Whether you’re a professional yogi, or simply somebody curious to find out the benefits of pranayama, you’re in the right place. From answering the central question of: what is pranayama? To the benefits of the practice, we have covered every corner so you can understand the ins and outs before getting started.
Within this article we will cover:
- What is Pranayama?
- Types of Pranayama
- Benefits of Pranayama
- How to Do Pranayama Breathing
- Different Pranayama Techniques
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What is Pranayama?
So, before we begin we will answer the question: what is pranayama? Pranayama practices are defined as a form of breathing exercise that focuses on controlling your breath and links breath with the movements between the postures in yoga practice.
The name pranayama describes the practice literally - prana meaning energy source or life force, and yama meaning control or restraint from the Eight Limbs of Yoga.
Pranayama symbolises the link between the physical asana (postures in yoga) and the deeper connection with the intention, mind and meditation; experienced yogis advise that the concentration on breath is essential for optimal practice.
Yoga philosophy promotes the ideology that the postures in yoga are an introduction to meditation and enlightenment, which are key staples of a successful pranayama and yoga practice. This is because pranayama breathing exercises enable students to gain a clearer perspective and intention for making spiritual progress and transferring knowledge into daily life, on and off the mat.
What is Prana?
To address Prana more specifically, it is defined as life force, vitality and power in the body as it is believed to regulate all physical functions of the body such as; oxygen supply, circulation, digestion and many more.
Prana doesn’t enter the body through inhalation, it instead enters the body when there is a positive change in the mind. Ancient texts describe that someone who is troubled or restless has too little prana inside the body, and too much outside.
The quality of prana in the body is closely linked with the state of mind, and too little prana in the body can be associated with feelings such as restriction, lack of drive, motivation or feelings linked with depression.
To improve these feelings and feel enlightened, it is encouraged to practice yoga as the intention is to make a connection between prana and purusha, perusha being the definition of consciousness. Purusha is believed to be found inside and outside the body and controls our degree of clarity therefore, is directly linked with our state of mind.
Before we dive into the types of pranayama, it is important to note that if you suffer from any health complications that may hinder your performance, you should receive confirmation from your GP or a health professional before undertaking any types of pranayama.
If you’re getting back into the yoga or pilates game after a break, take a look at our article on reformer pilates: benefits, history & how to Start.
Types of Pranayama
There are 5 different types of pranayama that correspond to different areas of the body and their function, these are:
Udana-vayu | Throat and Speech
Udana is the upward moving breath which finds itself in the throat’s centre, manifesting our expressions and speech, as well as our metabolism through the thyroid glands. Asanas that direct energy to the upper body, including the head and neck, are beneficial for Udana-vayu. For example, inversion asanas - such as a shoulder stand (also known as Sarvangasana in Sanskrit).
Prana-vayu | Chest
Prana Vayu is defined as the energising force of the inward moving energy. Most active in the lungs and heart region, it provides us with energy, confidence, motivation and vitality.
It is believed to be responsible for respiration, allowing us to take in oxygen for the cells in our bodies. Asanas that strengthen and activate the upper body in the correct alignment help to activate the Prana-vayu; for example the upward facing dog (or Shvanasana in Sanskrit).
If you enjoy learning about the history of yoga and pranayama, head over to our article 17 yoga symbols and their meanings.
Samana-vayu | Centre of the body and digestion
Samana-vayu, or ‘balancing air’, is the equalising breath and energy movement in the core abdominal area, this is linked to our digestion and the manipura chakra - also known as the solar plexus chakra.
It’s believed there is a link between our emotional state and our gut health, inherently linking to the Samana-vayu due to the placement of the energy movement. So, by increasing awareness of our emotional wellbeing, it's believed the communication between the brain and the gut regulates our physical and mental well-being.
Twists such as the revolved side angle pose or the Parivrtta Parsvakonasana are associated with this vayu.
Apana-vayu | Lower abdomen and Elimination from the body
Apana-vayu is the downward moving breath and the grounding of the body which is very important for yoga practice and assists in staying present or in the moment.
The Apana-vayu also relates to mind function and the ego. Grounding postures such as the tree pose also known as Vrikshasana are great for grounding and centering the body to the Earth.
Vyana-vayu | All energy distribution
Vyana-vayu is the diffusive or dispersing breath which supplements the balance of all the vayus.
This energy is believed to nourish all parts of the body, from our limbs, circulatory system, nervous system and our movement. Poses such as Warrior 3, known as Virabhadrasana III are beneficial for whole body involvement.
