“As breath stills our mind, our energies are free to unhook from the senses and bend inward.” ― B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life
‘Pranayama’ is a Sanskrit word that loosely translates to ‘control of breath’. ‘Prana’ means breath or life force and ‘ayama’ means to control. It gives guidance on how we can control the energies in our bodies through various breathing techniques – enabling the sharpening of mental clarity and bringing about calmness without ourselves. Breathing is something we almost always take for granted. Yet ironically it is the one quintessential thing that we need for our very existence here on earth. Pranayama gives us the tools for us to not only be aware (and be thankful) for our breath but also the tools for how to use our breath to properly harness what we have within us for our well-being. Through the practice of pranayama, body and mind are connected.
Pranayama breathing techniques are believed to have come into existence around the same time as yoga and meditation – in India, around 5000 BC, as evidenced by ancient texts from that time. These texts mention pranayama as a foundational aspect of yoga practice. In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Pranayama is the fourth “limb” of the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga. Hatha Yoga makes use of various pranayama techniques.
When we practise pranayama, breath and prana begin to flow freely and obstacles in our body are gradually removed. Our breathing is improved, our bodies function better and we clear and calm the mind, promoting relaxation and mindfulness. In addition, pranayama has been scientifically proven to support multiple aspects of physical health, including lung function, blood pressure, and brain function. Other benefits include, better sleep quality, reduced nicotine cravings, reduced stress levels, and boosting of immune levels.
Typically, pranayama techniques focus on one or more of the four parts of the breath: inhalation (puraka), internal retention (antara-khumbaka), exhalation (rechaka), and external retention (bahya-khumbaka). The exhalation is said to be the most important part of the breath – only when we can exhale and empty fully can we take a full new inhalation. Here are four types of pranayama and their benefits. These breathing exercises can be practised in many ways. For instance, one can do them while performing yoga poses, while meditating, or they can simply be practised on their own.
Using Ujjayi Breath (“Victorious Breath”) during asana practice reminds us not to rush through poses and to breathe during the practice. Returning to Ujjayi in Tadasana after a strenuous pose or sequence, or in times of stress, can help lower our heart rate back down again and can help return us to the present moment in calmness. Deep Ujjayi breathing increases our awareness of our breath. In being aware, we learn how to breathe fully using our full lung capacity.
Nadi Shodhana or alternate nostril breathing helps keep the mind calm, happy and peaceful. The two of the most significant nadis or energy channels, Ida and Pingala, which criss-cross the central nadi, Sushumna and each of the chakras running up the spine, are balanced when this technique is applied. We usually have one nostril which is more blocked. Practising this technique drives more oxygen to both sides of the brain and clears our mind, sharpening our focus as it clears out blocked energy channels.
Kapalabhati is also known as Skull Shining breath. The emphasis is on the exhalation through strong, fast abdominal contractions, and the inhalation follows naturally. Thus when practising one need only focus on the forceful exhalation. This technique helps to clear out the breathing pathways and introduces heat into your body. It improves circulation especially to the brain, energizing the mind and waking up your system. Practising this technique also helps to strengthen, massage and tone the inspiration and expiration muscles, abdominal muscles and digestive organs.
Bhastrika is also known as Bellows Breath. The focus in this technique is on both the inhalation and exhalation. The abdominal muscles are used to strongly contract (exhale) and expand (inhale) bellowing the breath in and out. It produces heat, detoxifying and energizing the body. It tones the abdominal muscles and the digestive system. Bhastrika breathing also helps to balance the nervous system, calming the mind for meditation.