Pranayama refers to the control and regulation of the breath. Forming one of the eight limbs of yoga, pranayama is a vital aspect of yoga, encouraging body-mind connection and fluid flow of energy through the whole mental and physical body.
In Sanskrit, prana means "vital life force", and yama means to gain control. In yoga, breath is associated with the prana, the force moving upwards.
"Where there is breath, there is life."
Breath accompanies us in our everyday endeavours, and, regardless its importance in our lives, we often tend to take it for granted. Breath is an excellent tool to help you understand your body and mind better, tune into yourself and consciously shift some stagnating energy by nothing else than inhaling and exhaling. The mind and the prana (breath) have close connections.
Thirumular, the great South Indian saint, said once, "Where the mind goes, the prana flows."
Try to think about the last time you felt nervous. How did your breath change? Was it deep? Or perhaps shallow? Did you inhale through your nose or mouth? Did you exhale heavily?
When your mind is agitated, you will be breathing heavily. If you are absorbed into something, you might start retaining your breath and sight heavily afterwards. In yoga, automatic breath retention is called Kevala Kumbhaka and often arises in a deep state of meditation.
All of the above illustrate how our mind affects the breath and the wonderful thing is that the process can be reversed. Breath regulation automatically regulates the mind. Knowing that you can regulate your breath to change your mental state, release tension, calm your mind, gain clarity, or energize yourself can open up new horizons and change some of your habits performed on default.
Whenever you find yourself feeling anxious, stressed, worried, puzzled or angry, take a few deep breaths and see what happens:)
Prana and Apana
As mentioned above, prana is an upward-moving force, while apana is a force moving downwards.
Prana is the energy that moves us closer towards our inward source. Apana is the exact opposite, it is the energy bringing us into the reality of the outer world.
The aim is to bring both forces together to create an equilibrium. They both complement one another, therefore keeping them balanced is paramount. The absence of prana can result in depletion and losing touch with yourself. On the other hand, the absence of apana brings you out of touch with reality and the beauty of mundane life.
Breath and Asana
Asana (postural practice) and pranayama are closely connected. By linking breath to the movement, you reach a meditative state where breath clears your mind of distractions and brings your attention to the here and now.
That being said and emphasising breath is an important element of asana practice, remember to always find your own rhythm and breathe lightly. It's okay to take an extra breath or two in a posture and find a pace that works well for you. Trace your steps back to ahimsa - the practice of non-violence.
What's more, pranayma can help you increase your range of movement.
Breathe in and out through the nose, then retain your breath for a couple of seconds. Repeat three to four times. Your body absorbs oxygen better in the presence of carbon dioxide. Increased oxygenation improves blood flow to all muscles and cells around the body.
Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems
To understand what benefits can different breathing techniques unravel and how they affect the body, it is important to touch on the two components of our autonomous nervous system, the one regulating involuntary physiologic processes.
The autonomous nervous system consists of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system activates the body's "fight-or-flight" response. It is done so by releasing stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, providing the body with a wave of energy. On the other hand, the parasympathetic nervous system relaxes your body after periods of stress or "danger".It is responsible for restoring, calming, and repairing.
Slow controlled breath focusing on elongated exhales helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system, slowing your mind, releasing tension and introducing a sense of peace. Moreover, breathing through the left nostril activates the right hemisphere of the brain, responsible for parasympathetic nervous system function.
Simple Pranayama Practices
Box (Square) Breathing
Box breathing is a simple but very effective technique that calms the mind, releases stress and tension, and activates the parasympathetic nervous system.
Start with inhaling through the nose and deep exhalation through the mouth to release all air from your lungs.
Breathe in through your nose as you slowly count to four in your head.
Retain (hold) your breath for a count of four.
Exhale for a count of four.
Retain your breath again for a count of four.
Repeat for three to four rounds.
Anuloma Viloma Pranayama (Alternate Nostril Breathing)
Just like the previous technique, Anuloma Viloma calms the mind, relieves stress and anxiety, and improves mental focus.
Close your right nostril with your thumb and inhale through your left nostril for a count of four (we start with the left to activate the parasympathetic nervous system)
Release your thumb and close your left nostril with your ring finger, and exhale through the right nostril for a count of four.
This time inhale through the right nostril and exhale through the left.
Repeat for about five rounds.
Breath of Joy
While the previous techniques mostly stimulate the parasympathetic system, Breath of Joy stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, circulating more prana, increasing oxygen levels in the bloodstream and energizing the whole body.
Inhale one-third of your lung capacity and swing your arms up in front of your body.
Continue inhaling to two-thirds capacity and bring your arms out to the sides like wings.
Inhale to full capacity and swing your arms over your head.
Exhale completely with an audible sound, swinging your arms down.
Repeat three to four times.