Benefits of Pranayama
#1 Benefits the Cardiovascular System
There is much speculation around pranayama and heart disease and if it can assist the cardiovascular system, this is due to the many different types of pranayama that provoke different physiological responses in the body.
The effect of pranayama on the cardiovascular and respiratory system has been studied and found to be beneficial, infact; a 15-day study investigating the effects of pranayama practice in 50 healthy individuals revealed a significant reduction in resting pulse rate, systolic blood pressure, and mean blood pressure.
#2 Helps Prevent Anxiety
Those who struggle with stress, anxiety, chronic pain and sleep disturbances benefit from a regular pranayama practice, there are even benefits of pranayama for concentration.
It helps to promote a restful sleep, boosting your immune system while focusing your attention and concentration, as well as training the body to find and reclaim a calm state.
A study investigating the effect of fast and slow pranayama on young students revealed that with a 12-week pranayama intervention, there was a beneficial effect on their cardiovascular parameters of heart rate, diastolic blood pressure and perceived stress scale.
This effect can ultimately result in reducing the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as a stress induced increase in heart rate.
To make the most of these benefits in a unique way, find our list of the 13 best yoga retreats in the UK.
#3 Promotes Hair Growth
As a result of the direct impact pranayama can have on the circulatory system, making it more efficient and oxygenating the body, this can offer hair growth benefits to the scalp.
With the respiratory system stronger, the lungs are able to fight foreign bodies and free radicals caused by oxidative stress. This type of stress is a result of damaged cells, including DNA - which advances the aging process, often leading to hair loss.
It is said that many practitioners after regular practice and focus on performance of asanas in conjunction with pranayama have stimulated hair growth.
A good tip to try when attempting pranayama for hair growth stimulation is practicing downward facing asanas, or practicing pranayama in a downward position due to the enhancement of blood flow to the head, and increasing circulation in general.
#4 Increases GABA
There is a well known neurotransmitter called GABA (Gamma aminobutyric acid) which is widely known as ‘nature's xanax’. Practicing pranayama can induce an increase in said neurotransmitter and in turn, helps us to feel calm and unwind.
To practice pranayama for this benefit, you can perform alternate nostril breathing, otherwise known as “Nadi Shuddhi” or Nadi Shodhana. In Sanskrit “Nadi” meaning subtle energy channel, and “Shuddhi” meaning cleansing or purifying the energy or prana flowing freely throughout the body.
We have a step by step on how to practice this a little later!
#5 Helps to Reduce Insomnia
Slow pranayama practice can assist in promoting overall calmness by acknowledging thoughts and allowing them to flow through and out of the body. By consistently practicing pranayama in conjunction with meditative yoga, it allows for a specified amount of time out of the day to address any stresses or negative thoughts.
By doing this and dedicating this time every day to the practise, it promotes a more relaxed sleeping pattern that carries less stress, as any negativity will have already been addressed during the designated time given to pranayama.
If you’re a beginner to yoga or pranayama, find our articles as helpful resources below!
- 21 Best Yoga Equipment To Start Practising Yoga
- Yin Yoga: Everything You Need To Know
- 24 Types Of Yoga Styles
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How to Do Pranayama Breathing
While there are many variations to pranayama, there are technicalities that typically stay uniform throughout the different forms of the practice. These can be identified as the following:
- Purak - the stage of inhalation
- Kumbhak - the stage of retention
- Rechak - the stage of exhalation
Though this in the simplest form describes the action of taking a breath, which isn’t often deemed as complex, these technicalities describe the way in which each stage is performed that variates the overall performance. For example, you may visit a class that promotes the retention stage to be longer than the other two stages, and vice versa.
For beginners, it can be difficult to know where to start when there are so many options and variations throughout yoga communities. However, to exemplify the most common first step we’ve laid out a breakdown of:
- The three-part breath (Dirga pranayama)
- Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhana pranayama)
- Ocean Breath (Ujjayi pranayama)
The ultimate goal with pranayama breathing exercises is to bring thoughts to the present, while calming the body and mind simultaneously, so let’s start with the three part breath which can help to achieve this.
If you’re looking for the perfect pairing of asanas with your pranayama techniques, read our article - yin yoga: everything you need to know.
