What is Pranayama?
Pranayama is one of the main components of yoga which includes various breathing techniques.
In pranayama practice, we inhale, exhale and hold our breath in different styles and lengths purposely. But wait, that’s not all…
There is the correct way of breathing in yoga: one must practice syncing physical postures (or asanas) with breath movements. Knowing when to inhale and when to exhale is imperative to reap pranayama yoga benefits.
Pranayama can reliably produce benefits for the body and brain. It brings clarity of mind, increases lung capacity, reduces stress and anxiety, and strengthens willpower and inner and outer health. The aim of pranayama is to increase the oxygen intake of the body. It strengthens the connection between body and mind which improve physical, mental and emotional well-being.
There are various types of pranayama which comprise both deep and fast breathing exercises. While doing deep breathing, heart rate slows down which in turn calms the mind. Whereas fast breathing detoxifies the body and revitalized cells.
Some popular pranayama types and their benefits are as follows:
- Nadi Shodhan or alternate nostril breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system and balances the left and right hemispheres.
- Kapalbhati or skull shining breath increases the lung capacity and detoxifies the body.
- Bhastrika or bellows breathing increases gastric fire, which in turn, improves appetite and digestion.
- Sama Vritti or square breathing slow down the heart rate, increase oxygen to the brain, and reduce anxiety.
Defining our Terms
The term “Pranayama” comprises two common Sanskrit words of yoga “Prana” and “Ayama”. What is Prana? Prana is the life driving force behind all living beings, present in humans in the form of Vayu or winds. It regulates all physical functions, for example, the breath, the supply of oxygen, digestion, elimination and much more. And “Ayama” means to control or expand.
The five Prana Vayus and their functions we aim to regulate through pranayama are as follows:
- Prana – Responsible for inspiration and swallowing food
- Apana – Responsible for elimination, outward movement
- Samana – Responsible for assimilation
- Vyana – Responsible for metabolizing, speech, physical growth
- Udana – Responsible for circulation
When a beginner is taught breathing in a pranayama preparation session, it’s emphasized to regulate:
- Puraka – inhalation, generally done at beginning through the both or single nostrils
- Kumbhaka – retention through holding the breath outside and inside the body.
- Rechaka – exhalation can be done through the mouth and nose
Benefits of Pranayama (Yoga Breathing)
Modern science has found pranayama to hold a wide range of benefits for the mind and body.
Below we have discussed some most common benefits of pranayama:
1. Increases lung capacity
Practising pranayama regularly has a direct impact on the lungs. It increases chest wall expansion and strengthens respiratory muscles. When we do fast breathing pranayama like kapalbhati and bhastrika it allows respiratory muscles to expand and contract rapidly, which improves lung function.
- Allergic bronchitis
- Post Pneumonia and tuberculosis recoveries
2. Act as a stress reliever
The way you breathe determines the stress response of your body.
Pranayama can help reduce stress to a great extent by altering irregular breathing patterns.
When we are under stress generally we take small breaths by raising the shoulders and collarbone, known as shallow or clavicular breathing. Practising deep or slow pranayama breathing brings the diaphragm into active use to move air in and out of the lungs.
While doing the deep pranayama breathing exercise of yoga, your sympathetic nervous system gets quiet – the part of the nervous system which induces a stress response, and therefore you feel less stress and anxiety in no time. Pranayama also enables more oxygen to flow into your body and brain which helps calm your nerves and improve vital organ functions.
When feeling anxious, you can try one of these 5 pranayama breathing exercises. It will cause your body to relax and release a sense of calm in your brain.
It has been shown in a 2013 study, both slow and fast pranayama breathing exercises are beneficial in reducing the perceived stress scale (PSS) in young healthcare students. Fast pranayama includes Kapalabhati, Bhastrika and Kukkriya pranayama whereas slow pranayamas are Nadishodhana, Pranava and Savitri pranayama.
Another 2013 study shows pranayama practice can help reduce anxiety and improve the performance of students in exams. The researchers discussed that pranayama practice supplies the body with enough oxygen that cleanses the carbon dioxide and other toxins. When this detoxification process takes place with breathing, we stop feeling anxious and are able to concentrate on the present moment.
3. Improves concentration
Slow down, and pay attention to your breath. You might have heard this phrase in many yoga sessions. This is said to synchronize the mind with breathing for better concentration.
Pranayama breathing is one of the excellent yoga exercises to increase concentration and sharpen memory. Its meditative approach of focusing on breathing in different styles and patterns conditions the mind to live in the present moment. It also increases mindfulness.
Practising pranayama stimulates the cerebral cortex and other main portions of the brain which play a key role in attention, awareness, thought, and consciousness. A 2017 study in the Journal of Neurophysiology shows that brain regions linked to emotion, attention, and body awareness are activated when we pay attention to our breath.
- It clears the Nadis or, subtle energy channels, removing the impurities of the body
- It increases parasympathetic activity improving mental clarity, alertness and physical well being
- Nadi shodhan increase oxygen supply. Increased oxygen oxidizes waste impurities which means less need for the breath and a more calm mind.
