How Can Pranayama Breathing Improve Your Well-Being?

You’re stressed, and your quality of living is not optimal. You may have tried medications, exercise, and plenty of self-care. To get back into a state of calm may just be a breath away, however. Pranayama breathing isn't just any breathing. It is a specific way of looking at the breath taught for thousands of years. Let’s help get you back on track.


What is Prana?

Prana is the life source. It is what gives us our vitality. Without it, we feel sluggish and out of sorts. Learning to control your breath allows you to take better care of your energy and protect your vital well-being.

The ancient Indian system of yoga has many branches. You may just think of the poses at your local studio, but yoga is an entire way of living and moving through the world. It distinguishes the living from the dead and flows through energy channels. The original creators of yoga recognized this vital source and created a multitude of ways to control it for different purposes.

You can get prana from sources besides breath too. It comes from the food you eat and the rest you take. Being in a calm state of mind increases prana, as does whole living sources of nourishment such as fruits and vegetables.

Breath is the most direct source of prana. When we die, our prana stops, disconnecting us from what’s considered the living.

The Effects of High Prana

High prana helps with calm feelings and the feeling of abundance. When energy flows smoothly, we are enthusiastic and begin to understand our place in the universe. We do not worry, and we do not experience anxieties or petty thoughts. The higher our Prana, the greater connected we are to the source of all living things.

The Effects of Low Prana

Low Prana leaves us feeling anxious and flighty. It’s difficult to find the good in things, and we may feel disconnected from the source and all living beings. It causes conflict, both within ourselves and others, and negative emotions arise unbidden.

What is Pranayama?

It’s the act of controlling the breath through a series of breathing techniques and postures. When you complete the physical act of yoga, you become one with the energy of all, so your teacher is likely to draw attention to your breath again and again.

“Prana” means the universal source and “Ayana” indicates a lengthening or regulating. By controlling our Prana, we lengthen the quality and wellbeing of our life. When you practice it correctly, you experience harmony between all your states, physical, mental, and spiritual. That oneness is a place of calm being.

The Four Stages

It isn’t just about your breathing. There are four distinct stages to proper breath. The first inhalation is called the “puraka.” It begins the sequence. At the top of the breath, there’s a vital pause that helps bring the breath back under control. It’s called “abhyantara kumbhaka,” and it’s crucial in slowing your breath and bringing it to your heed.

The exhalation or “rechaka” releases the breath back out before the second sacred pause, the “bahya kumbhaka.” The pauses create careful breaks between breaths that encourage you to breathe deeply and evenly, bringing your mind around to your Prana and away from the physical cares of the world.

Four Types

The breathing technique recognizes four different types of breathing. High breathing uses the upper part of the lungs and doesn’t allow the body to take in and absorb as much oxygen. Low breathing uses the lower part of the lungs and creates deep full breaths that bring plenty of oxygen into the body to be absorbed.

Mid-breathing falls somewhere between these two types and is the most common. Most of us aren’t using our lungs to their fullest benefit because we do not have the awareness surrounding our breath. Deep breathing is the most fulfilling of all because it allows the body the deepest, most rich sources of oxygen and it is deeply restorative.

Arresting the Breath

Some advanced practitioners emphasize the second pause, creating a deep breath arrest that helps them control both mind and physical desires. This is an advanced technique and should only be practiced under supervision.

Benefits of Pranayama

So why should you control the breath? What’s the point? These breathing exercises have significant benefits and are some of the most effective alternatives to traditional medicines for things like anxiety and depression, plus a host of other issues. Here are some of the most significant benefits.

Brain Activity

Breathing exercises have long been used as ways to bring anxiety under control. Stopping to notice our breath is a common feature in many grounding and focusing exercises, so the practice may rein in many of those racing thoughts so closely associated with anxiety and depression.

Researchers at Trinity college have also discovered another possible benefit. During a research study concerning focus, they noticed that people whose breath was most in sync during a heavy task were more likely to be able to focus and complete the task. Those who were too off task to focus did not demonstrate breath control.

