Let’s talk about the meaning of pranayama. What is prana? What is ayama? In the ancient Hindu language of Sanskrit, prana means energy or life force (breathing), while ayama means control or regulation.
The History of Pranayama Breathing
Thus together, prana and ayama (pranayama) can be defined as breath control.
For thousands of years, people have been practicing pranayama breathing techniques as yoga breathing exercises. In particular, it is mentioned in the Atharva Veda, an Ancient Indian religious text from c. 1000-900 BCE.
Over the last three millennia, practitioners of these breathing techniques have been reaping the myriad of benefits that they provide.
There are numerous pranayamas to choose from. Today, they are often used in yoga classes, but they can be performed on their own as well.
How Does It Work?
The reason why pranayama breathing technique and deep breath yoga works is because they target the one key element of our bodies that is both automatic and controllable: breathing.
When we harness the power of our breath through yoga breathing, we link the body and mind. Doing this can radically change the way we think, feel, and act. You are harnessing your prana energy (life force energy), so this will inevitably take a lot of focus and concentration.
In short, calming the body calms the mind. And achieving this begins with deep breathing exercises.
The goal of pranayama, or prana breathing is to attain and maintain steady breathing patterns. Each inhale should be deep and slow. When you breathe this way, it activates the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve runs from your brain to your abdomen. It is in charge of activating the relaxation response and switching off our reflex for fight or flight, which often comes with stress.
Pranayama In Yoga
If you’ve practiced yoga before, you know that a large focus is on breathing. Talk to any yoga teacher or read any yoga book, and you’ll have more than a few breathing quotes to take home with you.
Many yoga instructors even make breathing the focus of their teaching. You may have heard of inhale yoga, for example.
Whether an instructor makes it a point to focus fully on breath or not, all yoga centers around breathing. Yoga simply wouldn't be the same without yogic breathing patterns like those found in pranayama techniques.
What Are The Benefits Of Pranayama?
Pranayama benefits run the gamut from better sleep and less muscle tension to a clearer and more focused mind. Here are some of the specific benefits you can expect from pranayama breathwork:
- Improved sleep (longer, higher quality sleep).
- Improved focus and concentration.
- Improved respiration and cardiovascular health.
- Better digestion and more regulated metabolism.
- Enhanced cognitive performance.
- Reduce anxiety and stress.
- Easier mood stabilization.
- Reduce high blood pressure
- Improved immune system
- Increase in vital energy
Is It Difficult To Learn?
No! Pranayama techniques are quite simple to learn.
While some types of pranayama breathing may take longer and be more advanced, it's always possible to start with a simple pranayama technique if you are a beginner. Make it part of your daily routine.
There are several different variants of this deep breathing technique. These include:
- Bhastrika pranayama
- Kapalabhati pranayama
- Ujjayi pranayama
- Bhramari pranayama
- Dirga pranayama
- Simhasana pranayama
- Alternate nostril breathing
If you’re just starting with pranayama breathing and/or pranayama yoga, the two latter are excellent deep breathing techniques for you:
Dirga (Three-Part Breath)
The goal of Dirga is to imagine inflating your belly like a balloon. You want your belly to expand outward as you inhale and retract back in toward the spine as you exhale.
To practice Dirga, first get into a comfortable position, either seated in a chair or on a yoga mat. Sit straight and tall. Begin practicing breathing with a few normal breaths. Observe your inhales and exhales.
On your next inhale, focus on breathing in slowly, allowing your belly to expand outward and inflate like a balloon. Taking a bit more air, fill and expand the rib cage. Finally, allow air to go up through your chest and collar bones.
Now, began a slow exhale. Release air from your chest and collar bones first. Follow this by slowly releasing the air from within your rib cage and belly. The belly should retract and move back inward toward your spine as you complete the exhale. Repeat three times.
Simhasana (Lion's Breath)
The power breathing of Simhasana (Lion’s Breath) can definitely help you release your inhibitions! There is a unique pose associated with Simhasana; however, we’ll focus here on breathing.
Get into a comfortable position with good posture on the floor or in a chair. Start by inhaling through the nose, and as you exhale, open your mouth wide and say the word “HA.”
Inhale again. On the next exhale, in addition to saying “HA,” stick out your tongue, pointing the tip of your tongue downward toward the chin.
Inhale again. Finally, as you breathe a heavy exhale again, in addition to saying “HA” and sticking out your tongue, gaze upward toward the ceiling. Do all three of these things on the exhale for three more breath cycles.
Pranayama Breathing: Frequently Asked Questions
What is the purpose of breathing exercises?
Pranayama means breath control. It is the practice of regulating your breathing and harnessing its power, especially during yoga. Of course, pranayama and yoga breathing, in general, can also be practiced on their own.
Pranayama breathing exercises work in the body by slowing down respiration.
When you practice pranayama, you are harnessing control of your breathing, deepening it, and slowing it down, instead of simply allowing your breathing to run on autopilot.
What is the difference between meditation and pranayama?
Both meditation and pranayama are practices that decrease stress, encourage calm, and improve concentration. However, the two practices differ slightly.
Meditation is a practice meant to train the mind in awareness and attention. One of the core aims of meditation is improved mental clarity and freedom from the perpetual influx of thoughts and emotions in the mind.
Pranayama, on the other hand, focuses on breathing. It is the practice of harnessing your breath to deliver calmness to the body and in turn, to the mind as well.
Both can also be practiced during and/or alongside yoga.
Can pranayama be dangerous?
Always speak with your doctor before beginning any new practice, especially if you have any chronic medical conditions. Pranayama breathing techniques should be safe for most people, but there are some exceptions.
First, avoid practicing pranayama directly after eating. Wait at least four hours. Additionally, be sure that you are not straining while performing pranayama exercises.
Finally, always breathe through your nose (unless otherwise directed), and go slowly at your own pace. Do not hold your breath. Instead, keep a steady flow of air going in and out of your air passageway
How does pranayama breathing alleviate stress?
When you sit comfortably, maybe listening to some rhythmic sound, and focusing on your breath retention, and staying in the present moment you will feel a sense of calm coming over you. This breathing practice will have a positive effect on your nervous system, in particular the parasympathetic nervous system. All you have to do is inhale slowly followed by exhale slowly. With each inhale and exhale, the calmness will spread throughout the body. Focusing on normal breathing using this yoga practice, you will be able to alleviate stress and anxiety. This is the primary objective of pranayama practice.