Maybe the first time you heard the word Pranayama breathing was in a yoga or a meditation class. Perhaps someone told you that Pranayama breathing could help you with stress and anxiety. So, What is Pranayama breathing?
Pranayama breathing is a set of techniques that aim to gain control of the breath at will. Pranayama breathing involves the cycle of inhalation, exhalation and breath retention. Through the practice of Pranayama, you will have a calmer mind, a more robust nervous system, and overall better health.
Respiration keeps us alive. It fuels the burning of oxygen and glucose to provide the energy for muscular contraction, glandular secretion and mental processes.
Most people breath incorrectly only using a small portion of their lung capacity, known as shallow breathing. Pranayama breathing techniques correct lousy breathing habits and help focus the awareness on the breathing process.
At an energetic level, Pranayama will enhance your awareness and raise your vibration with the Universe.
What is pranayama breathing?
The word Pranayama comes from the Sanskrit word ‘Prana and Yama’. Prana means life force and Yama control.
Another meaning of Pranayama comes from Prana or life force and Ayama, which means expansion and extension. So, you can understand Pranayama breathing as the control of the life force or the expansion of the life force through the breath.
The practice of Pranayama breathing brings awareness to your body and mind. If you learn to control your breathing with Pranayama, you will be able to unblock stagnant energy in your body.
What are Pranayama breathing techniques?
Pranayama breathing techniques consist of cycles of inhalation, exhalation, internal breath retention and external breath retention.
To understand how Pranayama breathing works, it may be useful to know what is Prana. You can think of Prana as the sum of all energy manifested in the Universe, either life or inert.
Prana is the movement, the vibration in everything that exists. For example, energy like heat, electricity, magnetism are all manifestations of Prana. But also, your mental energy is Prana.
By controlling your breath, you can to influence the flow of Prana through your body. There are two main ways you can get Prana into your body, through food and breathing. Every time you breath Prana energy flows into your body through 72000 channels of energy called Nadis.
In this sense, Prana can be activated and regulated to go beyond your conventional boundaries or limitations and attain a higher state of vibratory energy and awareness.
Difference between pranayama and breathing exercise
The Pranayama breathing techniques consists of breathing using one nostril at a time, or both nostrils. The Pranayama breathing techniques vary on the length of time it takes for the inhalation, exhalation or retention of breath.
During the Pranayama breathing, you should focus your mind on your breath, feel your inhale and exhale. It will help if you become aware of the experience you are having in your body and mind.
You should direct the air inhaled to all parts of your body, particularly to the ones that feel tight and stressed, and with each exhaling, you release the tightness.
The difference between Pranayama breathing and breathing exercises is their aim and the way they are used. Pranayama is an ancient set of techniques used to control the breath at will to bring energy to the body.
Breathing exercises help people with some breathing problem to expand their lung capacity. Breathing exercises help people with asthma, chronic lung disease, to deal with shortness of breath.
Pranayama breathing aims to move the energy from each breath through your body to energise it. Pranayama is not suitable for people with ailments without the proper guidance of an experienced teacher. Breathing exercises help people with diseases by providing better oxygenation in their lungs.
Pranayama breathing in yoga
Pranayama forms part of Raja yoga. It is one of the eight fundamental stages or limbs of yoga: Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi. The first five stages intend to remove all external distractions and direct the mind inwards gradually.
The purpose of Pranayama in yoga is to clean the 72000 energy channels in your body. Once these channels clear, the energy can flow through the two main energy channels that run in the spine, known as Ida and Pingala.
If the energy flows freely through Ida and Pingala, the Sushumna Nadi awakes, and your mind can become one-pointed without any effort.
Controlling Prana in yoga means using pranayama techniques during meditation and asana practice. The control of Prana can bring control over your circumstances, your character and you will consciously harmonise your individual life with the universal consciousness.
If you reach this stage, you enter a state of bliss, allowing the Universal consciousness to become one with you.
The conscious control of your breath at will is a regenerating force within you. For example, you can utilise this energy for self-development, or even for healing incurable diseases in yourself and others.
