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Pranayama Yoga: The Benefits Of Breathing Exercises

Learn to control your breathing through pranayama techniques.

A girl practising yoga
Pranayama Yoga: The Benefits Of Breathing Exercises | iSTOCK

Pranayama yoga is a technique that allows you to regulate your breathing through exercises. We breathe since we are born, since the first few seconds when we are out of our mother’s womb. And yet, do we really know how to breathe? Is it really an instinctive behavior or can we control our breathing?

It is essential to breathe well in order to feel better, and that is the challenge of this set of techniques and exercises (some of them are over 2500 years old) gathered in pranayama yoga. The origin of the word comes from “prana” (life force, breathing) and “ayama” (extension, pause). Pranayama, therefore, can be understood as a pause and a way to understand the types of breathing.

Pranayama: Definition

Pranayama yoga can be understood as an extension of breathing reached through breathing control techniques. By learning to hold and control your breathing, you eliminate the emotional or physical blockages that prevent you from living well.

Therefore, pranayama exercises allow you to seek mental clarity, to open up to others and to the world, which is basically the essential aspect of yoga.

Among the benefits of pranayama,  it helps fight stress and anxiety,  strengthens the immune system and prevents some respiratory disorders (including asthma), skin problems and digestion. There are studies that even point out that practicing pranayama yoga reduces the risk of depression caused by post-traumatic stress.

However, you should be warned that practicing pranayama on a regular basis is not a substitute for traditional medicine, but a significant adjunct therapy that can support and increase its benefits.

Pranayama: A mainstay of yoga

It should be noted that pranayama is one of the eight main aspects of yoga. Contrary to what many people think, yoga postures are not the essential aspect of yoga. It is actually a way of life that embraces non-violence, lack of judgment as well as taking care of yourself and others.

These are the eight aspects of yoga:

  • Yama: life’s moral values;
  • Niyama: self-purification;
  • Asana: postures;
  • Pranayama: breathing control (which this article focuses on);
  • Pratyahara: control of the senses;
  • Dharana: concentration;
  • Dhyana: meditation;
  • Samadhi: reaching enlightenment.

It should be highlighted that pranayama is essential in the practice of yoga while asanas are actually less important, since yoga aims for the harmony between body and mind.

Pranayama breathing

Breathing exercises allow energy to flow on itself in a powerful way. So, an exceptional access point is opened. This is the ideal way to learn how to feel the vital energy.

Pranayama consists of exercises that help you become aware of your breathing movements  and so, extend them. The nostrils are directly connected to both hemispheres of the brain. Therefore, the control of nasal breathing is essential.

In a healthy person, breathing naturally alternates from one nostril to another every hour. However, for many pranayama initiates, this balance between the different types of yoga breathing has to be worked on and developed.

Pranayama breathing exercises

Next, you can find a way to get started with pranayama breathing exercises.

Sit down in a comfortable posture,  in which your back, spine and neck are straight, not arched. If you wish, you can even lie on your back. Start the pranayama exercises by taking deep, slow and long breaths through your nostrils, not your mouth.

When you breathe in, your abdomen should be filled with air and inflate. When you breathe out, it must deflate like a balloon. Repeat these two steps several times before moving on to the next one. The key is to keep your breathing flowing and relaxed, that you do not force yourself to inhale or exhale.

Continue this yoga breathing exercise: inhale and let the air flow straight into your stomach (just like in the previous step), but also try to inflate your chest by opening your rib cage under oxygen pressure. Exhale and repeat this exercise several times in a row.

Repeat these last steps and continue breathing, also opening the upper area of your chest to your collarbone. Exhale and repeat this step. 

Finally, combine all the steps to create a single continuous exercise that flows perfectly. This will be a very good initiation to the practice of pranayama yoga.

Once you have learned to master these yoga breathing exercises and understand how it works (something that is very important), you should try to feel the successive waves of oxygen coming in and out of your body.

Types of pranayama

There are up to eight different types of pranayama: Kapalbhati, Anulom Viloma, Ujjayi, Bhastrika, Sheetali, Sitkari, Surya Bhedana and Bhramari. Mastering them all is an authentic art that you cannot learn overnight. In fact, you will need months of practice.

However, even if you learn to master them, you do not need to use all of them on a daily basis. The two most important ones, which should be performed every day, are Kapalbhati and Anulom Viloma. The rest can be carried out whenever you want. But, it is essential to practice them regularly to get the maximum benefit.

Last but not least, it is interesting to mention that Anulom Viloma, also known as alternate breathing, is the first major exercise for any yoga student. Your goal is that your breathing alternates between the two nostrils, which is easily noticed if you place your palm near the nostrils: one of the nostrils will always be partially blocked and the flow of air will occur mainly through one of your nostrils.

According to yoga, the air flowing through the right nostril is warm and that flowing through the left, cool. Based on this reasoning, if your breathing occurs mainly through one of your nostril for more than two hours in a row, it is a symptom of disturbance caused by an excess of heat or cold, which leads to mental and nervous disorders, or to lethargy and a suspended mental activity.