As we become more familiar with yoga and the Indian tradition of the 8 limbs of Hatha yoga, we are likely to hear of Pranayama or yoga breathing and practice some of the techniques in this limb of yoga. While some styles of yoga encourage the combination of asana and Pranayama (primarily ujjayi breathing), Pranayama is a separate limb of yoga and is usually practiced separately to yoga asana.
Pranayama is comprised of the root words “Prana” meaning breath or life force, “yama” meaning control or discipline and “ayam” which means expansion. Translations of the meaning of pranayama include “expansion of the life force through breath control”. In practical terms Pranayama refers to a set of breathing techniques that are used for relaxation, concentration and meditation.
In a similar manner to the development of yoga asana, these Pranayama breathing techniques have been developed and expanded over the years by subsequent masters. The earliest references to Pranayama were made in the Upanishads. This reference was further clarified and refined by Patanjali in the yoga sutras, where he defined Pranayama as the 4th limb of yoga. Patenjali
originally defined only 3 breathing techniques. These 3 techniques have been further expanded to the numerous techniques that exist today.
The importance of Prana is emphasized throughout yoga. Many yoga masters illustrate this by demonstrating the importance of breath for sustaining life. A very effective illustration comes by comparing the time people can survive without food (a few weeks), water (a few days) with the amount of time one could survive without air (only a few minutes). Efficient and effective breathing is essential to take in the required amounts of oxygen in order to sustain daily activities.
There are 4 stages to breathing in pranayama, should be controlled, these are:
Inhalation (Puraka) – which focuses on controlling the intake of air, keeping it smooth and efficient.
Internal retention of air (antara kumbhaka) – which focuses on controlling the retention of air within the lungs after an inhalation.
Exhalation (Recaka) – which focuses on controlling the expelling of used air and waist from the lungs.
External retention (bahya kumbhaka) – which focuses on controlling the retention of empty lungs after an exhalation.
Many, but not all, Pranayama techniques focus on extending the time for each of these 4 stages of the breathing cycle. This includes developing a long, smooth and steady inhalation that lasts the same duration as the exhalation and making sure that the lungs are completely full or completely empty at the end of each. It also includes extending the length of time the breath is held with the lungs full and the lungs empty to increase the efficiency of the breathing cycle. Controlling the breath in this manner requires the use of the mind to resist the natural and automatic impulses and desires of the body to breath, particularly during the internal and external retention of the breath.
Not only does the Pranayama have a direct impact on the brain through changes to the amount of oxygen brought to the brain through the blood, but focusing on the breath in this manner has a profound effect on the mind and concentration. All of which makes Pranayama an important to enhance relaxation, concentration (Dharana) and meditation (Dhyana).
It is interesting and important to note that even the earliest descriptions of Pranayama included certain cautions relating to its practice and suggest following the guidance of a master. B.K.S Iyengar reiterates these cautions by referring to the fight between the mind and the body around the retention of breath. Without a stable state of mind and proper care this mental fight can lead deep mental dislocation and damage leading to a split in the personality or schizophrenia. It is unclear whether any cases have ever occurred as a result of practicing Pranayama.
On a more practical level restricting oxygen flow to the brain can lead to faintness, light-headedness or dizziness. If any of these or any other pain or adverse effects are experienced during Pranayama, then the practice should be stopped and medical advice sought.
How does pranayama work
During respiration we breathe in air, and the lungs oxygenate the blood and expels carbon dioxide and other waste gases from
the blood in a process known as alvioli. Those gases are expelled when we exhale. This process is subconscious or autonomic, and is not necessarily happening in a balanced and efficient manner.
Pranayama relates to bringing mental consciousness to the normally subconscious activity of breathing in order to make it more efficient and balance the oxygen, carbon dioxide and other soluble gas levels in the blood. Through this consciousness we are using the mind to control the body. In yogic terms being able to control the mind is essential in for concentration (Dharana) and meditation (Dhyana). In practical term greater mental control helps to bring emotional control and balance and mental clarity.
In addition to this pranayama aims to improve the efficiency of oxygenation of the blood. On average people tend to take short shallow breaths, a situation which is exaggerated when stressed or emotional. During this shallow breathing it is estimated that the average person uses only between half and two thirds of their lung capacity, with the remaining healthy lung surface remaining unused. This means that by breathing more optimally each breath can transfer up to fifty percent more oxygen into the blood to feed the body.
When we breathe not all of the inhaled air is exhaled. Some of air inhaled and waste carbon dioxide remains in the lungs and windpipe during exhalation when inefficient, shallow breathing is used. This continues to recycle in the respiratory system reducing the amount of new oxygen available for avioli. By breathing deeply and completely emptying the lungs, far less of this stale air and carbon dioxide remains in the lungs improving the effectiveness of each breath.
What are the benefits
At the anatomical level Pranayama aims to improve the strength of the diaphragm and the capacity of the lungs to improve the efficiency of the respiratory system, helping to increase fitness and increase the amount of oxygen entering the blood stream per breath. This oxygen helps to provide essential energy for muscle and brain function.
On a more detailed level pranayama is though to:
Increase concentration, creativity and cognitive brain functions.
Increase relaxation and calmness by releasing tension.
Improved mind and physical control, helping control emotions and relieve tension.
Improved signing through increases abdominal and diaphragm strength and control.
Pranayama is also thought to help with the many medical conditions, with clinical trial evidence to support some of these claims. It should be noted that pranayama should be a compliment to current treatments and should be practiced under the guidance of an experienced pranayama yoga master.
Specific conditions that respond to Pranayama include:
High or low blood pressure.
Stress-related heart conditions.
Some psychological conditions.
Metabolic and endocrine imbalances.