Mind-Body Health

Breathing for Life: The Mind-Body Healing Benefits of Pranayama

Breathing for Life: The Mind-Body Healing Benefits of Pranayama
“For breath is life, and if you breathe well you will live long on earth.” –Sanskrit proverb

A regular daily practice of deep breathing is one of the best tools for improving your health and well-being. Here are five simple yogic breathing techniques to help you get started.

Breath is essential to life. From the first breath at birth to the last breath upon passing, you take about half a billion breaths, usually without thinking about it. What you may not realize is that the mind, body, and breath are intimately connected and can influence each other. Essentially, your breathing is influenced by your thoughts, and your thoughts and physiology can be influenced by your breath. Learning to breathe consciously and with awareness is a valuable tool in helping to restore balance in the mind and body—something very useful during times of stress.

Pranayama 101

The basis for all deep breathing practices originates in the science of yoga, specifically the fourth limb of yoga, known as pranayama. The word pranayama is derived from two Sanskrit words. Although there are various definitions of the term, one interpretation is: prana (life force) and ayama (expansion), or expanding the life force using the breath. The ancient yogis learned that by controlling the breath, you can influence every aspect of your life.

If you have ever caught yourself sighing at the end of a long day, this is an example of the body’s natural way of relieving stress. The more you become aware of the power of the breath, the more you can benefit from its numerous physical and emotional benefits.

Researchers have documented the benefits of a regular practice of simple, deep breathing, which include the following:

In the medical community, there is a growing appreciation for the positive impact that deep breathing can have on the physiology, both in the mind and the body. According to the research, many of these deep-breathing benefits can be attributed to reducing the stress response in the body. To understand how this works, let’s look at the stress response in more detail.

Pranayama as a Tool to Counter Stress

When you experience stressful thoughts, your sympathetic nervous system triggers the body’s ancient fight-or-flight response, giving you a burst of energy to respond to the perceived danger. Your breathing becomes shallow and rapid, and you primarily breathe from the chest and not the lower lungs. This can make you feel short of breath, which is a common symptom when you feel anxious or frustrated. At the same time, your body produces a surge of hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine (also known as adrenaline), which increase your blood pressure and pulse rate and put you in a revved-up state of high alert.

With deep breathing, you can reverse these symptoms instantly and create a sense of calm in your mind and body. When you breathe deeply and slowly, you activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which reverses the stress response in your body. Deep breathing stimulates the main nerve in the parasympathetic nervous system—the vagus nerve—slowing down your heart rate, lowering your blood pressure, and calming your body and mind.

In addition, with deep breathing, you engage the abdominal muscles and diaphragm instead of the muscles in the upper chest and neck. This conditioning of the respiratory muscles results in improved efficiency of oxygen exchange with every breath by allowing more air exchange to occur in the lower lungs. It also reduces strain on the muscles of the neck and upper chest, allowing these muscles to relax. In short, deep breathing is more relaxing and efficient, allowing higher volumes of oxygen to reach the body’s cells and tissues.

As well as reversing the physical stress response in the body, deep breathing can help calm and slow down the emotional turbulence in the mind. Breathing can have an immediate effect on diffusing emotional energy so there is less reactivity to your emotions.

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5 Deep-Breathing Techniques

Beyond the practice of simple deep breathing, the ancient yogis described different types of rhythmic deep-breathing techniques that can have differing effects on the mind and body. In fact, many studies document the beneficial effects of yogic breathing in treating depression, anxiety, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), and asthma. There are also theories that support the notion that by slowing down and controlling the breath, you can improve your longevity.

There are many different types of breathing techniques, each having a specific effect on the mind-body physiology. The following are five simple yogic breathing techniques to help you get started. Make sure you are sitting in a comfortable position with your spine erect. If at any point you begin to feel dizzy or uncomfortable, be sure to pause before resuming, or simply stop and try again at a later time.