Researchers believe there may be a link to the breath and the mind, paving the way for future techniques using breath control as a way to hone and develop focus. It helps regulate a chemical called  Noradrenaline, or the focus hormone. When we are too anxious, we produce too much, and we can’t focus. Too sluggish and we don’t provide enough with the same effect. Breathing may help bring that critical hormone into a sweet spot allowing us the full use of our brain power.

The Heart

In a study conducted here, researchers found links between reducing instances of arrhythmia and careful control of the breath through practicing these breathing exercises. They found that these exercises may have a profound effect on the nervous system and helping the body better regulate things like that arrhythmia and blood pressure. Patients with chronic hypertension may benefit from regular practice because it slows the body down and allows an automatic nervous system to re-engage. Since you aren’t aware of your body’s control for these aspects of your physical well-being, controlling the breath could be a good way for you to exert better control over those systems.

Patients practice for three months, and during that time, researchers noted a decrease in blood pressure and the results were so profound that the role of breath in reducing hypertension has become its own research area.

Reducing Addiction

Another interesting study showed a possible link between these breathing exercises and the reduction of cigarette cravings. Participants were led in a ten-minute breathing technique to practice each time they felt a cigarette craving while another group was asked just to focus on their breathing without receiving any training.

After a while, the group trained in pranayamic breathing showed a reduction in overall cigarette cravings with the group asked just to concentrate on breathing not showing nearly the same result. Many more studies are needed to show the link between the two, but this is a promising result in a world of addiction counseling and holistic treatments.

Relaxation

It may not seem like much, but stress and tension can wreak havoc on your body. You produce cortisol when stressed, and this particular hormone makes you feel jittery and wears down your nervous system the longer it’s in your system.

True relaxation may be achieved by utilizing the calming breath and focusing not just on the breath but the pauses. You probably feel this when you’re stressed anyway. You begin to take shorter and shorter breaths, feeling completely overwhelmed and unable to breathe deeply. It helps to reduce that overall stress and restore a sense of well-being.

Energy Levels

Correct breathing can transform the oxygen level in your body, helping you feel more alert and focused. These techniques take that one step further by teaching to control your vital life force and helping you to connect with deeper parts of your nervous system and other biological systems. Energetic work can take the place of caffeine, sugar, and other quick pick-me-ups without the crashes.

Common Types of Yogic Breathing Techniques

So how do you do this special type of breathing? Here are a few short exercises to help you get started.
Remember that it is important to learn and practice these techniques under the supervision of a trained Yoga teacher. In case of any medical condition make sure to consult your physician first.

Victorious or Ocean Breath (Ujjayi Pranayama)

Ujjayi has a balancing effect on the body and has been used to support a Hatha practice. It helps you to synchronize your breath with your yoga movements, creating better flow and skill. It increases blood oxygen levels, relieves tension, and builds energy while maintaining a rhythm.

To start, close your lips completely and direct your breath through your nose. As you breathe in, tighten the muscles in your throat until your breath takes on the sound of the ocean. It’s similar to the exhale “haaaaah” if you breathe with your mouth open.

Use it when you’re feeling agitated and when you’re practicing a form of exercise, not just yoga. It helps bring your body and breath into alignment for better form.

Alternate Nostril Breath (Nadi Sodhana Pranayama)

woman practicing Alternate Nostril Pranayama

Alternate nostril breathing creates a sense of quiet and calm. It’s restorative and helps slow down the body if you’re experiencing racing thoughts or breath. It helps rejuvenate your nervous system especially after a period of great stress.

To practice, sit comfortably and relax your left palm down in your lap. Bring your right hand up and anchor it to your forehead with the first and middle finger. Use your thumb and pinky to close alternating nostrils. Take a breath in your left nostril and lose both to pause the breath. Slowly release the air from your right nostril. Inhale into the right and close both to hold the breath. Repeat by alternating sides.

Consistency is key here because it teaches your body to respond to the stimulus by calming down and focusing the breath instead of scrambling frantically to breathe.

Skull Shining Breath (Kapalabhati Pranayama)

This form encourages the body to move and offload toxins for clearer prana (and a clearer head). It purifies and invigorates, cleansing stress and restoring your balance. It’s energizing and perfect in the morning.