Pranayama breathing types
You may have heard different names for Pranayama breathing types. These are likely to be variations from the traditional Pranayama. There are about 10 to 12 Pranayama types in yoga.
You can use some of these traditional pranayamas alongside Mudras, Bandha, visualisation, or in the practice of Hatha yoga asana. When this is the case, they may receive a different name.
These traditional Pranayama types consider the four fundamentals aspects of the breathing techniques:
Internal breath retention (Antar kumbhaka)
External breath retention (Bahir kumbhaka)
There is a fifth aspect that happens once you reach an advance practice. It’s known as Spontaneous breath retention or Kevala humbhaka. This fifth aspect is an advance stage in meditation where the fluctuation of prana ceases, and you attain a higher vision of reality.
Here are 10 traditional Pranayama breathing techniques:
- Kapalabhati pranayama is a breathing technique that includes both nostrils. Kapalabhati consists in inhaling fully on to your belly to then exhaling sharply by drawing your stomach in and with force. Kapalabathi breathing clears and cleanses the body. It generates a lot of energy and heat in the body.
- Bhastrika pranayama consists of deep abdominal inhalations and exhalations. This type of Pranayama can be performed at a regular, medium or high speed.
- Nadi Shodhana is an alternate nostril breathing. Nadi Shodhana means cleaning of the energy channels. “Nadi” means an energy channel and “Shodhana” which means cleaning or purification. Nadi Shodhana is a powerful breathing technique to quiet the mind and emotions before meditation. It can help with insomnia and sleeping problems.
- Bhramari is a type of pranayama that consists of the humming sound of a bee. Inhale deeply into the abdomen, and during the exhalation, making the sound ‘hmm’ from the back of the throat.
- Ujjayi pranayama is a throat breath done with both nostrils. During the inhale and exhale, contract your throat and produce a hissing sound. Use this pranayama to deal with stress and insomnia.
- Sheetali pranayama is a tongue breathing. You have to roll your tongue and breath through it. If you cannot roll the tongue, you can flatten it and inhale through the small orifice made between your tongue and your upper lip. Sheetali is a cooling breath, it calms and releases heat from the body, having a soothing effect.
- Sheetakari Sitkari means sipping sound. It consists of rolling the tongue up touching the upper palate while keeping the teeth together and the lips apart. You will let air sipping through your teeth. This pranayama has a cooling effect of soothing your mind and body.
- Moorcha pranayama consists of keeping your chin slightly in a locked position while holding the breath. You hold the breath almost to fainting.
- Plavini pranayama consists of breathing through the mouth and holding the breath in. It’s best practice lying on your back in Savasana pose. You can imagine as if you were drinking air as if it was water. Plavini is advanced pranayama. You can benefit by detoxifying your body and staying without the need for food and drink for a few days.
- Surya Bhedi pranayama consists of inhaling through the right nostril and exhaling through the left nostril. Surya Bhedi brings Sun energy to the body, improving metabolism.
How to do pranayama breathing
- Practice in a calm, clean, pleasant and well-ventilated room. Avoid drafty rooms or with direct sunlight.
- Before practising, take a shower at least wash your hands, feet and face so that you are not lazy or sleepy.
- Pranayama practice is best before sunrise and after sunset. Before dawn, your body and mind are fresh, and before sunset, your mind is ready to rest. Do only calm Pranayamas before sleep. Practice at the same time every day. It is best if you have slow and steady progress.
- No specific clothing is required, but loose and comfortable clothes made from natural fabrics will allow you to relax into the practice better. If you get cold, cover with a blanket or shawl.
- Practice with an empty stomach in the morning and at least 3 to 4 hours after meals before you start Pranayama.
- Sit in a comfortable position. Keep relaxed with your spine is straight. Siddha yogi asana or padmasana is the best posture for Pranayama. If you struggle to sit in these positions, you can sit against the wall with the legs outstretched or in a chair with the back straight.
- Always practice Pranayama through the nose, not the mouth unless specifically instructed so. Both nostrils must be free and flowing freely. If you experience mucous blockages, you can practice Neti to remove them.
- You should perform Pranayama after Shatkarmas, asanas and before meditation practice. Make sure you perform a Nadi shodhana pranayama in each pranayama session as it has to balance and purifying effects.
