Let’s talk pranayama meaning. What is prana? What is ayama? In the ancient Hindu language of Sanskrit, prana means “energy” or “life force” (“breathing”). Ayama means “control” or “regulation.
When we learn about the force of breath we can tune into the physical and emotional obstacles or debris that gets stored in out bodies.
― Nicole, Anahana Wellness Instructor
History of Pranayama Breathing?
Let’s talk pranayama meaning. What is prana? What is ayama? In the ancient Hindu language of Sanskrit, prana means “energy” or “life force” (“breathing”). Ayama means “control” or “regulation.”
Thus, together, prana and ayama (pranayama) can be defined as “breath control.”
For thousands of years, people have been practicing pranayama techniques as yoga breathing exercises. In particular, the practice is mentioned in the Atharva Veda, an Ancient Indian religious text from c. 1000-900 BCE.
For these past three millennia, practitioners of the pranayama techniques have been benefiting from the myriad of benefits 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 pranayama techniques and deep breath yoga work is that 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 calming the body begins with deep breathing.
The goal of pranayama or prana breathing is to attain and maintain a steady breath pattern. In pranic breathing, each inhale should be deep and slow. When you breathe deeply and slowly, 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 breath 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, however, 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:
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.
Here are two wonderful options if you’re just starting out with pranayama breathing and/or pranayama yoga:
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.
Frequently Asked Questions about Pranayama Breathing
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 exercises and yoga breathing in general can also be practiced on their own too.
Pranayama (“breath control”) 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 Pranayam?
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 perpetual influx of thoughts and emotions in the mind.
Pranayama, on the other hand, focuses on breathing. Pranayama literally means “breath control.” 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 exercises 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
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Written by Clint Johnson
Clint teaches Yoga, Pilates, breath, and mediation to students and teachers all over the world. Prior to joining the wellness world, CJ as his friends call him, started his career as a MBS derivative trader and portfolio manager on Wall St. Clint is the founder of Anahana, and holds an MBA from INSEAD.