Breathing is something that we do automatically without having to think about it as well as also something we can do consciously and even intentionally choose to change.
Pranayama is the practice of yogic breathing techniques that intentionally change the depth, length, and frequency of your breath. We do this by modifying our inhale, exhale, and/or pauses between our breath.
We’ll explore the meaning, benefits, and types of pranayama breathing techniques that you can start to practice.
What is the Meaning of Pranayama?
To help understand pranayama better it’s also interesting to explore what the root words mean in Sanskrit.
“Prana” is the Sanskrit word for life force energy.
“Ayama” means to lengthen, stretch or extend.
Prana is described by the ancient yogi Patanjali as the energy force that flows in and around the body that we can control through the practice of pranayama.
In classical traditional yogic texts like the Yoga sutras, pranayama is described as breathing techniques where you intentionally manipulate your breath to lengthen, extend, and increase the amount of prana or life force energy.
However, from a more practical and quantifiable modern day perspective we can say that we use pranayama to control our breathing via a specific technique to help lengthen and extend our breath capacity with a focus on breathing without forcing and with a sense of ease and expansion.
What Are the Benefits of Pranayama?
Although prana itself has never been scientifically measured or quantified there are many other benefits of pranayama that have been researched in modern science and are interesting to be aware of.
Scientific studies show that slow breathing pranayama techniques have significant positive effects on the autonomic and central nervous system, and an increase in hear rate variability (HRV). Research shows that a practice pranayama can help in reducing blood pressure in patients with hypertension which is an important risk factor to cardiovascular disease.
Pranayama has also been shown to have psychological benefits such as an increased feeling in comfort, relaxation, and alertness, and reduced feelings of anxiety, depression, and stress.
As a set of practices, pranayama is an interesting stepping stone between a physical yoga practice and a contemplative meditation practice.
By practicing pranayama breathing techniques it will help make it easier for you to focus on breathing fully and deeply in your physical yoga practice. Making each yoga posture feel lighter and more accessible to practicing with a regular and slow breath.
As well as supporting your meditation practice by enabling you to feel more familiar on observing your breath with a deeper level of concentration. So that you are ultimately able to meditate for longer with ease.
Types of Pranayama Breathing Exercises in Yoga
Most yoga practitioners tend to be first drawn to practicing a physical yoga practice (asana) where you learn how to breathe slowly and steadily in wide range of physical yoga poses. After a period of time you might then find you start to feel interested to also explore some of the more subtle practices of formal breathing exercises known as pranayama.
Having said that there’s nothing to stop a beginner that is completely new to yoga starting to immediately learn some of the fundamental pranayama techniques before or at the same time as a physical yoga practice.
Below you can find some short descriptions and suggestions of the different types of pranayama breathing exercises that you can practice in your yoga practice.
Breathing in Yoga Poses
Breathing while practicing yoga poses, is one of the essential parts of doing yoga. In fact the meaning of vinyasa yoga is linking breath with movement. And it’s the focus on the breath with every movement that makes a physical yoga different to other forms of exercise.
The idea behind this is that as long as you are consciously breathing while moving, you are doing yoga. This is helpful to keep in mind when you are beginning yoga or practicing some difficult poses—and especially when breathing in twists, backbends, and sun salutations. Since in yoga we want to prioritize having a steady breath over forcing your body into a particular yoga pose.
You will find that once you get familiar with the overall technique required for the key yoga poses it will feel easier to start observing how you are breathing when in the yoga poses.
In essence you want to stay at about 70-80 % of your maximum limit of flexibility and strength in a posture so that you can explore the pose without pushing yourself too much and keeping your breath flowing.
Naturally many of us have a tendency to push ourselves either a bit too much or a bit too little. So one of the goals in yoga is to keep searching to find the balance somewhere in the middle.
The role of a steady rhythmic breath while moving through different yoga poses can help to create an internal rhythm to guide you through your yoga practice. By keeping a regular rhythm to your breath and movement, it can help over time to focus your thoughts and calm your mind.
Beginner Pranayama Techniques
Like with all activities there are some simpler, fundamental pranayama practices that are useful to practice first before experimenting with more advanced practices.
It’s often overlooked however that many of us have unconsciously developed less efficient breathing patterns over the course of our life. For some of us it might be that we spend most of our day breathing through our mouth rather than our nose. While for others we might be wearing tighter clothes that restrict the free movement of our ribcage and belly during breathing.
Therefore, it’s quite common that you might feel quite surprised about hard it is to think and manipulate your breathing in a specific pranayama technique.
To best get started I would suggest to choose just one of the following pranayama techniques and practice it for a period of time to really learn and understand it before trying out a second pranayama exercise.
Full Yogic Breath | Sama Vayu
Learning how to practice Sama Vayu or the full yogic breath can be really helpful to increase your awareness and capacity to do full diaphragmatic breathing.
In this technique we use the help of the hands on the belly and chest to make it easier to feel the movement in these areas as we breathe with our diaphragm.
Equal Breathing | Sama Vritti
Equal breathing or Sama Vritti focuses on lengthening equally our inhale and exhale. Since our exhale is naturally a little longer than our inhale we use this practice to help balance our breath out.
Once you’re familiar with this practice you could try doing it before you start your physical yoga practice to help set up a regular rhythm with your breath.
Inhale for 4 and Exhale for 6 | Visami Vritti
This pranayama technique of Visamivritti or inhale 4 and exhale 6 is focused on extending and lengthening your exhale.
If you are completely new to pranayama this technique can feel quite accessible and simple to get started with. And then as you get more familiar with the practice you can start to slow down your count and pace of your breath.
Deep Breathing Exercise of Inhaling and Pausing | Viloma
Viloma means against the grain and is a deep breathing exercise where you focus on pausing part way through your inhale.
It’s great to practice if you are feeling a little stressed or agitated. See if you can work on keeping your body soft and without tension as you pause between your inhales.
Block Breathing | Postural Pranayama Practice
Block breathing is pranayama that is focused on your posture. You sit close to the wall and use a block against your back to help find an upright position and work on breathing into the back of your body.
This is a great structural technique to work on if you want to improve your posture and ability to sit for longer periods of time in a crossed legged position.
Breath of Fire | Ujjayi Breath
Ujjayi breath or the breath of fire is a pranayama where we create heat in the body. We do this by breathing in and out the nose but doing this at the same time as slightly constricting our throat.
You want to find a soft and smooth sound to your breath as you do this technique. So watch out if you notice your body is tensing up or that you are making a louder, strained sound with your breath.
In case it feels hard to do this technique I would suggest first working on some of the other practices.
Alternate Nostril Breathing | Nadi Shodhana
This pranayama of alternate nostril breathing or Nadi Shodhana is a little bit more complicated than the other breathing techniques since we need to coordinate using our hand to help breathe in and out of a single nostril.
It can feel quite a balancing practice since we work on breathing in and out of each nostril separately.
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