The Three-Part Breath | Dirga Pranayama
The three part breath is a relaxing and undemanding pranayama stress relief technique that you can practice anywhere, the benefits of this pranayama intend to bring complete concentration to your breath and prevent negative thoughts from taking over. So, let’s see how it’s done:
Step 1: Start by finding comfort in a relaxed position, such as the corpse pose, then with eyes closed rest one hand onto the belly and the other on your rib cage.
It is at this point that you should bring awareness to your breath and concentrate on the inhalation and exhalation of each breath, this awareness should be enhanced by feeling your belly rise and fall.
Step 2: After you have found a relaxing rhythm, slowly move your bottom hand up to the chest and begin breathing through your chest allowing it to rise and feeling the fall when exhaling.
Step 3: Once you have found the correct rhythm and know what speed feels right for you, release your arms and bring all focus onto clearing your mind and relaxing any tension held in the body.
Alternate Nostril Breathing | Nadi Shodhana Pranayama
We will look into the background of alternate nostril breathing a little more later, but to prepare for this step by step, the intention is to find a rhythm that relaxes the body; ultimately carrying more oxygen throughout the body and calming nerves. So, take a look at the first step to get started.
Step 1: Take a look at the imagery above, this is the hand gesture to follow for this pranayama and yoga technique.
This is best performed by sitting in an easy pose or any that feels comfortable for you, allowing focus to be on the breathing, not the strain of muscles. Begin by pressing lightly on the right nostril with your thumb, as you do this take a deep breath through the left nostril.
Step 2: Then, close the left nostril with your ring finger as you release your thumb from the right nostril, following this is an exhale through the right nostril.
Step 3: As you complete the exhale, keep the finger pressed on the left nostril and take a deep breath through the right nostril, after that press the thumb back onto the right nostril and exhale through the left.
This process may take a few tries to get right, but once you have found your rhythm continue this for up to 10 times or whichever feels comfortable; never put any strain on yourself or struggle with the process, to get the benefits of pranayama ensure it is relaxing practice and take your time.
Ocean Breath | Ujjayi Pranayama
Soon we will delve a little deeper into Ujjayi breath, however before you attempt the step by step, it’s good to know that the intentions for Ujjayi are; to improve concentration, release tension, and heating the body from the inside - using the contraction on muscles to vary its practice.
Step 1: To begin, sit in an easy pose with the back straight. Take a deep breath through the mouth, once inhaled, exhale by a whisper from the back of the throat so you feel a contraction; a good tip to exemplify this is to imagine the exhale being the same way you exhale when fogging up a mirror or a pair of glasses!
Step 2: Slowly close the mouth and begin breathing through your nose, once you’ve returned to a good rhythm - begin the process again.
A helpful tip is to concentrate on the audible noise that your exhale will make, it is something to concentrate on to bring you to the present.
If you’re somebody who needs assistance with your practice, check out our article on yoga blocks to help improve your yoga poses.
Different Pranayama Techniques
Now that you are familiar with how to do some different techniques of pranayama and yoga together, below we have laid out in more detail the meaning behind the practice and some others that you may want to try out.
Ujjayi is a pranayama breathing technique that is also known as ‘victorious breath’. It is referred to as an ocean or fire breath due to the sound that it creates in practice. Like most pranayama techniques, Ujjayi focuses your attention on the breath with the intention of fully expanding the lungs as well as calming the mind simultaneously.
Ujjayi is commonly used in Ashtanga and Vinyasa yoga for building heat in the body, this relaxes and energises us and is often referred to as a massage for the internal organs, preparing the muscles for asanas.
For beginners, it is encouraged to practice with inhalation through the nose and the exhalation through the mouth, with the intention of an audible breath - you can find a step by step of this practice in the section above!
For direct instruction and to follow a virtual class, you can read our article on the best yoga DVDs to enhance your practice of pranayama and yoga combinations.
Nadi Shodhana, otherwise known as alternate nostril breathing, is a technique used for subtle energy clearing. Nadi means a channel or flow of energy, while Shodhana means purification, this technique purifies the energy channels in both sides of the body, balancing the body, and the brain.
By balancing the left (Pingala) and right (Ida) hemispheres of the brain, we can enhance our ability to concentrate. This practice is effective for those who suffer with anxiety and stress as it helps to reduce heart rate and calm the nervous system.
Nadi Shodhana is also said to reduce blood pressure and relieve symptoms of asthma, bronchitis alongside other respiratory conditions. However, this shouldn’t be practiced if you are congested, have cold or flu like symptoms, or have any nasal issues.
