How many times have you heard it… “Just breathe”, “Concentrate on your breath”, “Return to the breath”? But what does it mean? If you are alive, obviously you’re breathing… The term pranayama is made up of two words – prana (life force energy or breath) and yama (regulating or causing a break). The importance of the breath, in yoga and in life, cannot be overstated. But how often are you actually conscious of your breath? Yes, we can all breathe, in fact it’s the one thing that we cannot really control in our lives. Think about it, you make the decision to hold your breath, perhaps you can hold it long enough to pass out, but what happens when you pass out? You immediately start breathing again!
Unlike any other bodily function, breathing is the only one which is both voluntary and involuntary, in other words, you can do either completely consciously or unconsciously. It’s also the only function through which the conscious, voluntary mind can influence the involuntary, or autonomic, nervous system (divided into two separate systems, the parasympathetic and the sympathetic), which is responsible for revving-up the body in times of crisis. The “Fight or Flight” is a response of the sympathetic nervous system, and can be characterized by cold sweaty palms, pounding heart, and acute anxiety. The parasympathetic nervous system is known as the relaxation or resting response, to lower the heart rate and blood pressure to normal, speed digestion, and activate the cleansing processes. Everyone alive knows how to breathe, but in Western society few people in know how to breathe correctly. We have been taught to suck in our tummy and puff out our chests. At the same time, we’re barraged with constant stress, which causes our muscles to tense and our respiration rate to increase. As a result, we have become a world full of shallow “chest breathers,” primarily using the middle and upper portions of our lungs. Few Westerners other than musicians, singers and some athletes, are even aware that the abdomen should expand during inhalation.
Diaphragmatic breathing is breathing that is done by contracting the diaphragm and filling the lungs with air in such a way that the belly expands. Some benefits include reduction in stress, lower blood pressure, anxiety. Also there is evidence to suggest that it increases the suction pressure created in the thoracic cavity and improves the venous return of blood, which reduces the load on the heart and enhances circulatory function. Breath has a tremendous power to heal and to rejuvenate. Its importance in therapeutic cases cannot be underestimated. Several deep breaths can clear the senses, energize the mind, releases stress and ease pain away. Try it and find out for yourself how. Some hints and tips:
- Pranayama is best done on an empty stomach.
- You can sit on a mat or in a chair with your legs crossed at the ankles, in a posture most comfortable to you.
- The flow of breath – both in and out – must be continuous. Never break the rhythm.
- Begin with three minutes of Pranayama and go on to 15 minutes per day.
Here are a few types of basic pranayama for starters:
Bhastrika Pranayama / Bellows Breath: Sit in a comfortable posture with your hands on your lap and close your eyes. Breathe in slowly through both your nostrils and fill in your lungs and abdomen. Once you inhale fully, exhale with great force making hissing sound. This is one cycle. When you breathe in while performing Bhastrika pranayama, your abdominal should not blow up. Instead your chest area should blow up. Repeat the procedure for 5 to 10 times. Breathing in and breathing out may be continued for five minutes.
- Helps to throw out toxins and cures illnesses of respiratory track
- Boosts the supply of oxygen and purifies blood
- Helps to keep negative thoughts away
- Increases warmth in the body and helps to prevent common cold
Kapalbhati Pranayama / Breath of Fire: Sitting posture is same as above. Inhale air through your nostrils normally and exhale forcefully. The exhale should be way shorter than the inhale. Your abdominal muscles should expand when you inhale and contract when you exhale. The exhalations should be forceful. There is not much effort when inhaling the air – the inhalation is almost passive. Start with 3 rounds of Kapalbhati pranayama by doing 15 exhalations in each round. Take small breaks between each round. You can increase the number of exhalations and rounds of pranayama as per your convenience.
- Helps to detoxify lungs and respiratory tracks.
- Boosts the supply of oxygen and purifies blood.
- Helps to tone up the abdominal muscles.
Nadi Shodana Pranayama / Alternate Nostril Breathing: Close your right nostril with your right thumb and inhale slowly through the left nostril. Fill up your lungs to the maximum capacity. Pause at the top of the breath (Do not hold breath at all if you are suffering from hypertension, asthma). Now close left nostril with middle and ring finger and exhale through the right nostril very slowly and rhythmically. Inhale again through the right nostril. Exhale again through the left nostril.
- Cleans up and tones up the entire nervous system.
- It is also beneficial in migraine and chronic sinus problems.
- It strengthens the heart. Improves blood circulation and breathing capacity.
As with any form of exercise, Pranayama is best practiced under professional guidance.
Some further reading:
Nadi Shodana / Alternate Nostril Breathing