Pranayama: The Basics

Pranayama is the formal practice of controlling one’s breath. Prana is a Sanskrit term translated as “breath” or “life force”. Other meanings of Prana include vigor, spirit, energy, and respiration.  Yama means “to control” or “restrain”. Essentially, Pranayama is a set of breathing techniques where the breath is intentionally altered in order to achieve specific results.  Pranayama is referenced in Yogic texts such as The Bhagavad Gita, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and Hatha Yoga Pradipika.

Pranayama is the Fourth Limb of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. It is a vital step that is preliminary to concentration, along with Asana, Yama, and Niyama. Although Patanjali does not describe Pranayama methodology, The Hatha Yoga Pradipika does explain several types in detail.

Breathing is a part of the autonomic nervous system which is made up of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for governing our responses to stimuli, deciding whether they are potentially threatening, and then prompting signals that tell the body how to react. For instance, if you see a tiger running towards you, your sympathetic nervous system senses danger, causing a series of neuroendocrine events that eventually lead to the adrenal glands releasing cortisol, or adrenaline (your fight or flight hormone). This is what gives you instant energy and the ability to run faster than a toddler on a sugar high. The parasympathetic nervous system is also known as “rest and digest”. It is responsible for bringing the body back to, or keeping it in, a state of calm.  The autonomic nervous system also affects the breath. In the presence of danger, the breath becomes fast and short, allowing greater oxygen consumption to facilitate escape and any breakneck sprinting. This kind of breathing also occurs in non-life-threatening situations, like during times of panic and anxiety. As anxiety increases, so does your rate of breathing. Following the premise of like increases like, it becomes a self-perpetuating, vicious cycle. If you are conscious of what is happening within your body, you can deliberately slow down and deepen the breath to control your symptoms, telling your body – and mind – it’s okay to calm down.

Like Asana, Pranayama is a form of controlling the mind, which prepares us for the ultimate state of Yoga, which is Chitta Vritti Nirodha, or blank state of consciousness. Additionally, regular deep breathing practices have been clinically shown to be beneficial in treating stress-related disorders by lowering cortisol (stress hormone) levels. Other benefits of regular Pranayama include body temperature regulation, sitting with proper posture, stimulating digestion, regulation of the sympathetic nervous system, and increased concentration. Full yogic breathing increases the velocity of movement of fluids through our body, resulting in a more efficient transport of nutrients and wastes through our system. This saturation and wringing effect has a similar cleansing action in our body as a sponge in a sink.

Before beginning your own Pranayama practice, make sure you take proper precautions. If you have high or low blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, epilepsy, glaucoma, vertigo, have have had a recent major surgical procedure, or are pregnant, consult with your health provider about what is safe for you. Most Yoga texts state that, in order to avoid unwanted injuries and side effects, Pranayama should only be done when you have a well-established Yoga practice and only then under the guidance of an experienced practitioner.  

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