Breathing is important to us, maybe the most important thing and it is a fact that we begin and end our lives with a breath. In yoga the breath is prana and we use pranayama to manage and control the breathing.
Pranayama are yogic breathing exercises we use to clear and enhance prana flow and presence in the body. With pranayama we can learn how to tap into this life force energy. Some high yogis say pranayama is the most important part of the yoga practice since with it we can clear up the physical and emotional obstacles in our body to free the breath and boost overall body functioning.
- See the article on Prana Explained
What Pranayama Does
Everything we do, all the actions we take, thinking and breathing, all affect the flow of prana. It is the universal energy that runs through us and everything around us. So when we do pranayama exercises, to manage and control the breath, we are working on increasing the flow and quality of the prana that is present in us.
With pranayama the controlled breathing helps us with both the rhythm of performing yoga poses and also relaxing the mind for meditation. This way we see where pranayama translates as “extension of the prana”.
The Benefits of Pranayama
Pranayama is a great aid to the yoga practice and good breathing really proves to be a game changer in how we feel and perform.
It helps to:
- strengthen the breathing
- expand prana capacity
- increase energy flow
- balance energy quality
- relaxing the body
- energizing the body
- healing the body
Pranayama is for cleansing, ridding the rubbish and for charging up. Our breathing is improved, our bodies function better and we clear and calm the mind. Basically pranayama helps everything fall into place in our system.
The Four Main Stages of Pranayama
Pranayama uses the breath to direct and expand the flow of prana in our bodies. There are four main stages of pranayama and they make up the cycle of breathing that we do all the time:
Abhyantara kumbhaka (the pause after inhalation)
Bahya Kumbhaka (the pause after exhalation)
All four of these stages are important to the breathing cycle and the very important one is Rechaka (exhalation) where with each exhale we throw out the toxins from the body and prepare for a bright new inhalation.
The Big Picture
The prana is transported through the body in thousands of tiny channels called nadis. It goes to every cell in the body and there are said to be 72,000 nadis in the entire body.
Of these many nadis there are three main ones – ida, pingala and sushumna. The sushumna nadi travels directly up the spine to the crown of the head and the ida and pingala nadis travel alongside it on the left and right sides. The sushumna nadi goes all the way to the top of the head but the ida and pingala nadis just go as far as the nose. All three of these nadis start at the base of the spine.
The nadis carry the prana energy throughout the body and work in relation with the chakras.
Hatha yoga works a lot with this energy system and aims to control and cultivate the prana while spreading it to the entire body. It does this with both asanas and pranayama breath control.
To assist with this effort it uses also the Bandhas (locks) which are three holds the yogi can use to control the prana and concentrate its power.
Altogether this system gives the yogi great power to harness the prana energy and channel it for increased clarity, well-being and also spiritual progress.
3 Pranayama Exercise Methods
There are many pranayama exercises people do and here we list three of them.
Ujjayi Breathing is a diaphragmatic breath and is also known as Ocean Breath or Victorious Breath from the Sanskrit name.
This breathing method helps calm the mind and warm the body. You start by breathing normally and on your exhalation, slightly contract the back of your throat, like you are going to whisper. Softly whisper the sound, “ahhh,” as you do your exhale and this is the whispering sound of Ocean breath.
You can move to nose breathing when you are comfortable contracting your throat as instructed above.
Benefits of Ujjayi Breathing:
- Improves focus and mental clarity
- Strengthens the breathing and prana
- Helps grow the prana
- Cleanses the nadis
- Slows the breathing, which also calms the mind
- Improves body functions and bolsters the immune system
- Improves skin condition as well as complexion
- Improves circulation
4-7-8 Breathing Exercise
4-7-8 Breathing Exercise is named by the time it takes to inhale, hold the breath and then exhale. You inhale through your nose for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of seven. then breathe out for a count of eight.
A common way to do this is to place one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest, then your stomach should push your hand out when you inhale, and your stomach should go in as you exhale.
The 4-7-8 breathing method causes you to breathe using your diaphragm which is a healthier way to breathe. It helps you fall asleep since it acts like a natural tranquilizer.
Breathing exercises that encourage deep breathing help people relax, which is good for avoiding high blood pressure from stress. Deep breathing exercises, such as the 4-7-8 breathing technique, can slow the heartbeat and lower blood pressure.
One specialist says, “Unlike sleep medications, which often lose effectiveness over time, 4-7-8 breathing is subtle at first but gains power with practice.”
Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhana)
With Alternate Nostril Breathing you are cleansing the prana and so it is sometimes called Channel-Cleaning Breath. Nadi is a Sanskrit word meaning “channel” or “flow” and shodhana means “purification.”
This method is used for “the purification of the invisible energy channels” and is sometimes considered a preparation for pranayama, other times a formal practice in itself. It is good to do this practice on an empty stomach in the morning.
To perform Nadi Shodhana:
- Close your right nostril with your thumb, then inhale through your left nostril
- Hold your breath at the top of the inhale for a moment
- Close the left nostril with your ring finger
- Open your right nostril and exhale slowly through the right side
- Pause at the bottom of the exhale
- To repeat start by closing your left nostril with your ring finger and inhale through the right nostril, then follow the process as stated above.
This breathing method helps keep the mind calm, peaceful and balanced. It acts as a relaxation technique and is good for focus and concentration plus it helps clear the prana channels.
One famous yoga teacher says “if you only have time for one Pranayama breathing technique, make it this one”.
The Roots of Pranayama
Pranayama has its roots in ancient India and is recorded in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a collection of 196 Indian sutras (aphorisms) on the theory and practice of yoga, around the year 400 CE.
Pranayama is the fourth “limb” of the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga mentioned in verse 2.29 in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and Patanjali calls it Pranayama (awareness of one’s breath).
Each stage of pranayama can enhance physical awareness and introspection so pranayama is integral to the practice of yoga and is a key element in the ultimate pursuit of higher consciousness.
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In addition to deepening your yoga practice, the use of pranayama to calm and charge the body through breathing will greatly benefit your life in all ways.
The regular and sustained practice of pranayama can help you tone and balance your whole body and by including pranayama as part of your yoga practice you will see benefits on a physical, psychological and energetic level.
We hope you have enjoyed this Pranayama Yoga article and we invite you to continue the conversation with questions or suggestions in the comments section down below. We love to hear from you and please follow us on Social Media!