- Llie down in savasana for a few minutes after you finish Pranayama.
Side effects of Pranayama breathing
Pranayama is a process of purification and detoxification. It can have side effects such as itching, tingling, heat or cold, feelings of lightness or heaviness. These are usually temporary if they persist you may need to consult with your teacher for further advice.
Your energy levels are also going to fluctuate, and your interests may change. If these changes seem to be too much or cause difficulty in your lifestyle, stop your practice until you can get competent guidance from your guru or teacher.
While practising Pranayama is possible to experience constipation and a potential reduction of urine if this is the case lower your intake of salt and spices and drink more water. On the other hand, if you experience loose motions, stop the Pranayama for a few days and eat rice and yoghurt.
If you are implementing Pranayama seriously in your life, consider changing your diet to a yogi diet. A yogi diet is based on vegetables, grains, pulses and fresh fruit with some milk products if necessary.
You should consult your teacher or guru once you go into more advance practice so to advise you on a more specific diet.
Always remember not to strain yourself or cause yourself discomfort during the practice. Your body needs time to adjust to the physical and mental changes that are happening, so do not force your body; it will adapt at its own time.
Pranayama breathing benefits
Breathing techniques correct lousy breathing habits and help focus the awareness on the breathing process. With practice, you will develop sensitivity to the respiratory process and retrain the muscles of the pulmonary cavity, enhancing their capacity and preparing them for pranayama.
When you control your breathing pattern, the conscious and unconscious areas of your mind are connected. Pranayama can help you released the trapped energy in your body and mental patterns and convert it into creative and joyful energy.
Pranayama can help you to establish regular breathing patterns by breaking the negative cycle of breathing patterns and reversing the debilitating process. Pranayama can help you to re-establish the natural, relaxed rhythms of your body and mind.
A rhythmic, deep, and slow respiration generates calm and content states of mind. In contrary, irregular breathing disrupts the rhythm of the brain, which lead to physical, emotional and mental blocks. This irregular breathing leads to inner conflict, an unbalanced personality, a disordered lifestyle and disease.
Pranayama can also affect the quality of life and the length of life. Ancient yogis observed that animals with slow breathing like tortoises and elephants have long lives.
In contrast, other animals with fast breath such as birds, rabbits and dogs live only a few years. From this, they deduced that if a man was to have a long lifespan had to breathe slowly and deeply.
From a physical perspective, slow breathing contributes to a healthier heart as it is well nourished. From an energy perspective, deep breath increases the absorption of energy by pranayama kosha or energy body, enhancing dynamism, vitality and general well being.
Spiritually once the blockages of the energy body are removed through pranayama, the body can absorb and retain more prana. Once the mind is calm, and prana flows freely through the chakras, the doorway for spiritual evolution is open.
By now, you know what Pranayama breathing and the difference with breathing exercises is. Pranayama breathing can help you to correct bad breathing habits and bring life energy to your body. A yoga teacher or a guru is the best person to teach you the Pranayama techniques.
You will benefit from Pranayama practice, and you will notice a calmer and focused mind, a more profound sense of joy and peace, better metabolism and immunity.
Frequently Asked Questions
Does Pranayama increase lung capacity?
Pranayama can increase your lung capacity making Oxygen exchange more efficient. You learn to control your breathing so that you won’t be short of breath again. Read more
How long should we do Pranayama?
You can do Pranayama for hours if you are ready for it. But you must start by practising for 5 to 15 minutes and increase the time. Depending on the Pranayama you are doing, it will be a more specific time guideline. Read more
When should you not do Pranayama?
Don’t ignore what your body tells you. If at any point you feel dizzy, fainted or unwell after or during a pranayama practice approach your teacher and let them know. If you have a medical condition, talk to your teacher first. Read more
Can I do Pranayama before sleeping?
Yes, but only gentle Pranayama is recommended before sleep. Read more
What are the stages of Pranayama?
There are two stages of Pranayama: inhalation, exhalation, to these two stages, you can add breath retention after inhaling and another one after exhaling. These last two are only for intermediate and advance practice. Read more
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