Pranayama — most simply translated, it means the extension of breath.
It is arguably the most powerful force in the universe, in view of the fact that it is the one thing we actually need to survive.
Yet despite the fact that breath is the most essential and powerful force we know, we pay very little attention to it.
Consider for a minute the natural implications of harnessing the power of the most essential element known to humanity.
I’d say that seems pretty important. Life changing, in fact.
Learning to become aware of our breath, control your breath, and maximize our breath has the potential to heal our bodies as well as provide ultimate wellness to our mind, body and soul.
What is Pranayama?
This Sanskrit word can be broken down into “Prana” and “Ayama”. “Prana” means life force while “ayama” means to extend.
Although this practice may seem intimidating and complex, it can be broken down simply to mean the art of learning to extend your life force through breath.
Some consider Pranayama as the ultimate link between the unconscious and the conscious — considering that the diaphragm is both a voluntary and an involuntary organ.
One of the highest goals of practicing yoga is to shed light on the unconscious in order to bring about a more connected self.
It would make sense, then, that learning to harness this force that’s so vital to the nature of yoga itself would bring about great advances in your practice, in addition to your overall well-being.
But how does practicing pranayama actually lead to such profound health improvements? These 10 powerful reasons to practice pranayama will introduce you to the life-changing benefits of the practice.
1. Stress less
We can thank our autonomic nervous system for the way we respond to threatening situations. The autonomic nervous system is composed of two parts: the parasympathetic system and the sympathetic system.
You can think of the parasympathetic system as what causes us to relax while the sympathetic system is what engages our “fight or flight” response.
In today’s society, we generally have a problem with over stimulating the sympathetic system, aka we get stressed out far too often. Stress is known to lead to a host of diseases and body pains, some of which are even life threatening.
While stimulation of the sympathetic system at the proper time can save our lives from harmful situations, overstimulation can lead to incredibly harmful effects on our health.
It is known that regular practice of pranayama exercises increases parasympathetic tone, and decreases sympathetic activity.
Pranayama relaxes you — which is far more beneficial than just a feel-good vibe. For most of us, we don’t stimulate our parasympathetic systems nearly enough.
Consistent practice of pranayama is believed to restructure your autonomic nervous system, so that you are engaging your parasympathetic system in equilibrium with your sympathetic system.
In short — stress less, relax more and be healthy.
2. Improved digestion
Could regularly practicing pranayama breathing techniques lead to improved digestion?
Believe it or not, yes! When we engage the full scope of our diaphragm — lower, middle, and upper parts — each inhale and exhale causes the diaphragm to move up and down.
The organs located in our abdomen gently move along with our diaphragm, causing them to naturally slide against each other.
The connecting tendons and fascia, as well as any food or liquid within the organs, slosh and sway in a way that promotes overall organ health and effectiveness.
Prolonged periods of sitting hunched over effectively pinches our abdomen, causing our breath to come primarily from the middle and upper parts of our diaphragm while the lower area is not used to its full potential — prohibiting that natural organ movement from taking place.
This is one reason that it is crucial to remain in a proper posture during all pranayama practice. You should sit with a straight spine and neck that in line. Sitting properly will engage the lower area of your diaphragm so that each pranayama practice can have its full effect.
3. Cleanses tissue
We have approximately two gallons of fluid in our body — known as “interstitial fluid”— moving freely around our vessels, organs, and cells.
Pranayama increases the velocity of these fluids moving through the tissues of our body which creates an alternating “saturating and wringing” effect.
4. Cleanses lungs
Additionally, pranayama cleanses out our lungs, in that it empties the bottom area of our lungs completely.
Gravity tends to pull material to the bottom of nearly all things, where it can build up to cause harmful effects. The same can happen to your lungs when the bottom area is not being emptied and “cleansed” so to speak.
Pranayama causes the build up material to be released from this bottom area of your lungs, filling it with fresh nutrients to enhance the functions of your lung overall.
5. Improved lymphatic system
The lymphatic system is a vital part of our immune system.
Lymphatic vessels carry a fluid called lymph toward our hearts. This lymph fluid contains white blood cells, and circulates through our body, draining the interstitial fluid where cells have dumped their waste and other toxins have built up.
When our lymphatic system is not operating properly, these toxins can accumulate causing us to feel stiff, swollen, and heavy.
As lymph fluid picks up waste, it cleanses this “in-between” of your tissues and organs and brings the fluid back to your circulatory system.
The lymphatic system does not have a pump through which it can maintain the flow of lymph fluid, and therefore relies heavily on body movement. This is one reason why yoga twists, inversions, and poses can be so beneficial to the lymphatic system.
Additionally, the deep breathing practices of pranayama can affect the movement of your organs, as we talked about earlier, effectively becoming the needed pump to your lymphatic system.
