During yoga pranayama exercises people practice controlling the breath or prana to induce a state of calm and focus. Paying attention to breathing and slowing down respiration constitute a core component of many mindfulness practices. Research suggests the practice has multiple benefits—it induces an overall sense of well-being while reducing anxiety and improving sleep.
The first thing we do when we came into the world is to inhale a big life giving breath and the last thing we do before exiting is exhale a weary sigh and for the majority of us the breaths we take in between are usually taken without much conscious thought. We may spend days or even years without noticing our breathing process, and yet it has such profound effects on our entire wellbeing.
The Breath is central to Yoga without it you could say Yoga is just another physical exercise, moving from one asana (pose) to the next with little or no awareness or connection to the breath. But with it your Yoga practice becomes a vehicle of transformation. A meditation in motion. But that’s a topic for another day. Whether you practice Yoga just for its physical benefits (and there’s many) or embrace it as a lifestyle choice, the breath is at the heart of it all.
Many moons ago way back in the second century BC one of the earliest Yoga practitioners and teachers Patanjali, formulated a prescription for moral and ethical conduct and self-discipline called the eight fold path or eight limbs of Yoga. These eight steps basically act as guidelines on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life.
Yoga Pranayama is one of these eight paths, a technique that once again illustrates just how incredible the ancient Wisdom schools were. They understood just how powerful the breath is and devised techniques to harness that power in a way that has profound effects on our minds and bodies. Our breath is the missing link that connects our mind, body, and spirit – it’s the lifeforce that connects our outer physical self to our inner self.
“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again.” – Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk, meditation teacher, & author
To take in the power of this essential yogic practice, lets dive a bit deeper into the meaning of the word pranayama.
What is Pranayama?
Pranayama is one of the eight limbs of yoga. Over the millennia, Pranayama has developed into many different breathe regulating techniques that produce profound effects on both our mental and physical wellbeing. They can heat or cool the body, balance the nervous system, detoxify the body, clear the mind…. the list goes on.
“When the breath wanders the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still, and the yogi achieves long life. Therefore, one should learn to control the breath.” Hatha Yoga Pradipika 500 year old yogic text
Let’s break it down. Pranayama is a combination of two Sanskrit roots: prana and ayama. Prana means “life force” – a subtle and vital energy that flows within us all and everything. It’s both life and consciousness, the primordial energy of creation permeating throughout us and the universe.
The second Sanskrit root, ayama is often translated as “restraint” or “control”. However, with the Sanskrit language, one word can often have many different meanings. Some scholars prefer to separate the components of the compound into prana and ayama for the purposes of translation. When broken up in this way, pranayama becomes prana, (life-force), and ayama, means “to stretch” or “to extend”, and it refers to the practice that enhances the distribution of prana throughout your body through a series of Nadis. This network of approximately 72,000 nadis creates the link between your physical body and your mind and, if distributed well, helps you attain a higher state of vibrational energy, clarity and health.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika (compilation of yoga texts written around 1500) describes the practice of pranayama as a technique to clear the nadis from impurities, to steady the mind and to extend life by controlling prana through breath. In yogic physiology, it is believed that a blockage of nadis leads to a reduced flow of prana and, with that, reduced mental and physical health and wellbeing. Pranayama enhances the renewal of the body’s physical and mental function by extending the prana flow within the nadis.
“The practice of pranayama—releasing and channelling the body’s stores of internal pranic energy—is the heart of a yoga asana practice.”
Pranayama is often translated as “breath control”. Even though the breath is consciously controlled, this does not depict the actual thinking behind pranayama. Yes, several breathing techniques are used as a method to improve the potency of prana, but here the breath is simply the vehicle that transports and expands prana (energy) throughout the body.
But pranayama is not just a spiritual practice. Many people use pranayama not only as a part of yoga, but as an independent practice to help sync mind and body for improved health and wellbeing.
Becoming aware of your breath is the first step to living with heightened consciousness; to have the knowing that the breath is a reflection of your mind and that by learning to control the breath you can control your mind and visa versa.
“Yoga teachings state that if the mind is moving so are the heart and respiration. When we are angry, our breath quickens; when we sleep our breath slows down. By consciously slowing down the breath and making it rhythmic so that consciousness is not disturbed by it, we can achieve corresponding tranquillity.” – Dr. Hiroshi Motoyama, psychologist, philosopher, & researcher
The physical and mental benefits of conscious breathing through pranayama have been established throughout multiple scientific studies. It has been shown to improve cognition, alertness, anxiety, stress, and overall wellbeing. So, pranayama—literally, “control of prana”—isn’t just breathing exercises. Through pranayama, you use the breath to affect your energy that is your body and mind.
The top five benefits of Yoga Pranayama.
Although stress is a natural part of life, stressing out for an extended period is no good for your well-being. Exposing yourself to any type of unwanted stress keeps your entire internal mechanism in “fight or flight mode” which is reflected through increased blood pressure, digestive disorders, or anxiety. This state has a ripple effect on your work, relationships, and general ability to think clearly. Switch on your body to it’s rest and digest mode by extending your exhale will help manage stress and anxiety. Leaving you calm refocused, centred, and grounded and ready to move forward with a clear mind.
Improves digestive function and weight loss.
Helps improve digestive system function: When you couple pranayama with belly breathing you activate the diaphragm and your parasympathetic nervous system – Not only does the act of breathing into your belly give your internal organs a nice little massage but it also switches on your rest and digest response so your body can actively digest the food you eat rather than sending energy to other areas of your body.
Slow, deep pranayama exercises have been shown to improve sleep quality and reduce insomnia when practiced regularly and consistently before bed and throughout the day.
Whether you find it difficult to fall asleep, or you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night or tired the moment you get up, simple pranayama techniques help. After a few sessions of controlled inhalation and extended exhalation, your body and mind will become calmer and more relaxed. Make a nightly habit of breathing deeply and extending your exhale will signal your body to prepare for sleep.
Improve concentration and focus.
By deepening your breath and slowing you exhale will help improve concentration and focus. Practise pranayama will not only calm you down and give you the space to respond rather than react it will also increase oxygen to your brain and improve its cognitive features, stimulating short and long-term memory recall and enhancing your state of mind and ability to focus.
Improves the work of your body systems.
Pranayama is a great exercise for your lungs. According to Reseachgate.net, it can improve lung health and capacity because you’re using more of your lungs and giving them a workout every time you practice. It’s also been shown to have beneficial effects on asthma and COPD (chronic destructive pulmonary disease) patients.
As I’ve mentioned Pranayama is great for your digestive system. The same diaphragmatic movement also benefits your immune system by moving lymph around your body. White blood cells are primarily working to help protect your body against foreign invaders and diseases. By practicing pranayama on a regular basis, you can strengthen your immune system and protect yourself from various medical conditions.
Observe your breath to control your life force!
Pranayama has an awesome list of benefits which all lead to one thing: ideal wellness. Pranayama focuses on regulation of the prana or the life force and aims to improve health and the way you live your life. It teaches you to slow down, gain power over your thoughts and essentially ‘control your life force’ through breathing.
If you would like to learn more about Pranayama and it’s various techniques come join me on Utube where we all come together to Pause, Breathe, Smile and Reset. I promise you will enjoy it and you never know, keep an open mind, practice daily and it just might transform your life just as it did mine.
You can find my Utube channel here.