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Pranayama is a vast collection of yogic exercises that utilize breath to improve body and mind. Breath is nourishing and vitalizing, the source of cellular energy but the gateway to so much more. Patanjali (in Sutra 2.52) said, “The regular practice of pranayama reduces the obstacles that inhibit clear perception.” By practicing breath exercises one can overcome ineffective breathing patterns one has fallen into unconsciously and, in doing so, improve one’s energy level. And as one becomes more attuned to one’s breath, one will begin to notice changes in one’s state of mind and emotion, giving one a foot in the door to disrupt habits of mind and impulses that are not beneficial.
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On EKA, one can find a comprehensive set of practices, starting with those that will help one learn the basics in a gentle fashion, progressively moving on to complete sequences designed to help achieve a balanced state of mind, a state of mind perfect for meditation or for facing the challenges of the day ahead.
Benefits of Pranayama
While there are many pranayama practices and they can be used for varied purposes, a lot of what one does with pranayama falls under the headings of calming, stimulating, or seeking a balanced state between being too groggy or too excited. As you’ll see, a number of secondary effects result from calming or stimulating the body.
So, let’s consider what happens when one practices pranayama. Click here to read more.
Types of Pranayama
All breathing practices consist of breathing in, breathing out, and (sometimes) holding the breath. But there is a wealth of variation that can be achieved by changing the way one does those few activities.
As we group practices by type, keep in mind that no classification scheme is perfect. While all of the practices can be fitted into one of these categories, some may overlap, fitting into multiple categories. Pranayama builds on itself in that way. In reality, the boxes we put practices into have no value except inasmuch as they help one understand the different effects one is trying to achieve through the practice — e.g. building awareness, building strength and suppleness in the respiratory muscles, calming the body and mind, or energizing the body and mind.
1. Natural Breath awareness/familiarization
These practices involve observation of the natural breath. That is, one is not altering one’s breathing at all. Instead, one is observing some aspect of the breath, e.g. its duration, changes in pace, spontaneous pauses, or bodily movement of breath.
2. Expanding (Opening/Lengthening) Breaths
In these practices, one may focus on working the muscles of respiration through their full range of motion or on increasing the duration of one or more components of breath (i.e. inhalation, exhalation, or retention.)
Opening breaths focus on breathing through a full range of motion and spatially expanding the breath as much as possible. Opening breaths include: abdominal / diaphragmatic breathing, chest [thoracic] breathing, and Yogic breathing (the fullest breath, which includes both abdominal and thoracic breathing, but also raising the collarbone [clavicular breath] to “top off” the lungs.) Abdominal breathing is also called diaphragmatic breathing because it involves moving the diaphragm, the big muscular sheet below the lungs whose actions we see when the belly bulges outward during an inward breath. Many adults underutilize this muscle, unconsciously breathing in a shallow way, and / or not getting enough exercise.
While the opening breaths focus upon expanding the breath in terms of space. In the lengthening breaths, one expands the duration of components of breath (i.e. inhalation, exhalation, or retention.) One can train oneself to lengthen the duration of breath using a couple of different practices. One is Viloma Pranayama, in which one inserts little pauses amid one’s inhalations, exhalations, or both. A second approach is through the practice of Vrtti Pranayama, in which we mentally count the lengths of inhalation, exhalations, and retentions [if used,] systematically varying the ratios of these lengths. For example, one might make the inhalation and exhalation the same length, or one make the exhalation twice as long as the inhalation.
3. Single Nostril Breath
Yoga offers several practices that rely on breathing in or out through only one nostril at a time. Did you know that everyday our bodies shift from breathing predominantly through one nostril to breathing mostly through the other? This is done unconsciously. It’s called the nasal cycle, and scientists have studied why it happens as well as what differences are seen in our physiology when one breathes through one nostril versus the other. Single nostril breathing helps one become more aware of the balance between two sides both as a result of the nasal cycle and other influences (e.g. sinus inflammation.)
One pairing of single nostril breath practices is that of anuloma / pratiloma. In Anuloma Pranayama, one breathes in through both nostrils, and then alternates exhaling through single nostrils. Pratiloma Pranayama is done in the opposite way, one alternates the nostril of inhalation, but breathes out with both nostrils open.
A second pairing of single nostril breath practices is that of Surya Bhedana and Chandra Bhedana. In Surya Bhedana Pranayama one breathes in through the right nostril and out through the left nostril. Chandra Bhedana Pranayama is done in the opposite fashion: one breathes in through the left and out through the right.
The fullest expression of single nostril breathing is called Nadi Shodhana Pranayama, and it involves a sequence that includes single nostril inhalations and exhalations that covers all the bases — breathing in left, out right, in right, and out left. Nadi Shodhana is usually first taught using natural breathing (like a breath awareness practice) but then proceeds on to incorporate Vrtti Pranayama, adjusting the relative durations of inhalations, exhalations, and retentions.
4. Stimulating Breaths
These are the breath practices that invigorate and energize a person. There are two common forms of stimulative pranayama practices in yogic breathwork. Kapalbhati Pranayama is a forced exhalation breath in which one rapidly contracts the abdominal muscles to force air out, and lets the inhalation happen on the rebound, effortlessly. Bhastrika Pranayama (a.k.a. bellows breath) uses effort during both the inhalation and exhalation phase of breathing.
5. Calming Breaths
There are a great many variations of calming breaths. You may have noticed that several of the breath practices that we’ve already mentioned have a calming effect. All of the opening breaths (particularly Abdominal and Yogic breathing) are calming, Vrrti Pranayama sequences are oriented toward increasing calm in the body and mind, and many variations on single nostril breathing do as well. On top of all those, there are several other breathwork practices that are explicitly designed to move one more toward a tranquil state.
