Everything You Need To Know About Pranayama (Yoga Breathing)
For breath is life, and if you breathe well you will live long on Earth.– Sanskrit Proverb
Breathing is as essential to your mental, emotional, and physical health and wellbeing as proper nutrition or quality sleep, and yet, it doesn’t get enough credit.
But just simply breathing is not enough.
We’ve got to know how to breathe well.
We’ve got to re-train ourselves to breathe better.Did you know that a regular practice of certain #breathingtechniques can help strengthen the body’s #selfdefense and self-repairing mechanisms? Click To Tweet
Breathing better can help decrease anxiety while increasing stress resilience. (1)
A high level of stress resilience means you’re more likely to bounce back and recover quicker from stressful and draining situations.
This notion of using breath control for improved health and wellbeing is not a new concept.
Eastern traditions like Buddhist Mindfulness and Indian Yoga have given breathwork a great level of importance for thousands of years.
In fact, breathwork (pranayama) is considered one of the 8 main limbs or layers of the Yogic Path.
What is pranayama?
The Sanskrit word ‘pranayama‘ literally translates to:
The regulation of prana (life force/vital energy).
According to ancient Yogic texts, the better you breathe the more vital energy moves through you.
When prana flows freely through your body’s different subtle energy channels (nadis) and energy centers (chakras) you inevitably feel healthier, stronger, more grounded, and more inspired.
You feel more full of prana (energy) and therefore more full of life.
Pranayama: The 4th Limb of Yoga
“…Calm is retained by the controlled exhalation or retention of the breath.”
– Patanjali, The Yoga Sutras, Book One, Sutra 1.34
Thousands of years ago, a sage called Patanjali created a system for mental, physical, and emotional mastery to help us face our internal battles and external challenges.
This system (commonly known as “The 8 Limbs of Yoga”) is comprised of 8 Layers:
1 – Yamas (self-regulating behaviors)
2 – Niyamas (personal training)
3 – Asana (physical postures)
4 – Pranayama (regulation of life force and vital energy through breathing exercises)
5 – Pratyahara (turning the senses away from the external world and towards the internal world)
6 – Dharana (one-pointed focus and sustained concentration)
7 – Dhyana (meditation)
8 – Samadhi (transcendence from limitations, mind-body integration)
The word ‘yoga’ comes from the root ‘yuj’ which literally means ‘to yoke’ (to attach).
Yoga means union.
Pranayama helps you create a state of union within yourself first.
If you’ve ever attended a really good vinyasa or hatha yoga class you’ve probably already experienced the power of your own breath in action.
There’s this sweet spot moment that occurs when the yoga teacher’s instruction fades away and you experience the union of your body, your breath, and your attention.
Such a union leads to what we know as “the yoga high.”
What are the different stages of pranayama?
According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the practice of pranayama involves three phases: (2)
Retention (stambhavrtti, also known as kumbhaka)
These three phases can be varied according to:
Place: where our attention and awareness is placed while breathing
Time: how long the breath is retained
Count: the number of counts with which we inhale, exhale, and hold.
10 Science-Backed Health Benefits of Pranayama
The quality of one’s life depends upon the quality of one’s mind.
Stress, overstimulation, excess expectations, and mental turmoil drain our energy and our capacity to enjoy life…
In our clinical practices, we find that starting with breath practices gives immediate benefits that most people can experience.
– Dr. Richard Brown & Dr. Patricia Gerbarg, ‘Yoga Breathing, Meditation, & Longevity’
Though the practice of pranayama is ancient, there is now growing evidence that supports its effectiveness as a tool for managing mental, emotional, and physical health.
Because of this, pranayama (and meditation, mindfulness practices, and physical yoga postures) are being increasingly used in protocols for sectors such as veterans, government workers, and natural disaster victims.
Research by Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research & Education found that PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) decreased in veterans who were trained in yogic breathing. (3)
Psychiatrist Dr. Richard Brown traveled to Sudan to teach survivors of war and slavery yogic breathing and mind-body techniques. Within fifteen minutes, the survivors began shifting their demeanors and moods. They even began to smile and laugh again. (4)
Yogic breathing has also proven effective in helping reduce PTSD, panic attacks, anxiety, insomnia, and depression following major natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina. (5) Pairing breathwork with natural calming agents can also help.
Here are 9 more proven mental, emotional, and physical health benefits of yogic breathing:
1- Helps regulate emotions and increase empathetic response (6)
2- Increased spatial memory (7)
3- Improved problem-solving capacity (8)
4- Beneficial effect on cardiac (heart) and pulmonary (lung) function (9)
5- Relieves insomnia and improves sleep quality (10)
6- Effective in the treatment of IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) (11)
7- Beneficial effects for asthma and COPD (chronic destructive pulmonary disease) (12)
8- Lower cholesterol and triglycerides (13)
9 – Regulated/ balanced blood sugar levels (14)
3 Tips to Make the Most of Your Pranayama Practice:
#1: Commit to at least 5 minutes daily.If you want to take your #yogapractice further, take some time every day to #breatheintentionally Click To Tweet
The best way to create habits that stick is to start off small and make sure you can commit to something realistically doable.
