Pranayama is the fourth of the eight limbs of yoga (which is a road map or a guide to a meaningful and purposeful life), made of two words Prana and Yama. Prana meaning life force or energy and Yama meaning dimension (or Ayama for control), together Pranayama is about working in the dimensions of the life force. To understand what is Pranayama in yoga we may simply think of it as a breathing exercise with conscious inhaling, retention, and expiration. The purpose of Pranayama is to clear our mind emotionally and our body physically, eliminating any stress we might have in order to allow the Prana (the energy or life force) to flow freely.
Pranayama as a Meditation Technique
Every time I choose to concentrate on my breath, even if only to take 5-6 deep conscious breaths, I am sending a signal to my brain saying “you can calm down now”. Paying attention to your breath is almost always the way to begin different forms of meditation, concentrating on your body relaxes the mind of all stressful daily events and helps you connect with your spirit and the present moment. Focusing on the breath can help our body relax and eliminate any tension while paying attention to the present, not thinking of the past events or future events to come, simply be at peace in the present moment.
When I think about a simple way to explain what is Pranayama in yoga, I try to clarify that all it really means is finding the ability to consciously control your breath. We cannot control whether we breath or not, but we can control the way we breath and the core of Pranayama is being aware of your breath and concentrating on the present moment.
Different Pranayama Exercises
You can practice Pranayama on your own but I highly recommend learning from a yoga instructor so you will understand the right position and techniques for you to get the most out of your breathing exercise.
Here are some Pranayama exercises:
- Nadi Sodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing) – Blocking one nostril while exhaling and inhaling through the open one, then switching sides.
- Kapalabhati Pranayama (Skull Shining Breath) – Important to learn from a teacher that is experienced in order to learn the correct way to practice this breathing exercise.
- Kumbhaka (Breath Retention) – Concentrating on the inhalation and exhalation, on the gap between them.
There are two main types of kumbhaka: antar kumbhaka, which is the cessation of breath when the inhalation is complete and the lungs are filled up; and bahya kumbhaka, which is the cessation of breath when the exhalation is complete.
- Simhasana (Lion Pose) – Opening the mouth widely and stretching your tongue while exhaling and making an “ah” sound, Simhasana is known for relieving tension in the face and the chest.
Heath Benefits of Pranayama
A research done in 2012 about Breathing exercises found a significant improvement in six-minute walk distance after only three months of yoga, which involved Pranayama.
The breathing techniques studied included pursed lip breathing, diaphragmatic breathing, Pranayama yoga breathing, changing the breathing pattern using computerized feedback, or combinations of these techniques. Yoga breathing, pursed lip breathing and diaphragmatic breathing improved the distance walked in six minutes by an average of 35 to 50 meters in four studies. Effects of breathing exercises on shortness of breath and well being were variable.
The overall study showed the benefits of breathing exercises as well as Pranayama exercises, though it is important to point out that in the research they mentioned that breathing exercises did not appear to have any additional benefit when added to whole body exercise training.
I believe that whole body training is very important and we should not see Pranayama exercises as a sole practice. We should use Pranayama as a way to relax, learn to control our mind through our breath and help us live a life of peace and joy.
I would love to hear your thought about Pranayama and breath exercises, let me know in the comments below.