If you’re wondering why there are two common stimulative practices but many calming ones, one need look no further than the purpose of these practices from a yogic perspective. In Sutra 1.2, Patanjali writes that, “Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object and sustain that direction without distractions.” The point is the mind naturally gravitates towards a more turbulent state, and that’s why one benefits from having more tools to bring tranquility than one needs to facilitate invigoration.
Sheetali Pranayama and Sheetkari Pranayama are breaths in which one constricts the opening through which one breaths, this creates a cooling effect in the mouth. [The only difference between the two is how one creates the constriction.]
Bhramari Pranayama is frequently called the “bumble bee breath” because one makes a “mmmmmm” sound on the exhalation that sounds like the drone of a bumble bee [i.e. carpenter bee] — the droning sound is particularly intense because one closes off the ear canals as one does the practice, enhancing the experience of resonance.
Ujjayi Pranayama is a practice in which one gently contracts the throat as one breaths such that one will hear a bit of raspiness, like a faint snoring sound.
As was mentioned earlier, Abdominal and Yogic breathing, Vrtti Pranayama with elongated exhalations, and Nadi Shodhana with long exhalations can all also be used as tranquilizing breaths.
It’s worth pointing out that this is by no means a comprehensive exploration of yogic breath practices. However, it does include all that one needs to have a well-rounded practice from beginner through advanced practitioner.
Conditions improved through Pranayama practices
Yoga was not created for therapeutic or medicinal purposes, but at some point it became clear that yogic practices tended to result in better than average health outcomes. Today, many people who come to yoga do so in order to enjoy improved health and well-being. In large part, these improved health outcomes result from the mechanisms discussed in the above section about the effects of pranayama upon the body — e.g. triggering the rest and digest mode allows the body to do what it does well. Among the things the body does well is maintaining balance [homeostasis,] healing wounds and injuries, and eliminating threats from microscopic invaders.
If one looks at risk factors for a wide variety of diseases and ailments, the problem is often that people’s lifestyles (e.g. what and how they eat, how and how much they rest or sleep, and how and how much they are physically active) are often not ideal for the body to succeed in its housekeeping functions (e.g. immune response, homeostatic balance, and rebuilding / replacing tissue.) People often want a prescription, some pill or technique that will fix whatever it is that ails them, while failing to realize that the body can fix a lot of what it comes up against — if it’s given the right kind of food, rest, and physical activity. Much of the benefit of yoga results from the fact that it helps one to be truly at rest when resting and to be truly active in activity, and it can also help one learn to reduce impulsive consumption — such as overeating or eating too much of the wrong foods. In short, much of Yoga’s health benefits come from giving the body what it needs and getting out of its way.
Beyond the general health and well-being gains experienced through the practice of pranayama, there are some medical conditions for which studies have indicated benefits from pranayama practice. This should not be considered an exhaustive list as new research is constantly underway that may change our present-day understanding. [Note: As always, those with medical conditions should discuss their intent to engage in new practices with their healthcare provider before making any changes. Every case is unique and a given person’s particular situation may call for modifications or changes in approach from what works for individuals on average.]
Bronchial Asthma: Asthma is one of the most common respiratory ailments. It results from inflammation that restricts the passageways inside the lungs. While it is often the result of genetics, it’s often triggered by environmental conditions (i.e. pollution, pollen, smoking, etc.)
A few studies have show varying benefits for asthmatic patients from breathwork practices including 1:2 vrtti pranayama, bhamari, kapalbhati, and Buteyko breathing [the latter is not a Yogic method, but one developed by a Russian scientist that works on disrupting hyperventilative patterns of breathing.]
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder [COPD]: This is another inflammatory condition that obstructs airflow, and which is often caused by smoke or other environmental irritants.
A 2014 study showed benefits for moderate to severe COPD patients of sessions using
four practices including two single nostril breaths (Surya Bhedana and Nadi Shodhana) as well as bhramari and kapalbhati.
Hypertension [High Blood Pressure]: We’ve mentioned homeostasis a couple times now. Homeostasis refers to a balance of bodily states. There are many variables that the body has to keep in balance, including: temperature, blood acidity, sugar levels, and various mineral levels.) Among the variables that the body has to balance is blood pressure. Blood pressure that is either too high or too low can have harmful effects.
Another 2014 study showed that a pranayama practice that included Nadi Shodhana, Chandra Bhedana, Bhramari, and a form of chanting had benefits above and beyond hypertension medication for patients with mild blood pressure.
Pain Management: Even if you have no history with yoga or breathwork, you might have some intuition of the role breath can play in managing pain. From the guidance about breathing received by pregnant women during delivery to the spontaneous deep breaths one takes upon stubbing a toe, many of us have realized the soothing power of a few deep breaths.
A 2009 study looked at the issue systematically using patients with pain from fibromyalgia, and found that slow breathing did produce a degree of relief in pain perception.
As I mentioned this should not be thought of as a comprehensive list. One should also note that there are many more conditions for which the practice of pranayama was shown to improve quality of life measures (e.g. quality of sleep, feeling of well-being, reduction in anxiety, etc.) for individuals with a wide variety of ailments from cancer to diabetes mellitus. [That is, where pranayama was not studied as a part of the therapeutic regimen, but rather as a mitigator of symptoms.]
Breath is central to one’s energy level, health, and feelings of well-being. No matter what your present state of health, it’s worth looking into what these powerful practices can do for you.