The point of this practice is to make it a part of your daily life.
Try 2.5 minutes first thing in the morning as soon as you wake up. (And especially before grabbing your phone!)
These first 2.5 minutes will help you set the tone for the rest of your day so you can better face whatever challenges and demands pop up.
Another 2.5 minutes in the evening will help you wind down before bed.
Evening pranayama can help calm your body and mind and improve the quality of your sleep. (15)
You can also use essential oils to enhance your pranayama practice.
Seriously, these 5 daily minutes can be the best gift you give to yourself, and it won’t cost you an extra cent. 😉
#2: Use your breath as an in-the-moment stress-management tool.
Remember, your breath is always with you, especially during stressful or anxious moments.
You can practice pranayama whenever you feel worried, agitated, overwhelmed, frustrated, or just plain exhausted.
These tools are your best ally when you feel like you’re going to lose your sh*t.
You can practice them anytime and anywhere… sitting, walking, or lying down.
With your eyes open or closed.
However feels right, as long as you practice… every day.
#3: Use your belly to breathe.
Optimal breathing is belly breathing.
Be mindful to engage your abdomen when practicing these exercises.
This means your lower belly should be expanding outwardly when you inhale, and it should be contracting back into your spine when you exhale. Your chest, neck, and shoulders shouldn’t be moving.
If you’re new to breathing exercises you can also use breathing tools to help build a strong foundation.
3 Powerful Pranayama Techniques To Get You Started
#1: Sama Vritti Pranayama (Equal Breath)
As the name suggests Sama Vritti involves breathing in equal parts or for the same number of counts during each step of the exercise.
When Sama Vritti involves breath retention it is also known as “Box Breathing.”
This exercise is so effective in soothing the nervous system and calming anxiety during high-stress situations that it is widely used by Navy SEALS, first responders, soldiers, police officers, firefighters, and athletes.
In those circles, it’s known as “combat breathing” or “tactical breathing.”
*Remember to breathe through your nose and engage your lower belly, this will ensure you get some quality deep breaths in.
Step 1 – Inhale for 4 counts
Step 2 – Hold for 4 counts
Step 3 – Exhale for 4 counts
Step 4 – Hold for 4 counts
Step 5 – Repeat Steps 1-4 for a minimum of 10 cycles (just over 2.5 minutes)
Follow the prompts below for a guided Sama Vritti pranayama session:
#2: Ujjayi Pranayama (Warrior Breath)
This pranayama is also called “Victorious Breath,” “Ocean’s Breath,” and “Hissing Breath.”
Some call it the “Darth Vader Breath.”
During Ujjayi you gently constrict the back of your throat, which results in the breath sounding like ocean waves or a subtle hiss.
When you couple Ujjayi with belly breathing, you increase your rest/ digest/ relaxation/ regeneration response because you stimulate your Vagus nerve, a key nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system that passes from the base of your brain, down your face and throat, down to your gut. (16)
Sustaining focus on the sound of your breath while practicing Ujjayi will make it easier to concentrate and silence the mind’s chatter.
*Remember to breathe through your nose, engage your lower belly, and tighten the back of your throat as you breathe to produce the ocean sound.
Step 1 – Inhale for 5 counts
Step 2 – Exhale for 5 counts
Step 3 – Repeat Steps 1-2 for at least 15 cycles (2.5 minutes)
Follow the prompts below for a guided Ujjayi pranayama session:
#3: Nadi Shodhana Pranayama (Alternate nostril breathing)
This technique works so well that even Hillary Clinton used it to help her navigate the elections. (17)
#NadiShodhana literally means ‘subtle energy clearing breathing technique.' In Sanskrit, #nadi means 'channel' and #shodhana means ‘purification.’ Click To TweetTherefore, this technique cleanses and purifies the nadis – the channels through which vital energy (prana) flows.
It involves alternating exhales and inhales between the right nostril and the left nostril.
We breathe out and in through one nostril, while the other nostril is closed and vice versa, repeating the sequence.
This switching between nostrils is thought to impact the nasal cycle, which is linked to activity in the brain.
Breathing alternatively through each nostril has been shown to help restore balance to your nervous system, which increases also stress resilience. (18)
Nadi Shodhana also activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which increases the calming/ relaxation/ regenerative response in the body. (19)
Here’s a guided step-by-step tutorial:
(2) Satchidananda, Swami. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: Commentary on the Raja Yoga Sutras by Sri Swami Satchidananda. Integral Yoga Publications.