One of my favourite things about Seek Solitude is learning about concepts that I may have never come across or considered in much depth. Like Pranayama, for example. I’ve attended many yoga classes over the years and naturally have been introduced to breathing practices like the ujjayi breath, but it’s hard to delve too deeply into the philosophies in an hour class...
So when I have the opportunity to research about these topics for work, I am often left feeling so inspired, intrigued and motivated to action what I’ve learnt. I hope that this overview of Pranayama leaves you feeling similarly with a reverence for this ancient and powerful practice and willingness to try it for yourself.
What is Pranayama?
The practice of Pranayama originates in the Hindu Vedic Sanskrit texts, namely the Upanishads which discuss meditation, spirituality and philosophy. Though a number of translations exist, Pranayama is widely understood as prāṇa (vital life force / breath) + āyāma (in control / restraint).
Breathing is, of course, something we do every minute of every day. But when we control or harness our breath consciously we can experience profound mental and physical effects. Pranayama involves a number of purposeful, intentional breathing techniques that each fulfil a unique purpose.
In modern yoga pranayama is often overlooked in favour of the physical practice - the asana. However, this single-minded focus on the physical makes us less sensitive to the subtleties of our practice that allow us to be present and connect more deeply as we flow.
Tony Briggs writes for Yoga Journal,
“Quietness, stillness, and subtlety are much easier to glimpse and grasp in pranayama than they are in asana. The movements of the asanas, although beneficial in many ways, are also a distraction. When you sit or lie down in pranayama, the obvious physical movement of the body is gone, and you can concentrate on more inner qualities.”
How is Pranayama different from meditation?
While Pranayama controls the breath in order to affect prāṇa or energy flow, meditation is more about embodying a state of consciousness, awareness and focus.
Especially if you are prone to a wandering mind, Pranayama can be used to prime the mind and body for deeper meditation. Like meditation it involves presence and focus however it also provides physiological benefits as we stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and improve oxygen reach to the body’s cells and tissues.
“Pranayamas are a mechanism to eliminate the need for you to ‘focus’ or ‘concentrate’ in order to dive within yourself, because breath as a tool is the most powerful and simplest of ways to unite the mind, body and spirit in meditative awareness.” - The Art of Living
Why is Pranayama beneficial?
When we find stillness away from physical movement we can focus more deeply on inner qualities and subtleties. That isn’t to say pranayama and the yoga asanas are always independent of each other - even when moving through a yoga sequence, Pranayama like the ujjayi breath offers an opportunity to consciously connect movement with meditation.
Pranayama will have an immediate calming effect on the nervous system, however when practiced over time studies show pranayama will also benefit anxiety, stress, depression, insomnia, focus and self-awareness.
Pallav Sengupta writes for the International Journal of Preventive Medicine, “Yoga [and pranayama] has been shown to have immediate psychological effects: decreasing anxiety and increasing feelings of emotional, social, and spiritual well-being.”
How to practice Pranayama
Though there are eight types of Pranayama in Hatha Yoga here are two of the more common breathing exercises that you may come across at a studio or class:
Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breathing)
- Close your right nostril with your right thumb; inhale deeply through your left nostril
- Once fully inhaled, close your left nostril with your fourth finger; lift your right thumb and exhale fully through your right nostril
- Once fully exhaled, inhale through the right nostril; close your right nostril with your right thumb and exhale fully through your left nostril
- Repeat this sequence for 3 - 5 minutes and observe the flow of breath
Ujjayi (“ocean” breath)
- Close your mouth
- Breathe deeply through your nose
- With your mouth still closed, release the breath through your nose whilst constricting your throat muscles — this should sound like wind and waves in the ocean
- Repeat for 5 minutes
Both of these breathing exercises can be practiced in seated postures — either cross-legged (sukhasana), in lotus (padmasana) or half lotus.
The body should be upright and actively aligned yet comfortable. If you struggle to sit for long periods of time, you could also sit upright in a chair or use a meditation cushion or yoga bolster to support your sit bones.
If your ankles begin to ache if you’ve been seated for too long, placing a folded blanket or yoga mat beneath your crossed legs also softens the position and allows you to sit more comfortably for longer.
Pranayama, when integrated throughout the day or in addition to our yoga practice, can allow us to focus our mind, calm the nervous system and more consciously connect with our bodies - either in stillness movement.
If you are anything like me and have always considered Pranayama part and parcel with your yoga practice, why not try to practice it alone or in anticipation of a deeper meditation practice?
I would love to hear about your experiences.
Leave a comment below to share.