6. A glowing complexion
When you practice pranayama, your breathing becomes far more effective. This gives your body an extra pump of oxygen which leaves your skin with a naturally bright, healthy glow.
7. Reduces depression
Because pranayama significantly reduces stress, cleanses your internal systems, creates a more “connected” sense of self, and brings about a healthier body, it can also reduce depression.
By reducing depression aggravators like anxiety and fatigue, you may notice an overall improvement in your emotional health.
8. Creates a steady and controlled mind
Additionally, pranayama teaches your mind to focus and brings your concentration back to the most essential part of who you are: your breath.
Regularly practicing pranayama will change the way your mind thinks and reacts to world, bringing about a steady and relaxed mind.
9. Live a longer life
“For breath is life, and if you breathe well you will live long on the earth.”— Sanskrit proverb
It’s true that the enhanced health benefits brought about by the regular practice of pranayama may lead to a longer life.
Your breath is the one thing that you need to survive, therefore it plays an essential role to the proper functioning of your body.
When you learn to master the breath, the overall health of your body will improve significantly.
Additionally, pranayama combats the life-threatening effects associated with stress and built up toxins.
10. Aids in weight loss
For many, struggles with weight can be caused simply from a fast-paced lifestyle where little time is given to think about the implications of our eating habits, and our bodies state of true hunger is masked by boredom or stress.
Controlling stress will reduce stress-eating, and slowing down to become self-aware and thoughtful will encourage your mind to consider what foods are best for the body, and plan ahead to avoid fast-food stops.
Furthermore, several pranayama techniques have been shown to actually burn fat from the abdominal area, lower blood pressure, increase the function of the thyroid gland, and increase metabolism.
Now that you’re excited to begin practicing pranayama, let’s get started! These three techniques are simple ways to start. Remember to practice consistently to see the best results.
One-to-one breathing is exactly like it sounds. Bring your inhale to match your exhale in both intensity and length. This will calm a racing mind, and bring your heartbeat back to normal.
Begin in either a comfortable seating position or laying down. Inhale deeply, filling your entire diaphragm. Exhale deeply, expelling the air completely out.
Focus on bringing your inhale length to match your exhale length. You can do this by counting the length of your inhale and matching it to your exhale.
Alternate nostril breathing
It is natural for our nostrils to breathe more dominantly with the left or right side at any given point. Alternate nostril breathing is one of the pranayama techniques that will bring about greater mental clarity as you engage both nostrils.
- Begin by sitting in a comfortable position, easy pose, lotus, etc., with a straight spine and aligned neck.
- Press your right nostril closed with your right thumb.
- Inhale deeply through your left nostril.
- Press your left nostril closed with your right ring finger.
- Exhale deeply through your right nostril.
- Keeping your left nostril closed, inhale through your right nostril.
- Close your right nostril, and exhale through your left nostril.
- Keeping your right nostril closed, inhale through your left nostril, and exhale through your right.
You’ve completed a full cycle of Alternate Nostril Breathing!
Repeat this cycle ten times.
As you feel more comfortable here, begin to hold the breath in between switching nostrils. Do not force yourself here, but rather, naturally hold the breath for a few seconds as feels right to you.
One variation to Alternate Nostril Breathing would be to close your right nostril, and inhale and exhale deeply through your left nostril 5 times. Now close your left nostril and inhale and exhale deeply through your right nostril 5 times. Repeat this entire cycle three times.
Breath of fire
Breath of Fire is a powerful technique known to help you regain control, keep negative energy out, give you greater peace of mind, and bring about a deeper connection with your inner self.
Quick Tip: Your inhale and exhale should be of equal length and you should not feel as if you are becoming dizzy while practicing this technique.
- Begin by sitting upright with a straight spine and neck. Start by breathing normally, with one hand placed over your navel. Notice the way your stomach expands and contracts with each breath.
- Take short inhales and release short exhales. There should not be a pause between the inhales and exhales, but they should be quick and equal to each other in length.
- Use your hand on your abdomen to feel if you are doing the breath correctly.
- You should inhale when your belly expands.
- Think of your navel being pumped back into your spine on the exhale.
Continue this pattern for 2–3 minutes.
Tips for an ultimate pranayama practice
- The best time to practice is early morning, right after you wake up.
- It is best to practice on an empty stomach.
- Go outdoors, where you can get fresh air.
- Give at least an hour between practicing Pranayama and eating.
- Make sure your spine and neck are straight and in line. A poor posture will prevent you from experience the full extent of pranayama.
Pranayama is centered around the art and science of expanding your life force through breathing techniques.
Learning to master your breath will benefit your mind, body, and soul.
Remember, consistency is key! Practice daily to start developing pranayama into a lifelong habit and watch the way it transforms your life.