To begin, sit with your hands resting comfortably on your belly and take one deep, cleansing breath. Next breathe in quickly just 3/4 of the way and pause. Expel the air with force while drawing your belly button inward to your diaphragm. Allow your lungs to expand naturally and your belly to relax.

Repeat this ten times while visualizing light filling your head. Make sure to stop if you begin to feel dizzy, and don’t perform this one if you’re pregnant or have gastric issues.

Bellows Breath (Bhastrika Pranayama)

This is a straightforward breathing exercise that helps give energy and move stagnation out of the body. It creates heat in the body by squeezing blood through your organs and increasing digestion.

Sit in a comfortable position and take a few deep cleansing breaths. When you’re ready, breathe in deeply and forcefully expel the air. Allow your belly to relax and fill your lungs naturally once again. Coordinate the movement so that the exhale contracts your muscles right at the point of maximum inhalation.

You should hear both the inhale and the exhale. Do this on an empty stomach once or twice a day to generate heat and help quickly rev up the body. Avoid practicing it it if you're pregnant,have uncontrolled hypertension or seizures.

people practicing Bhramari Pranayama

Another calming breathing exercise is Bee Breath. It works to reduce stress, calm the mind, and release anxiety. It distracts your brain from negative and harmful emotions by using both breath and sound as a focusing tool.

To begin, sit comfortably with your eyes closed and place your fingers in your ears. Rest them in the cartilage between your cheek and hear. Some yogis cover their eyes with the remaining free fingers. Inhale making a humming sound that resonates with your closed ears. You can keep them closed or open and close them. High-pitched buzzing sounds are more resonant, but if you find a lower pitch works for you, you can do that as well.

Cooling Breath (Sheetali and Sitkari Pranayama)

The cooling breath helps release excess heat that can cause outbursts, rashes, acne, and other things associated with a heat build up in the body. If you find yourself running hot all the time and in danger of burning out, the cooling breath could be the right thing for you.

There are two methods for performing this cooling breat - Sitali or Sitkari.
To start Sitali , curl your tongue and inhale, exhaling through your nose. As you inhale, touch the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth to cool the air flow and invite that air to cool the upper palate. It may dry your mouth periodically so feel free to swallow at times. Continue for a few minutes until you feel refreshed and calm.

If you can’t curl your tongue, you can try an alternative mouth position - Sitkari. Close your teeth and draw the lips back as if you’re smiling. Inhale through the teeth for the same cooling effect.

Few Common Questions

What is the Best Time of Day to Do These Breathing Exercises?

Depending on the type of exercise, there are different times of day best suited to this practice. Cooling breath is best done during the afternoon or heat of the day while heat building exercises are best done in the morning for extra energy.

Breathing exercises that focus on calming the mind can be done any time of the day when you feel stressed and need to take a second. They also lend themselves to night practice so that you can successfully wind down and relax to prepare for deep, restorative sleep.

Can You Eat Beforehand?

Again, it depends a lot on the time of day and the sort of breath you’re using. If you’re doing a deep belly breath such as bellows breath or skull shining breath, those are best performed on an empty stomach so that there’s nothing to weigh down the energy flow. Bee breath is also better practiced on an empty stomach.

Regardless, you should never stuff yourself before performing a breathing exercise because digestion takes a lot of energy and may come in conflict with the type of breath. Be sure that both your mind and your body are clear to take full advantage of these exercises and not feel miserably full.

Where Should You Practice?

Try to find a distraction-free area. You might want to step outside into nature or create such space at your home with natural elements. Another option can be to simply use a pillow or blanket on the floor in your office.
Aim to create any peaceful environment where you can exercise these techniques. Make the best of what you have.

How Long Should You Practice?

At the beginning when you’re establishing a routine, you can start with as little as five minutes. Depending on your needs and the technique, you might increase this time gradually. A typical number you can aim for is 30 minutes of controlled breathing practice each day.

Final Thoughts

Who knew breath could be so powerful? Taking control of your breathing can help you reclaim energy, heal imbalances, and reconnect to your higher self. Your prana is your vital life force, and stagnation may be behind some of the stress and suffering you’re experiencing. Take time to connect, to learn, and to control this vital force so that you understand the founding principle of the universe, All Is One.