Melissa’s Rap: Pranayama, control of the breath, is the basic foundation of any yoga practice. Sometimes it is your yoga. It is that important and that impactful of a practice. Focusing on your breath alone is so powerful, it can have profound effects on one’s health, both mentally and physically. As a continuation of our focus on Yoga for Stress Relief, let’s take a closer look at pranayama, it’s benefits, and different pranayama exercises you can do to lower your stress level and promote relaxation in the body.
What is Pranayama?
According to Dictionary.com, pranayama is “a type of yogic breath awareness and regulation exercise designed to help control one’s vital energy.” Essentially, it is being aware of your breath and making efforts to control it in a way that better feeds the body and encourages relaxation.
Benefits of Pranayama
The benefits of breathing with intention and attention are considerable. Pranayama practice engages the parasympathetic nervous system and balances the autonomic nervous system. It has the potential to slow the heart rate, calm the mind, reduce stress levels, lower blood pressure, lessen pain, ease depression, tame anxiety and more. Therapists often prescribe breathing exercises to help ease depression and reduce anxiety, and some pranayama practitioners have experienced a reduction in symptoms of PTSD. Deeper, more controlled breathing techniques can help with pain management, improved cognition, and increased energy levels. Some practitioners report feeling a more positive outlook and improved quality of life.
Before we talk about different pranayama practices, we should observe how we are breathing now. Find a quiet place to sit or lie down. Get comfortable. Then, place your left hand on hand on your abdomen and your right hand over your heart. Close your eyes and notice where your breath is. Do you feel it in your chest or in your belly, or both? Are you breathing shallowly or deeply? Is your mind focused or drifting? Listen to your body. What is it telling you about your breathing and how it makes you feel?
Just like with our yoga practice, it is helpful to observe where we are first. Then, we are more prepared for the practice and cognizant of its effects as we move through it.
3-Part Breath: This is one of the most well-known pranayama practices. To begin, exhale completely, drawing the belly button in toward the spine, squeezing out every last bit of air. Then, release the abdomen and begin filling your body from the abdomen up. First, feel your abdomen begin to fill. Then you should feel your rib cage expand. Finally, feel your chest rise with the breath. As you exhale, imagine the breath leaving in reverse, as if you are draining the body from the top down: first your chest, then your sides and middle body, then your abdomen as you draw the belly button toward the spine. With the exception of some specific detoxing pranayama practices, I use the 3-Part breath as the foundation of most pranayama techniques – filling the body from the base up, and then back down again.
The Space Between the Breath: This technique can be used with different pranayama practices to help the practitioner stay focused and grounded. Today’ let’s look at it using the 3-Part Breath. As you are practicing this technique, bring your attention to the natural space between the in breath and out breath and vice versa. Even without holding the breath, we have a natural space there as we transition from one step of 3-Part Breath to the other. Bring your focus to that space and notice how it affects your practice and your ability to focus.
Ujjayi Breath (Conqueror Breath): Another popular pranayama practice is Ujjayi Breath, otherwise known as Conqueror Breath. Or, as I like to call it, the Darth Vader breath, because of the sound it makes. This practice involves drawing the breath along the back of the throat, making a sound similar to the ocean in a seashell or, if you are a Star Wars fan, the raspy breath of Darth Vader. If you have ever taken a class where ujjayi is practiced, the predominant sound in the room is the collective breath of the class participants. I personally find this to be distracting, and rarely teach it in my classes. However, proponents of the practice feel it helps the practitioner stay even more focused on the breath because you can hear when you get off track, and self-correct. To learn more about this technique, check out this Yoga Journal article on the topic.
Four Square Breathing: A powerful pranayama technique, and one I personally find very effective, is Four Square Breathing. I teach this technique using the 3-Part Breath. The only difference is you pause in between each in breath and each out breath and you hold each step for the count of four. Before you begin, exhale out completely. Then, follow these steps: breathe in for a count of four, gently hold or pause for a count of four, breathe out for a count of four and gently pause for a count of four. Repeat.
Bee Breath: This is hands down one of my favorite pranayama exercises. Close your eyes, press your thumbs softly into your ears and cup your eyes gently with your four fingers, being careful not to press in on your eyeballs. Exhale completely using 3-Part breath techniques. Then, inhale fully. At the top of the inhale, press your lips together and with your exhale, make an Mmmmm sound. At the bottom of the exhale, draw the belly button in and then release and refill. With the next out breath, again press your lips together and hum Mmmmm. Continue this practice for several minutes. Afterwards, sit with how you are feeling. Do you feel more at peace than before you began? What else do you notice? Do you feel like your body is humming? Do you feel more present and focused? Always tune in to the effects of your practices to notice what benefits you are gaining each time. Here is a great article about Brahmari Breath from the Yoga Journal.
Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing): Another popular and powerful pranayama technique is Nadi Shodhana, or Alternate Nostril Breathing. To begin, fold your middle and index finger on your right hand in toward your palm. Using your thumb, close your right nostril and and inhale fully. Release the right nostril and close the left using your ring and little finger. Exhale completely through the right nostril and then stay there and inhale fully. At the top of the inhale, release the left nostril and then close the right nostril with the thumb. Exhale through the left nostril and then inhale through the same nostril. Continue this pattern of exhaling and then inhaling on one side before closing that side and moving to the other. This pranayama exercise is known for balancing the breath, but also serves to keep us grounded in the present moment, as we focus on the different steps involved. Here is a great article about Nadi Shodhana, sometimes also known as the Channel Cleaning breath.
There are many other great pranayama techniques that we can learn at a later date, but these are a perfect place to start. They are some of the most popular pranayama practices, and also those I’ve found to be the most effective. I encourage you to try each of them, finding what works best for you. Let me know which is your favorite from this list, or if you have another you’d like to share by commenting below or emailing us here.
Breathe in peace. Breathe out stress.
To read a sampling of research on the benefits of pranayama, check out these reports:
Harvard: Yoga for Anxiety and Depression
Harvard: Breath Control Helps Quell Stress Response
U.S. National Library of Medicine: Sudarshan kriya yoga: Breathing for health
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