A great way to escape the 9-5 is to take a holiday, particularly one to practice all of your newly acquired pranayama techniques, read our article on the best yoga holidays & escapes to get ready!
Bhramari pranayama breathing is a therapeutic, calming technique that is often referred to as ‘Bumblebee Breath’, this is because of Bhramari being the Sanskrit word for ‘bee’.
The humming part of this pranayama breathing technique activates the nervous system, enabling blockages to be released, not only this but this technique is believed to activate the third eye chakra. This chakra is located between the eyebrows and the pituitary gland in the brain, which aids our growth physically, and spiritually.
There are many advantages to this practice, it has the ability to relieve stress and agitation, while calming the mind and reducing intrusive thoughts - particularly beneficial for those who suffer with insomnia and other sleep disorders.
With the body in a state of relaxation, cognitive function is improved and the body and mind can move into a state of pure relaxation.
It is important to note however that Bhramari pranayama is not to be practiced by specific individuals, so ensure if you have any medical restrictions you get confirmation of safety. This includes pregnant women too, as Bhrami could have the potential to restrict oxygen to the baby.
Viloma pranayama benefits the use of full lung capacity while homing in on breath consciousness and mental imagery or visualisation, the name means against the natural flow reflecting the intentions of interrupted breathing.
The act of interrupted breathing is conducted through the pause after inhalation, before a relaxing and slow exhalation.
The purpose of Viloma is to help reduce anxiety and tension in the body, increase lung capacity, and relax the nervous system. It is also typically practiced in a supine position (lying on your back).
It is said to be the perfect pranayama to prepare for deep meditation.
Where Can Pranayama Be Practiced?
Pranayama breathing can be practiced anywhere! So long as you can find a comfortable and quiet place, you can reap all of the pranayama benefits.
It is always good to find somewhere quiet, this way you can focus solely on pranayama breathing and are not subject to distractions in the public. To achieve this, a good idea is to practice pranayama and yoga in conjunction with one another maybe at the early hours in your local park.
Is Pranayama Good for Stress Relief?
Yes! Pranayama benefits the process of focusing and quieting the mind, especially when it may be feeling busy and chaotic.
Allowing yourself to have a regular pranayama practice helps to tame the mind and focus on your thoughts to provide a designated time to address any inner negativity, this can prevent overload of emotion from bottling up any daily stress.
A great yoga type to pair with your pranayama practice is laughter yoga, head to our article: laughter yoga: definition, benefits & exercises to find out more.
Can Pranayama Help with Thyroid Issues?
Yoga and pranayama for your thyroid can actually be beneficial. When the thyroid function is compromised, our energy levels are affected and yoga with the incorporation of pranayama can assist in stimulating the gland.
Yoga postures such as the Cobra can help to stimulate the thyroid glands to help regulate the body’s metabolism, however it is important to note that yoga is not a cure for the disorder, but may help to strike a balance.
Studies exploring pranayama in conjunction with the thyroid have also found promising results which further supports its benefits.
A 90-day randomised controlled trial which saw those with hypothyroidism engaged in Ujjayi pranayama found the practise helped reduce the thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) and triiodothyronine (T3). This reveals that this type of practice made a significant improvement in weight reduction of the participants.
Can Pranayama Help with Allergies or Asthma?
If you’re wondering about the effect of pranayama on the respiratory system, pranayama for allergies has been found to be an effective prevention tool and can improve the way the body copes with allergies.
Pranayama benefits the optimal functioning of the hyper responsiveness of the airways, this leads to a resistance to allergens. Not only this, but stress is a regular trigger of asthma, the incorporation of pranayama into daily routine can release this stress, in turn, promoting ease of breath.
Nasal allergies can also be eased, as well as allergic rhinitis and bronchial asthma, in fact a study consisting of 50 cases of bronchial asthma patients conducted a pranayama intervention, performed over a period of 12 weeks.
After a 20-minute practice of pranayama techniques, twice daily, the results presented that the pranayama made a significant improvement in symptoms and an improvement in lung function.
Before You Go!
By now you should understand the nuts and bolts of pranayama breathing exercises and everything in between, so we have full confidence that you're ready to begin to enhance your yoga practice and be on your way to a lifestyle fueled with mindfulness.
It is a useful addition to your daily morning, or evening routine and is a great habit to create for amplification in mindfulness and positivity
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Vinudha, S., 2019. Efficacy of Ujjayi Pranyama on Hypothyroidism in adults - A randomised controlled trial. Doctor of Medicine in Yoga.