Pranayama: the art of (not) breathing

As I reembarked on my new yoga journey at the beginning of the year, one of my prime resolution was to resume pranayama on a daily basis. As I informed my partner about my new routine, I was pleasantly surprised at his interest and understanding, and realized he had actually been introduced to pranayama by freediving (diving that relies on breath holding)!

Pranayama, which literally means “extension of lifeforce”, is a set of breathing techniques in yoga which aim to connect the body and mind by removing the flow of thoughts. To me, pranayama was correlated with slow-paced activities such as meditation or qi gong and proper breathing, so finding out that these techniques were also used for performance activities and breath holding (which I thought was the opposite of proper breathing!) really opened up my vision on pranayama and its benefits.

Beyond the spiritual and mental benefits that one first thinks of (creating awareness and mindfulness, relaxing the mind, releasing stress and anxiety, etc.), pranayama also improves physical health.

The most obvious benefit is the strengthening of the lungs and its capacity and the overall improvement of the respiratory system. For example, pranayama can help with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). But the different techniques of pranayama also have effects on the nervous system, the blood pressure, the digestive system, weight management and may also enhance brain function.

So, how does pranayama and freediving combine? aren’t they contradictory?

Well, surprising as it may seem, breath holding is an integral part of pranayama. It is used for example in Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breathing with breath holding in between each inhalation and exhalation). It is also a breathing technique in Hatha Yoga under the name of Kumbhaka (full breath retention), which can be after an inhalation or exhalation (Sahaja Kumbhaka) or on a subtle breath (Kevala Kumbhaka, obtained during the final stage of samadhi). In his sutras, Patanjali also mentions the importance of observing the “vidharanabhyam” (sutra I.34), which refers to the “passive retention after exhalation”, in order to clear the mind.

Breath holding actually has quite a lot of benefits, such as better oxygenation of the blood, improvement of the immune system, improved digestion, calming the nervous system, and clearing the mind.

So, as we were told during this training course, if you are unclear about what to do, close your eyes, take a deep inhale, and hold your breath! The answer should come to you…