According to a 2013 study in the International Journal of Healthcare & Biomedical Research, 12 weeks of pranayama training has significantly improved the concentration power in young adults in terms of reaction time. Pranayama practice reduced audio-visual reaction time which implies increased processing capability of central nervous system and better concentration.
4. Boosts immune system
Pranayama is a holistic yoga practice to boost immune system efficiency. It comprises diaphragmatic breathing exercises which engage the entire digestive system that is home to almost 80% of immune tissue. In this way, practising deep pranayama breathing can improve the body’s immune response.
The immune system’s ability to provide resistance against infection and toxins gets reduced when we are stressed. Pranayama is effective in reducing stress and therefore boosts the immune system. Through pranayama, we expand each breath length to provide more oxygen in our blood and thus it activates the parasympathetic or ‘rest and digest’ nervous system.
A 2013 study discussed that controlled deep belly breathing may strengthen the body’s defences by changing the gene expression of certain immune cells.
Another study shows that yogic breathing exercises which include a conscious breath-retention part (called Kumbhaka in Sanskrit) can do change in genetic activity of white blood cells. Researchers show pranayama practice increases the number of white blood cells in the body which is part of the immune system that protects the body from infection.
5. Lowers high blood pressure
Slow and deep pranayamas can help lower high blood pressure or hypertension, even in patients with heart diseases.
Pranayamas mentioned below produce a cooling and calming effect on the body and mind thus reducing blood pressure:
When we do slow and deep pranayama exercises like Anulom Vilom, it sends the brain a relaxation signal which in turn slows down the heart rate. A decrease in the heart rate dilates blood vessels, reducing overall blood pressure.
In a 2009 study, slow pace bhastrika pranayama (respiratory rate 6/min) has significantly decreased both the systolic and diastolic blood pressure within 5 minutes of practice. The study concludes this pranayama has a strong tendency to improve the autonomic nervous system through enhanced activation of the parasympathetic system.
6. Improves digestion
Pranayama practice can aid in digestion by increasing the oxygen supply to the gut. More oxygen supply to the gut implies more blood flow and better intestinal strength which promote absorption and digestion of food.
When we practice slow diaphragmatic breathing like dirgha pranayama or full yogic breath before a meal (at least 3 hours before) it reduces tension in digestive organs’ muscles and keeps them active for upcoming food.
Moreover, other benefits of pranayama like reducing overall stress, boosting the immune system and improving the quality of sleep combinedly help the digestive system work effectively.
Regular pranayama practice can also help you with the management of chronic conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GRD).
In a 2012 study researchers show that pranayama practice can help regulate the secretion of gastric acid and digestive enzymes. Pranayama also promotes the elimination part of the digestion process by getting rid of subtle metabolic wastes from the body through breathing.
7. Helps in weight loss
Fast pranayama breathing exercises like kapalbhati and bhastrika can be quite helpful in shedding belly fat. It comprises rapid stroke of the abdominal wall in and out with inhales and exhales. This process allows the body to exhale more CO2 and pumps oxygen through body cells.
In weight loss through pranayama exercises, most of the mass is breathed out as carbon dioxide from the body via the lungs. Moreover, increased oxygen supply boost metabolism which in turn helps in burning the belly fat deposited in your body.
A study published in the International Journal of Yoga, Physiotherapy and Physical Education suggests that the regular and guided practice of pranayama is effective in weight loss. The result of the study suggests that on practising pranayama for 6 weeks, there was a significant decrease in the Body Mass Index (BMI) and Waist-Hip ratio of participants.
8. Promotes better sleep
Pranayama breathing helps slow down the heart rate by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. It brings a relaxing effect on the body and mind which in turn promotes better sleep.
A 2019 study in European Respiratory Journal suggests that pranayama exercises can significantly decrease snoring and daytime sleepiness. It also improves the quality of sleep in people suffering from obstructive sleep apnea syndrome (OSAS).
According to a study, slow pace breathing pranayamas before going to bed prepares the body and mind for better sleep. It has an immediate effect on lowering blood pressure and heart rate. Moreover, it helps clear the mind from workplace negativity, tension, anxiety or emotional blockages that may restrict your sleep on time.
Pranayama at night should only be done at least 2 hours after having a meal. Start with 5 minutes of practise of deep abdominal breathing, also called Dirgha pranayama. It can be practised laying down on the bed. Place one of your hands on your stomach and one in Gyan mudra. With hand to stomach, feel the abdominal wall expanding and contracting with inhale and exhale.
Then do bhramari pranayama for 5 minutes sitting comfortably in a cross-legged posture.
Take a long inhalation through the nose, and on the exhalation create a humming sound from the throat. Keep inhalation and exhalation steady and slow. On the inhale, close your eyes and breathe through the nose; on the exhale close off the ears with the index fingers, keeping the eyes closed and make a humming sound with the voice.
9. Helps clear sinus congestion
Pranayama like alternate nostril breathing helps to clear the blockages in the nasal cavity. Regular practice of it can keep nostrils free of allergies and enhance the filtering capacity toward the foreign element reducing inflammation.
