Pranayama—Using Breath as an Anchor in the Here and Now
Pranayama: How it Fits into Yoga
According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the sacred yogic text, there are eight limbs of yoga making up the full practice of yoga.
- Yama: Moral codes to live by
- Niyama: Personal observances (such as contentment and self-study)
- Asanas: Body postures (the most common part of yoga)
- Pranayama: Breathing exercises
- Pratyahara: Control of the senses (turning our attention inward)
- Dharana: Concentration and cultivating inner awareness
- Dhyana: Devotion
- Samadhi: Enlightenment
The first four limbs are the practical ones, the limbs that can be worked on daily. Asana is the most commonly taught and practiced limb, the one where we bend our bodies into shapes.
Pranayama is another one of the practical limbs that sometimes pops into yoga classes as a means of helping the mind center and calm down before asana practice. Pranayama is also often combined with asana, in a vinyasa or flow style of yoga, where breathing is linked with movement.
However it is practiced, pranayama is an essential element of yoga. Indeed, many gurus and spiritual leaders believe that pranayama is more important than asana. While there is nothing to be gained debating which is more important, there is no question that pranayama is an incredibly powerful limb of yoga that can easily be practiced every single day.
What Is Pranayama?
Pranayama is often described as breathing practice or ‘breath awareness’. While this is true, it’s really only half of the picture. Pranayama is made up of the Sanskrit words prana and yama. Prana refers to more than just our physical breath, but rather our life force or our vital life energy. Ayama can be roughly translated as control.
So, when put together, we often get the translation of ‘breathing control’, where the breath is the physical representation of our life force, our prana. When we inhale, we are drawing in our vital life force, something that exists in the subtle body.
There are a range of different ways that we can practice pranayama, including specific breathing exercises. These help us to keep our attention on the breath and improve its quality, breathing more fully and deeply.
Why Include Pranayama In Your Practice?
There are many benefits to practicing pranayama. The positive effects of breath control impact the mind, body, and spirit. When we draw our attention to the breath, we can quiet the mind by having a single point of focus. This simple act, in and of itself, can reduce stress and anxiety, help us to sleep better, and have an overall positive effect on our wellbeing.
But the benefits go far deeper than just the meditative effect of practicing pranayama. When we slow our breathing, we breathe more deeply, taking in more oxygen. This activates our parasympathetic nervous system.
Our bodies have two modes under which they operate, the sympathetic nervous system or the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system switches on when we are stressed, when our ‘fight or flight’ response is activated. During this time, all non-essential bodily functions, such as digestion, cell rejuvenation, and restoration, are put on hold.
When we practice pranayama, we invite the body to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This is known as the ‘rest and digest’ state. Benefits to this include improved digestion and cell restoration, improved immunity, and improved memory, to name a few.
Pranayama is also a form of meditation that can be a way of entering a deep contemplative state, which is also incredibly powerful and beneficial to our wellbeing.
Specific Examples of Pranayama
There are many different types of pranayama that can be practiced. Here are a five to get you started:
1. Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhana)
Starting with the right nostril closed and the left nostril open, inhale deeply, then switch nostrils and exhale through the right. Continue in this fashion, always switching nostrils after the inhalation. This activates both sides of the brain and is incredibly relaxing, providing the mind with something to focus on. Breaths are long, slow, and deep.
It can be done to a count (usually of four) or just even, deep breaths.
2. Ujjayi Breath
This is breathing with a gentle constriction in the throat so that each breath makes an ocean-like sound. It is often the kind of breathing done throughout a vinyasa yoga practice, as it encouraged deep, even breaths, perfect for movement.
3. Fire Breath (Kapalbhati)
Fire breath involves inhaling normally and then forcefully exhaling through the nose quickly, contracting the lower abdominal muscles. It helps to dry out the nostrils and bring heat and energy to the body, kickstarting digestion.
Start with 30 short, forceful exhalations and work your way up from there.
4. Lion’s Breath
To practice Lion’s breath, inhale deeply, and then forcefully exhale through an open mouth with the tongue sticking out. It resembles roaring like a lion, hence the name. It stretches and relaxes the muscles across the face.
5. Breath Retention (Kumbhaka Pranayama)
This is where we focus our attention on the space between each inhalation and exhalation, the breath retention. Slowly and with care, increase the length of time between each breath, maybe going from one second to two and building up from there.
It is incredibly relaxing and allows for deeper breathing and more oxygen to get into the body, which has a profound impact on our circulation.
How to Incorporate Pranayama Into Your Daily Practice
Pranayama is something that even the most inexperienced, inflexible, and beginner yogi can try today. It’s beautiful to do at the start or end of a physical practice, as it really calms the mind and strengthens the mind/body connection.
Some pranayama, such as ujjayi breathing, can be done throughout the asana practice, where the breath is partnered with the movements. Pranayama can also be done separately from asana practice, such as alternate nostril breathing right before bed, to quiet the mind and prepare the body for sleep (try that tonight and I promise you will sleep more deeply than you have in a long time).
It’s also really energizing to do some fire breaths in the morning to help digestion and wake up. Basically, there is no bad time to do pranayama. Find a time when you can fit it into your day and get practicing!
Stephanie Johnson, CYI, Yogini Soul Staff Writer, is an elementary school teacher, yoga teacher, meditation student and writer. She is looking for ways to explore this beautiful, crazy life that we have been gifted and to live it with meaning. Stephanie fell in love with yoga as a teenager and has since traveled across the globe in search of gaining knowledge and experiences to deepen her understanding of yoga, from her home country of Australia, to India and across Asia, to Chile, in South America, where she now lives with her partner and two sons. Connect with her on Instagram.