Did you know, the earliest mention of ‘yoga’ can be traced as far back as the 1500 BC, in the Rig Veda? A steady stream of art, science, and philosophy, it has, since, been known to have immense benefits—physical, mental, spiritual, and more. Yoga, essentially, rests on eight limbs or pillars—to yield results. Simply put, these are the ‘core’ activities that guide towards and pave the way for a happy, healthy life.
One of these mainstays of yoga is Pranayama or yogic breathing—the practice of controlled breathing. A portmanteau of the Sanskrit words ‘Prana’, which translates to ‘vital energy’ or ‘life force’, and ‘Yama’ which means ‘gaining control’, Pranayama is a series of yoga breathing exercises that instil in you the ability to designedly, mindfully inhale and exhale. This helps calm—and hone—the mind and body, as well as harmonise the physiological systems.
To throw more light on pranayama, the yogic art of breathing,let’s understand the process. Human movement and thought are largely facilitated by prana—it is the energy responsible for various mental and physical activities we partake in. This life force is made up of five vayus or winds—Prana, Apana, Udana, Vyana and Samana—that govern different parts of our body. Pranayama helps balance the Prana (the inward and upward moving vayu) and Apana (downwards and outwards flowing vayu).
The gains are countless
Mentally: Pranayama relieves stress and aids in relaxation. A 2016 study published in National Library of Medicine (NLM) observed young adults through and post a yogic breathing-based workshop. In the end, it reported better well-being in the participants, including improvement in “self-reported depression” and “life satisfaction”, as well as evidence of abated impulsivity, increased calm, more mental focus and better emotion regulation, among others. More recently, a research published on frontiersin.org, in 2020, examined the effects of Bhastrika Pranayama, and concluded that the practitioners showed significantly reduced states of anxiety.
Furthermore, it also bolsters mindfulness and brain function. A 2013 report in NLM found that 12 weeks of Pranayama enhanced both cognitive and executive operations, including auditory working memory, central neural processing, and sensory-motor performance. It also helped with reasoning skills, and reaction time.
Physically: Yogic breathing can assist in pulmonary ailments, as it is found to strengthen lungs. An article in the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research concluded that six weeks of practising Pranayama for one hour daily showed improved results among participants. Experts believe that such breathing exercise for lungs can be good tools for conditions such as asthma and allergic bronchitis, too. It can be beneficial in high blood pressure. Conscious breathing is found to help calm the nervous system, which in turn, reduces stress, and, subsequently, the risk of hypertension.
- Pros believe that most yoga breathing exercises should be best practised early in the morning, on an empty stomach. However, some also opine that you can do it any time, about four hours after your last meal.
- There are various techniques to do Pranayama varying with sutras, schools, and practitioners. Typically, the science of yogic breathing is divided into three parts:
- A few common, famous techniques of yogic breathing are: Dirga Pranayama, Kapalbhati, Anulom Vilom, Bhramari, Nadi Shodhana; and Bhastrika Pranayama.
- While the simpler versions like Dirga Pranayama should be safe for anyone, it is always a good idea to start under expert supervision, adhering to full yogic breath instructions. And let your instructor know if you have any underlying/chronic aches or pre-existing injuries. It is imperative that you consult a doctor before starting any form of yoga or exercise if you are a pregnant woman, a senior citizen, a heart patient, or anyone with a health condition.
Finally, do make sure you are cautious and cognisant of the breathing, as well as the postures, patterns and stances, for full yogic breath benefits. If not done properly, Pranayama has the potential to cause dizziness, headache, nausea, even high blood pressure in some cases.