The inflammation in the sinuses can cause throbbing headaches, nasal congestion, and running noses. Pranayama not only improves the ventilation but also acts on the proper drainage of the sinuses and in turn relieves the symptoms of sinusitis.
According to a study in Indian Journal of Otolaryngology and Head & Neck Surgery, Nasal breathing exercises of yoga show anti-inflammatory effects and reduce symptoms of Allergic Rhinitis.
Another study reported that practising neti, a yoga cleansing kriya, after breathing exercises can be an effective method to reduce symptoms of allergic rhinitis. Jala neti kriya comprises the use of a neti pot as a device for nasal irrigation to relieve the symptoms of sinusitis.
Pranayama techniques work for the sinus because it promotes balanced breathing through the nose which encourages the nasal passages to widen. In contrast to mouth breathing (that we often do unconsciously) nasal breathing exercises prevent mucus production and keep your airways free.
The humming sound of Bhramari pranayama acts as a sonic cleanser, a study in the International Journal of Yoga shows. It creates vibration in the air to move back and forth between the sinuses and nasal passages. This mechanism allows the clogged sinuses to ventilate and drain properly.
10. Helps to get glowing skin
Pranayama can be a wonderful exercise to get glowing skin.
According to the classical yoga text Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Pranayama is considered to be a purification technique for our body at many levels and layers.
Skin, the outermost layer in our body, needs oxygen to maintain its radiant glow and skin cells take this oxygen from the lungs. Practising slow and deep pranayamas allows the lungs to flush excess carbon dioxide from our body and replaces it with a rich supply of cell-energising oxygen. It can further oxygenate skin cells by incorporating body locks or bandhas and mudras in pranayama practice.
This process of oxygenation through pranayama promotes increased moisture in the skin and reduces the appearance of lines, wrinkles and other ageing symptoms. It also detoxifies the blood in our body which often is considered the cause of various skin diseases.
Yoga breathing techniques like Bhramari Pranayama and Bhastrika pranayama has positive effects on the facial skin. Bhramari pranayama with shanmukhi mudra and Jalandhar bandha (throat lock) is especially beneficial to supply ample oxygen to body cells, thus it glows the skin.
A 2013 study in the Indian Journal of Medical Research shows that as short as 7 days of regular pranayama practice can have a significant impact on skin health. There was an increase observed in the GSR (galvanic skin resistance) reading in participants doing regular pranayama. GSR is the measure of electrical activity in the skin which correspondence to the moisture level in the body.
11. Improves brain functions
Pranayama along with the combined practice of yoga asanas and meditation increases overall brain wave activity, grey matter volume in the amygdala and activates the frontal cortex. It also contributes to improving memory which has been seen in a study influencing the academic performance of the students.
Breath control or pranayama practice enhances the filtering capacity of the brain. It increases the passage of nanoparticles to the brain through the Blood-Brain Barrier and filters the unwanted toxic materials which we often inhale in the polluted environment.
Researchers in a study suggest uninostril yoga breathing such as Surya bhedana pranayama or right nostril breathing increases oxygenation and blood volume in the left part of the brain. It increases the prana energy in the body, the efficiency of the digestive system, and activates the sympathetic nervous system.
From this, it can be assumed practising opposite uninostril yoga breathing such as Chandra bhedna pranayama will affect the functions of the right part of the brain.
12. Helps grow spiritually
Breath control or pranayama is one of the main components of spiritual upliftment journey.
However, you can observe different physical or mental benefits from practising pranayama, the main goal of its practice is to control the breath and through breath control, prepare the mind for meditation and samadhi.
A yogi can achieve higher stages of samadhi only when the breath becomes effortless. Patanjali in Yoga Sutras explains pranayama makes the mind fit for Samyama – the combined practice of concentration (dharna), meditation (dhyana) and samadhi.
Pranayama through breath regulation lets you gain control over your body and mind. It promotes mindfulness, helps you be physically active, and cleanses all impurities and blockages through Nadis in our body. All of it leads to improving your mental health as well.
Spiritually pranayama benefits can be observed in the form of:
- A sense of inner bliss
- Increased mindfulness
- Less mind chatter and clarity in thoughts
- Feel connected with your inner-self
- Vairagya (detachment) feeling
Normally 10 to 15 minutes of pranayama practice daily is enough to reap all its benefits. One should start with 20 minutes of asanas practice then do fast pranayama breathing like Kapalbhati, bhastrika and then end the session with anulom vilom or Nadi shodhan.
Pranayama increases the oxygen supply to the brain and activates brain centres which happen in a dormant state under normal conditions. It increases concentration power, emotion processing, attention, and awareness.
Mainly there are 8 classical pranayamas, known as Kumbhaka, mentioned in the classical yoga text Hatha Yoga Pradipika. However, today we practice more than 14 types of pranayamas in yoga.
Pranayama, like any other yoga practice, is best done in the early morning before sunrise during Brahma Muhurta. It can also be practised in the evening at dawn, provided empty stomach or 3 hours after a meal.