in reverse order. This name comes from the fact that the nostril used for inhalation and exhalation is reversed with every breath.
How to perform
- First, inhale with both nostrils and exhale as you normally would.
- Next, block your right nostril with your thumb and index finger(preferably of your right hand), and inhale through the left.
- Release the right, block the left nostril, and then exhale through the right nostril.
- Next, inhale through the right nostril.
- Then release the left, block the right, and inhale through the left nostril.
This is just one round, and you can perform five rounds.
- It improves coordination between the brain hemispheres.
- It increases wave coherence.
- Heightens awareness of the mind.
- Improves immunity.
- Reduces high blood pressure.
4. Sheetali Pranayama (the cooling breath)
Sheetal in sanskrit language means cool. Sheetali Pranayama essentially cools down your boy systems and helps to relieve excess heat from the body.
How to perform
- Roll the tongue along its length
- Breathe in through the rolled tongue
- Then exhale through the nostrils or using the Ujjayi technique
- Perform for a minimum of ten breaths and a maximum of then minutes.
- It reduces pitta
- It tones down the heat from the head, neck, and upper digestive tract.
- Reduces hypertension – high blood pressure
5. Ujjayi Pranayama (Ocean breath)
This breathing exercise seems to imitate the sound of the ocean.
How to perform
- Begin in a comfortable position
- Breathe through your mouth
- Constrict the back of your throat (imagine you are trying to fog up a mirror)
- Then close your mouth
- Continue to breathe through the nose, keeping the throat constricted
- Repeat the cycle five to ten times.
- It gently moves prana
- It activates the nadi system
6. Brahamari Pranayama (Humming Bee Breath)
It is called the humming bee breath because while performing, you make sounds like that of a bee.
How to perform
- Find a comfortable position
- Close your ears and eyes with your fingers and thumbs
- Take in a deep breath
- Then exhale slowly with your mouth closed
- Make an ‘M’ sound as you exhale(the ‘om’ sound)
- Continue for 5-10 minutes
- Balances Vata
- Increases mental and emotional awareness
7. Sheetkari Pranayama
Like Sheetali pranayama, sheetkari is also a cooling exercise with slight modification in the breathing technique.
How to perform
- Sit in the Vajra Asana.
- Exhale through both nostrils.
- Relax the lower jaw, and slightly open the mouth, so that the tongue may be rolled into a trough-like “V”. This is called the Jihva Mudra, or Tongue Gesture.
- Fold the tongue backwards and press the tip of the tongue to the hard palate, leaving narrow openings on either side of the tongue.
- Inhale through these side-openings with a sipping sound of “sit-sit-sit.”
- When the lungs are completely filled, then stop inhaling.
- Now, push the air out rapidly through both nostrils in a modified Bhastrika or Bellows Breath.
- Repeat at least nine times.
- It helps to calm down Pitta Dosha and reduces heat in body.
- Cools down the blood stream and helps to control the CNS stress response.
- Reduces hypertension, inflammation and acidity levels in the body.
8. Bhastrika (Bellows breathing)
Don’t do this unsupervised.
How to perform
- Close the right nostril.
- Take twenty fast bellows-like breaths through the left nostril.
- Close the left nostril.
- Take twenty fast bellows-like breaths through the right nostril.
- Now take twenty similar breaths but with both nostrils this time.
- Drives prana into the body
- It clears out physical, mental, and emotional blocks
What is the Best Pranayama for each dosha?
The tridosha is affected by the act of deep breathing techniques as performed in Pranayama. As we saw earlier, some breathing exercises can help your body to cool down, some are more balancing and some are more effective in flushing the wastes out.
Thus, it makes them more suitable for some doshas than others. That’s why Pranayama techniques can be classified as dosha specific according to their effect on the body and mind.
If you’re familiar with the tridosha, you know that Vata is the air dosha. Now, since Pranayama involves taking in air, all the techniques affect Vata in one way or the other.
Vata governs all movements within the body. This includes the movement of thoughts through the mind, nerve impulses through the nervous system, blood through the circulatory system, and all physical outward movements of the body.
When Vata is disturbed, you feel sluggish, your skin is dry and flaky, etc.
When the Vata dosha is out of order, the best Pranayama technique for the Vata dosha is the Nadi shodhana.
Pitta is the fire dosha. It controls all forms of transformation in the body. This includes digestion of food, hormonal changes, etc.
When this dosha is aggravated, the Pitta fire burns too hot. A stressful or intense day often fans the flames of pitta, resulting in too much fiery sharpness. That can leave you feeling short-tempered, impatient, agitated, or troubled by acid indigestion.
The best Pranayama to calm the Pitta dosha is the Sheetali (cooling breath).
Kapha deals with structures. It is the earth dosha.
A Kapha imbalannce can leave you feeling heavy, bloated, overweight, and even oily.
To calm the Kapha dosha, the best Pranayama technique is Bhasatrika and Kapalbhati.
Start Pranayama today!
Day one or one day, it’s up to you. You stand to gain a lot. And these techniques cost you nothing but a few minutes and some dedication on your part.
And what do you get in return? All-round better health!
If any technique is not clear to you, do seek help from a qualified professional to help you through. Do not perform in isolation the techniques that require supervision.
Enjoy good health as you discover inner peace and calmness with Pranayama.
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Wishing you vibrant health!