Our existence pretty much boils down to our breath.
“We breathe we live. We don’t, and we’re on our way out,” wrote our Founder Lalitha Viswanath in a recent LinkedIn article.
Any improvement in the way we breathe can significantly improve the quality of our existence. That’s the reason why Yoga puts so much emphasis on drawing out each breath deepening every inhalation and extending every exhalation.
In Ashtanga Yoga, which provides an eight-fold path towards enlightenment, the fourth limb — Pranayama — is entirely devoted to breathing exercises and techniques, each of them serving a purpose and offering multiple benefits.
However, the term Prana doesn’t refer to the breath, but rather the life force or life energy. It cannot be seen so much as felt. Ayama in Sanskrit means controlling or regulating our Prana.
By controlling one’s breath there are corresponding effects on energy levels. If you’ve been feeling tired and sluggish, then try a Pranayama routine for 20 minutes every day. It’s best to practice on an empty stomach in the first half of the morning. You will soon notice that you feel more energized, your mind and memory are sharper, and that you feel more positive and focused.
This is because our breath has an effect on our Prana or life force. By harnessing the power of the breath, we can clear the blocks in our subtle body, so that our Prana flows freely. We feel lighter, recharged and almost invincible. Our outlook towards life changes into one that’s more optimistic and loving.
Why is Pranayama important?
The human body is such a miraculous system, that without our having to lift a finger, we breathe, our heart pumps blood, our nerves send the right signals for all the organs to function in unison. In all of this, we have next to no control.
Our breath however is different. Although it’s an involuntary function, we can retain our breath for some time. We can choose to breathe deep or breathe shallow. This little bit of control allows us to influence all our major organ systems.
Even the slightest improvement in the way we breathe means more oxygen and nutrients in our bloodstream and therefore to all our organs. And since breathing is not just about inhaling vital oxygen, but also about exhaling impurities, deeper breathing practices also help in detoxifying the body.
Pranayama shows us the correct way to go about the act of inhaling and exhaling. We learn to prepare our lungs for Pranayama through preparatory exercises, conditioning the diaphragm and the intercostal muscles surrounding the lungs, all of which help us breathe. Since Yoga is always about the mind-body-spirit complex, the way we breathe also resonates with the way we think and the way we feel.
The way we breathe can also help calm our stress response, facilitating better digestion and rest.
Let’s now look at Pranayama’s benefits in more detail.
How does Pranayama benefit you?
Pranayama helps us at every level. Although our tendency is to usually look at effects at a physical level, we cannot over-emphasise the fact that we are much more than physical beings, and our minds and emotions often act as a trigger pre-disposing us towards disease. Hence it is vital that we stay fit physically, emotionally and mentally. All three are interconnected. All branches of Yoga address a person as a whole. Pranayama is no exception.
At a physical level, a consistent Pranayama practice does the following.
Improves lung capacity and conditions all the muscles and the diaphragm that support lung function. Pranayama techniques such as Kapalbhati and Bhastrika are particularly recommended to improve muscle strength, tone and elasticity.
Yoga also offers breathing techniques that can calm us. These are particularly useful when we are under stress. One of the first things taught during Pranayama classes is to deepen and lengthen the breath with the exhalations being longer than the inhalations. This deepening and lengthening of the breath help the body switch from the Sympathetic Nervous System, responsible for keeping us alert and watchful (the fight or flight response) to the Parasympathetic Nervous System, responsible for calming the mind. This switch from being hyper alert to a more relaxed state of being helps in better digestion and rest and restore functions that the body reserves for such times. The Nadi Shodan Pranayama, otherwise known as Anulom Vilom, is ideal for this.
We can all agree that stress and stressful situations will always be there. Hence it is vital to learn and fall back on tried and tested methods to reduce stress and channelize it positively.
When breathing improves, it is natural that the body’s immune system too functions optimally to fight toxins and disease. A better stress response works wonders for those with high blood pressure. There are specific Pranayama techniques that one can learn to lower blood pressure. These include Bhramari Pranayama, Anulom Vilom, and Shitali Pranayama. These help in calming the nervous system.
When the body is nourished optimally, it results in better metabolism and thus better nutrient absorption and excretion. This means that one is able to reduce weight naturally. Pranayama exercises such as Kapalbhati and Bhastrika also help in natural weight loss.
Pranayama exercises are also enormously helpful to develop concentration and focus, rooting us in the present moment. Our attention is on our breath, and this helps rid us of distracting thoughts.
Taking deep breaths is also helpful when we are emotionally overwhelmed either by feelings of anger or sorrow. This is once again due to the fact that we are consciously switching from the Sympathetic Nervous System to our Parasympathetic Nervous System. The former, as mentioned above, is in charge of protecting us from stressful situations. And although that’s a great thing, we cannot always be on our guard. Once the stressful situation is over, all those stress hormones need to be flushed out of the system so that the body can return to a state of calm and balance.
Apart from promoting more mindfulness, Pranayama helps improve the quality of our sleep.
If there’s one thing you can do to experience all-round health and vitality, then it would be working on your breath.
Develop a regular Pranayama practice and you are sure to be well on your way towards becoming a more collected, balanced and joyous soul