Have you ever been to a yoga class and wondered why people were breathing in a different or unique way? Well, that is pranayama or yogic breathing. Pranayama is the ancient yogic practice of specific breathing exercises that are used to gain various benefits to the body, mind, and soul. Traditionally, pranayama practice was used as a method for attaining moksha, samadhi, or enlightenment. But in modern times, pranayama practice is used mainly for stress relief and to deepen the mindful experience of yogic practice.
Whether you are a new yoga student or an experienced yoga practitioner, incorporating pranayama practices into your yoga practice can exponentially deepen and transform your experience both on and off the mat. To begin integrating pranayama into your yoga practice, read below to find out more!
What is Pranayama?
Pranayama is a primary part of yoga as it is the 4th limb of the eight limbs of yoga. Pranayama is a Sanskrit word combined of the two root words “prana,” meaning breath or vital energy, and “ayama,” meaning to control or lengthen. So, pranayama is directly translated to mean the control or lengthening of the breath or vital energy.
Traditional yogis believed that each person’s lifespan is measured by a particular number of breaths. Therefore, by breathing quickly this inherently shortens the lifespan. With this idea in mind, pranayama was developed as a method to lengthen the lifespan by lengthening the breath and possibly even stopping it altogether to achieve immortality.
The Benefits of Pranayama
The original primary purpose of pranayama was to manipulate prana or the vital energy in the body. In traditional yogic philosophy, it is believed that prana radiates throughout the entire body and runs through various energetic channels or nadis. By stimulating the flow of prana through the nadis and chakras, or energy centers, with pranayama practice, this can ultimately clear out any blockages within the body and move the kundalini energy up towards the crown of the head to achieve enlightenment.
In modern times, pranayama practices are also often commonly used as a method of stress relief and to focus the mind. Through the practice of deep breathing, particularly abdominal breathing, this stimulates the vagus nerve, which has a direct effect on toning the parasympathetic nervous system. By lengthening the breath, this can help to switch your nervous system out of “fight or flight” mode and into “rest or digest” mode, allowing your body to replenish and rejuvenate itself naturally.
The Top 3 Pranayama Practices and How to Practice Them
Pranayama is an immensely complex practice, and there are numerous different methods in existence. If you are a beginner to pranayama practice, it is best to practice for shorter periods of time and to use simpler breathing exercises. However, as you gain more experience, you can gradually begin to lengthen the time of your practice and try more advanced techniques. However, it is always recommended to do so under the guidance of an experienced teacher who can correctly advise you on these practices and prevent any adverse effects. To begin practicing pranayama, follow the directions below for the top 3 most common pranayama practices.
- Diaphragmatic Breathing
This breathing practice is excellent for beginners, as it is quite simple and can be done for more extended periods without any possible adverse effects. To begin, get into a comfortable seated position and place one hand on your abdomen and one hand on your chest. Inhale deeply through your nose, and as you inhale, try to use your diaphragm by pushing your abdomen outwards. Then as you exhale, contract your abdomen to empty your lungs fully. Continue to breathe using your diaphragm by pushing your abdomen out and in while also keeping your chest relatively stable and motionless.
- Nadi Shodhana – Alternate Nostril Breathing
To begin this breathing exercise, get into a comfortable seated position and then form your right hand into Vishnu mudra, in which your middle and index finger are folded towards your palm and your thumb, ring finger, and pinky finger are extended. Place your thumb against the right nostril and breath in through your left nostril. Then open your right nostril as you close the left nostril with your ring and pinky finger and exhale from the right nostril. Then breathe in through the right nostril, keeping the left nostril closed, and then switch your hand to close the right nostril as you exhale through the left nostril. Continue to breathe through alternate nostrils in this manner.
- Ujjayi – Victorious Breath
Ujjayi pranayama is commonly practiced during Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, but it can also be done independently. To begin practicing ujjayi, get into a comfortable seated position, and begin to take deep breaths in and out through your nose. As you breathe, try to constrict the muscles in your throat as you exhale in the same manner that you would as if you were trying to fog up a mirror. Try also to constrict your throat muscles during your inhalation, as if you were sucking through a straw with your throat. Continue to breathe in this manner, making a soft sound as you breathe but avoiding making this noise too loud or causing any strain on your throat.
As you delve deeper into the practice of pranayama, this healing yogic technique can significantly improve your mental and physical health while also assisting you in reaching deeper spiritual levels. Pranayama is a primary practice of yoga, and it is vital to incorporate it safely and correctly into your yoga practice. If you are a beginner in pranayama, try to stick with simpler breathing practices, such as diaphragmatic breathing. As you progress, you can begin experimenting with more complex techniques under the guidance of a trained yoga teacher. So, start incorporating pranayama into your daily routine and gain the many benefits of this ancient yogic technique in your life today!