Pranayama is the term given to different breathing techniques used both on and off the mat in yoga. In Sanskrit, the word pranayama can be translated in two parts - “prana”, which is life force energy and “ayama” which encompasses meanings of expansion, breadth and length. These terms together give us the basis of pranayama, which is controlling the length of inhale and exhale breath to help direct and move energy around the body.
Breathwork is seen as a fundamental part of yoga and just as there are many styles of yoga, there are also many styles of breathwork. In most yoga classes, teachers will offer students at least one breathing technique – this could range from three-part breathing, to Ujjayi breath, both of which we’ll explore in more detail shortly.
Why Practice Breathing Exercises?
While there are many different styles of yoga, the goal of harmonising the body and creating union with both the mind and subtle bodies remains consistent. Often in class, students may hear yoga teachers cueing the breath, reminding them to breath and guiding them on exactly how to do this. The words “inhale” and “exhale” are widely repeated during a standard yoga class, sometimes accompanied by a breath count. Teachers are simply reminding their students to be mindful of their breath. Often as yogis move through postures and static holds, the breath can become stagnant and “held”. To allow the prana (life force energy) to move freely around the body and become “unstuck” it’s important for the breath to directly flow and move in time with the physical body.
Benefits Of Pranayama
Pranayama can help to:
- Improve concentration and focus
- Give the body an energy boost
- Reduce daily stress
- Improve sleep patterns
- Aid with digestion
- Boost blood circulation
- Strengthen the lungs
- Clear the sinuses
- Prepare the body for meditation
Pranayama is widely and safely practiced across the globe, however as with any new practice, there are considerations to bear in mind ahead of trying it for the first time. Those who should be mindful include:
- Pregnant women
- People recovering from illness (namely effecting the heart/lungs)
- People with low blood pressure
- Those living with ongoing breathing issues
- Women menstruating
While many pranayama exercises may still be perfectly fine for those above, be sure to flag any issues ahead of class.
Pranayama and Yoga Philosophy
Those interested in yoga philosophy may already be familiar with the Eight Limbs of Yoga, which were written by Patanjali and printed in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The Eight Limbs of Yoga offer a guide of how to live a balanced and meaningful life by following some main principles:
- Yama (Ethical observations)
- Niyama (Personal observations)
- Asana (Physical yoga poses)
- Pranayama (Breathing techniques)
- Pratyahara (Sensory withdrawal)
- Dharana (Concentration)
- Dhyana (Meditation)
- Samadhi (Highest consciousness)
Patanjali wrote the limbs in succession of moving from the outward world to the inner self. He places yoga asana, (different traditional yoga poses) immediately next to pranayama, highlighting the important tie between the two. Correct and consistent use of pranayama is thought to help practitioners access their subtle bodies, as they bridge the gap between physical movement and turning their practice inwards.
Breaking Down The Breath
Before delving into different breathwork techniques, it’s worth being aware of how the breath is described during pranayama practice. One full breath can be broken down into the inhale, the exhale and the holds in between, which is also known as:
- Puraka (Inhale)
- Kumbhaka (Breath retention)
- Rechaka (Exhale)
Here Are a Couple of Pranayama Techniques To Try at Home
Three-part breathing is a form a pranayama that is widely accessible for those beginning their journey. It helps calm the parasympathetic nervous system, bringing peace to the mind.
An easy way to try out three-part breathing at home is to:
Come to a seated position, or lay flat on your back. Place one hand on your lower stomach and one on the top of your chest. Keeping the mouth gently closed, start to breath in and out through the nose noticing how smoothly the breath flows, or whether it catches on the inhale and exhales.
When comfortable, start to elongate the inhales and exhales solely continuing to breathe in and out through the nose. Take note of your hands rising and falling as the breath moves through the throat, to the top of the lungs and continues to expand through the centre of the chest, down into the base of the lungs. This conscious expansion of the breath through the top, middle and bottom of the lungs gives reference to the name of this technique.
Carry out as many rounds as feels comfortable. Some yoga classes will cycle through a few rounds, while other practitioners may choose to be here for several minutes.
Note, the breath should always be gentle. While practitioners are working to expand the lungs with fresh oxygen and fully expel the stale air, there is no force behind this action enabling the parasympathetic nervous system to maintain a relaxed state.
Three-part breathing can be done at any time of day. Yoga practitioners may be familiar with using the technique at the beginning or end of a class, where it can aid in serving marginally different purposes. Three-part breathing at the beginning of a yoga class is a wonderful way for students to become aware of their breath ahead of breathing in union with the movement of their bodies during the class. Three-part breathing at the end of a yoga class can help students to deepen the feeling of calm after savasana and ahead of any possible meditation practices.
Ujjayi breath is a technique widely used in yoga classes as it warms the body from the inside out through rhythmic, oceanic sounding breath. It helps to energise the body and can be translated to mean “victorious breathing”.
To try the practice at home, come to a comfortable seated or standing position, ensuring to relax the facial muscles and jaw.
Keeping the mouth closed, calmly and smoothly draw breath in through the nose and out through the nose with a slight constriction at the back of the throat.
As with most pranayama techniques, the inhales and exhales are of equal length. In order to gain the maximum benefits of the technique, it’s important to avoid clenching the jaw or over constricting the throat as this can create tension in the body.
As the practice creates a gentle heat it is often used in yoga asana classes, such as hatha or vinyasa yoga, to help practitioners move deeper into their asanas. By contrast, classes such as yin yoga are better to a cooler body temperature, thereby negating the need for Ujjayi breathing.
Pranayama can be applied as much or as little as each yoga practitioner chooses. If you enjoyed the techniques above, here are some more others you may wish to explore:
- Nadi Shodhana (Alternate nostril breathing)
To purify energy channels in the body and help clear the mind.
- Kapalabhati Pranayama (Skull shining breath)
Strengthens the abdominal area and stimulates the brain while vigorously warming the body through rapid snaps of breath.
- Shitali Pranayama (Cooling breath)
Helps to cool the body and calm the mind through using the tongue as a straw to draw in fresh oxygen.
- Simhasana Pranayama (Lion’s breath)
Stretches the facial muscles and expels stale air, revitalising the body.
- Bhramari Pranayama (Humming Bee/ Bumblebee Breath)
Aims to calm the body and mind through a combination of sensory withdrawal techniques, while creating a vibration with the breath akin to the sound of a bumblebee.