Those who practice the art of Yoga believe that your breath carries your life force, drawing the necessary energies into your body, and expelling those you no longer require. Understanding the way in which these breathing techniques work provides us with the ability to use them in our daily lives.
The word Pranayama comes from Prana meaning life force or breath sustaining the body, and Ayama which translates to extend or draw out. Combined we arrive at the definition breath extension or control.
Your breathing can tell a lot about the emotional and mental state that you are experiencing at any given time. When you are feeling calm, or lost in a deep thought your breathing will often slow down considerably. Conversely, when you are experiencing periods of anxiety or agitation your breathing will speed up, coming in short, quick bursts and irregular rhythms.
This way of breathing only adds to the anxiety escalating the problem. Harnessing your body’s breathing patterns will allow you to take control of their impact on your mental and emotional health, maintaining a regulated, balanced state of mind.
The practice of Pranayama has been found to have a number of physical and psychological benefits including:
- Expelling toxins from the body
- Improving upon weight loss
- Regulating both your rate of breathing and your heart rate
- Improving digestion
- Regulating your blood pressure
- Boosting your immune system
- Stimulating blood circulation
- Regulating your mood
Types of Pranayama and Their Benefits
Yogic breathing, often taught and practiced by yoga practitioners, requires the use of all three of the recognized respiratory muscle groups – the chest, abdomen, and clavicle. Using all of these techniques allows you to practice a well-rounded and balanced breathing technique with an increased list of benefits.
Breathing in this way will expand the chest area, improving lung capacity, and assists with rounded shoulders. It has also been found to increase the overall oxygen supply brought into the body, supplying all of the body’s cells, as well as freshening and rejuvenating your mind and senses.
Often mistaken as yogic breathing in movies, it is connected with the recognizable “Aum (Om)” chant while working on regulating and controlling your breathing.
It has been found to have a significant impact on your mental state, calming those that practice this technique down effectively. For this reason, it is often used to help in the care of those that may struggle with a more stressed or anxious mindset. It has also been found to improve memory, relieve hypertension and help to control the level of acidity in the body.
The concept of abdominal breathing is one of the most widely used breathing techniques in yoga and meditation. Focusing on the abdominal area while breathing ensures that you are breathing deeply, providing you both with the maximum amount of oxygen.
This practice has been found to be beneficial in a number of ways including increasing the oxygen provided to the lungs, massage the heart as the abdominal muscles contract moving the diaphragm upwards as you exhale, massaging the abdominal organs, reducing the tension and stress that is associated with shallow breathing and slowing the heart rate which can effectively help to lower blood pressure.
Sitali is a breathing technique often taught by medical practitioners to those who suffer from anxiety or depression, as it is an exercise that has been found to relax the body and promote mindfulness. The practice of sitali involves breathing in slowly through the mouth and exhaling through the nostrils.
This practice has been compared to breathing through a straw due to the way it focuses the breathing in such as specific way. It has been found to not only relax those who practice it but can also help to purify the blood, cool the body and reduce thirst.
Angnisara Kriay is the art of using breathing in order to wash the fire chakra, located at the navel, in turn strengthening the abdominal muscles. It is highly practiced by those who practice Hatha Yoga. To practice, you stand with your legs slightly apart, your head bent slightly forward and a slight bend in the knees. Inhale deeply through the nose, and then exhale through the mouth.
This technique has been found to improve both metabolism and digest, help in reducing stomach fat, relieve constipation, assist in the treatment of both asthma and tuberculosis and provide the body with an increased level of energy.
Alternate Nostril Breathing (Anuloma Viloma)
Alternate Nostril Breathing is the practice of breathing strategically through breathing through one specific nostril or the other in order to maximize the benefits each individually has been found to provide. It has been found that the nostrils are connected to your brain functions, with the right nostril, or right nadi, associated with the left, logical side of the brain, and the left nostril, or left nadi, associated with the right, creative side of the brain.
The balance found by practicing alternate nostril breathing has been found to cleanse and strengthen the lungs, increase the oxygen supply to the body’s circulatory system, provide a significant balance of brain function, expel carbon dioxide more effectively and improve focus.
Each nadi has also been found to have its own benefits. Breathing through the right nadi has been found to boost your metabolism. Prolonged breathing solely through the right nadi, however, has been connected with an increase in psychological issues. Breathing through the left nadi cools the body, improving upon relaxation, however, when one is too relaxed for too long this can promote lethargy.
Ujjayi is a deep breathing exercise that involves taking slow, deep breaths filling the lungs fully with each time that you inhale, and then slowly allowing this breath to be released from the body.
The practice of Ujjayi has been found to help to increase the capacity of the lungs with prolonged and repeated practice. It has also been connected with the ability to reduce coughing, reduction of phlegm in the throat, improving digestion, relieving dysentery, curing dyspepsia and regulating the nervous system during times of stress.
Used in many practices of Pranayama, Kumbhaka refers to the practice of retaining breath. It is believed that by practicing this technique and holding one’s breath you are actually capable of increasing one’s life span. The belief is that holding your breath for 1 minute can increase your lifespan by 1 minute.
There are two ways in order to practice this technique. Antara Kumbhaka refers to the act of restraining the intake of breath. Alternatively, Bahya Kumbhaka is the process of restraining exhalation.
A highly-practiced technique, the practice of Kapalabhati is the process of breathing solely from the diaphragm. This practice is extremely different from the usual breathing practice that many of us employ in our day to day living, and as such may cause you to hyperventilate the first couple times that you attempt it. This is normal. Lie down and allow yourself to relax.
Benefits of Kapalabhati include increasing the flow of oxygen to the body, encouraging the healthy outflow of carbon dioxide, promoting optimal health in both the circulatory and digestive systems, massaging the abdominal organs include the liver, stomach, and pancreas, assisting in the cure of bronchial congestion and providing an effective step in the cure of asthma with repeated practice.
Bhastrika is almost the same technique as that practiced in Kapalabhati, however rather than just focusing on the use of the diaphragm it employs the entire respiratory system. It has been found to improve the health of the body’s digestive system, helping to regulate the levels of bile and phlegm found within the body. It also has been found to reduce inflammation of the throat and esophagus and assist in managing heartburn.
The term Murcha Pranayama literally translates to ‘to faint or expand’. This practice uses some of the techniques practiced in Kumbhaka focusing specifically on the mind. It has been found to provide a high level of relaxation to the mind and body and improve concentration.
Please note: Do not practice this specific breathing technique if you suffer from vertigo, high blood pressure or any form of cardiac issues or disease.