Many years back, Parvathi P from Bengaluru, then a young woman in her 20s, struggled even to breathe. She was diagnosed with asthma. Fast forward 32 years. At 54, Parvathi goes on treks easily with her daughter and friends who are about half her age.
Thanks to following a suggestion of a friend in her younger years, Parvathi’s wheezing and breathlessness are a thing of the past. “My life itself changed since I learnt about pranayama and started practising it,” she says. In the last 32 years, “It has not just strengthened my respiratory system, but made my entire body feel light and healthy.”
“My day starts with a suryanamaskara (sun salutation postures) and breathing exercises like kapalabhathi* and anuloma-viloma pranayama*. I was able to breathe properly after I started practising breathing exercises,” she says.
What is pranayama?
Shynee Narang, Delhi-based international yoga instructor and founder of Yooyogic, a digital platform for holistic health and wellness, explains pranayama.
Popularly known as focussed or yogic breathing, it is one of the eight important prongs of yoga together called Ashtanga-yoga.
Pranayama is a conscious breathing technique which aligns the body with the mind. Prana means life, vital force (or air); and ayama means restraint or control.
The controlled breathing practice of pranayama offers a holistic way of enhancing the quality of the vital force (prana) that we inhale. Regular practice of it helps to rejuvenate the respiratory system and prevent conditions caused due to improper breathing practices.
“Pranayama involves three stages namely pooraka or controlled inhalation, kumbhaka or controlled retention of inhaled air, and rechaka or exhalation,” says Narang. “The retention of inhaled air for a few seconds is the crucial stage where the chest wall expands to the maximum, and this allows us to use the entire capacity of the lungs.”
- Strengthens lungs
A study was conducted by a team of researchers from Tamil Nadu’s Vinayaka Mission’s Medical College to evaluate the effects of a six-week pranayama course on lung functions.
It concluded that the test values of pulmonary function improved with a six-week short-term pranayama practice. The research also stated that pranayama can be promoted as a lung strengthening tool to treat and prevent respiratory diseases such as asthma, allergic bronchitis, post –pneumonia recoveries, tuberculosis, and occupational diseases.
- Breathing functions
Researchers from Bengaluru’s Ramaiah Medical College and Teaching Hospital conducted a year-long study involving 49 school kids in 12-15 year age group, who had mild to moderate asthma. They concluded that practising pranayama could be an appropriate therapy to treat adolescents with asthma as it improved their lung functions and reduced acute exacerbations of the condition.
- Managing hyperventilation
Hyperventilation is a medical condition where one breathes excessively, and it leads to increased release of carbon dioxide (CO2); and this significantly reduces the CO2 concentration in blood. The symptoms include shortness of breath, severe fatigue, and restlessness.
A case study published by the Faculty of Ayurveda of the Banaras Hindu University discussed that breathing alternately through the nostrils can help to manage the condition.
- Helps to quit smoking
A study conducted at London’s University College by the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health involved smokers who were trying to come out of the habit and were fighting tobacco cravings. They concluded that yogic breathing exercises have a positive impact in curbing tobacco cravings.
The researchers highlighted that the participants were naïve to yogic breathing exercises, and the outcome may be more effective if the study population were trained ahead in pranayama techniques.
- Lowers stress
Breathing exercises are a recourse to getting rid of sleep disturbances and stress. They are shown to reduce the levels of stress hormones and improve cognition, anxiety, and general wellbeing.
Studies have demonstrated that both slow-paced and fast-paced breathing exercises help to beat stress. A study concluded that slow pranayama reduces stress in people with stable cardiovascular function whereas fast-paced exercises are not recommended to people with cardiovascular conditions.
Are there side effects?
“Although breathing exercises are safe for everyone, it is important to seek an expert’s advice and understand the entire process of breathing exercises especially when there is a medical condition. Pregnant women and those with certain conditions should do the exercises in the presence of an expert,” says Narang.
|Anuloma-viloma pranayama (Alternate- nostril breathing)||Performed by closing the right nostril using the right thumb and inhaled through the left. Similarly, the left nostril is closed using the left thumb and exhaled through the right. This completes one round of alternate-nostril breathing.|
|Kapalabhati||Performed by inhaling through both nostrils and exhaling rapidly by moving/flapping the abdomen during each exhalation at a rapid pace of 60-120 breaths/ minute.