1. The Belly Breath

This is a core breathing technique that is often used in yoga classes. It helps bring awareness to the body and calms the mind. If you are new to pranayama, it’s helpful to initially perform this lying down, knees bent if needed, in order to feel the muscles of the abdomen engaging. Once you become familiar with the practice, you can continue while sitting.

  • Place one hand on your belly.
  • Take a deep breath in through the nose, drawing air toward your lower belly. Feel the belly expand and rise as you inhale.
  • Exhale through the nose and feel the belly contract and lower. The hand on your belly should move down to its original position. The breaths should be deep and elongated.
  • Practice this technique 3 to 5 minutes several times a day, or whenever you feel stressed.

2. The Complete Breath

The Complete Breath is known as Dirgha Pranayama. Dirgha means “long” in Sanskrit and includes the expansion of the abdomen, chest, and neck region. This breath helps to calm the mind and develop deeper awareness.

  • While lying down or sitting, place one hand on your belly and the other on your upper chest.
  • Inhale slowly and deeply through the nose, drawing the air into the lower abdomen and pelvic area, feeling your hand rise with the belly.
  • Continuing to inhale, feel the rib cage begin to expand outward as the mid-section of the torso becomes engaged.
  • Finally, draw the air into the upper chest and allow the collar bones to rise. Feel the hand rise with the chest.
  • At the peak of inhalation, pause for a moment, then exhale gently in reverse order, releasing the upper chest first, then the diaphragm and ribs, and finally the lower abdomen. Slightly contract the abdominal muscles to push residual air out of the bottom of your lungs.
  • After some practice, it should start to feel like a gentle wave motion.
  • Perform a few rounds and then notice how you feel.

3. The Alternate Nostril Breathing

When you are feeling anxious or ungrounded, practice Alternate Nostril Breathing, known as Nadi Shodhana in the yogic tradition. This will immediately help you feel calmer.

  • Hold your right thumb over your right nostril and inhale deeply through your left nostril.
  • At the peak of your inhalation, close off your left nostril with your fourth finger, lift your right thumb, and then exhale smoothly through your right nostril.
  • After a full exhalation, inhale through the right nostril, closing it off with your right thumb at the peak of your inhalation, lift your fourth finger and exhale smoothly through your left nostril.
  • Continue with this practice for 3 to 5 minutes, alternating your breathing through each nostril. Your breathing should be effortless, with your mind gently observing the inflow and outflow of breath.

4. The Ocean’s Breath

When you feel angry, irritated, or frustrated, try Ocean’s Breath, or Ujjayi (pronounced oo-jai). This will immediately soothe and settle your mind.

  • Take an inhalation that is slightly deeper than normal. With your mouth closed, exhale through your nose while constricting your throat muscles. If you are doing this correctly, you should sound like waves on the ocean.
  • Another way to get the hang of this practice is to try exhaling the sound “haaaaah” with your mouth open. Now make a similar sound with your mouth closed, feeling the outflow of air through your nasal passages.
  • Once you have mastered this on the outflow, use the same method for the inflow breath, gently constricting your throat as you inhale.
  • Continue for 3 to 5 minutes or however long it feels comfortable.

5. The Energizing Breath

When you are feeling blue or sluggish, try the Energizing Breath or Bhastrika. This will give you an immediate surge of energy and invigorate your mind.

  • Begin by relaxing your shoulders and take a few deep, full breaths from your abdomen.
  • Now start exhaling forcefully through your nose, followed by forceful, deep inhalations at the rate of one second per cycle. Your breathing is entirely from your diaphragm, keeping your head, neck, shoulders, and chest relatively still while your belly moves in and out.
  • Start by doing a round of 10 breaths, then breathe naturally and notice the sensations in your body. After 15 to 30 seconds, begin the next round with 20 breaths. Finally, after pausing for another 30 seconds, complete a third round of 30 breaths. Beginners are advised to take a break between rounds.

Although Bhastrika is a safe practice, stay tuned in to your body during the process. If you feel light-headed or very uncomfortable, stop for a few moments before resuming in a less intense manner.

Contraindications: Do not practice Bhastrika if you are pregnant or have uncontrolled hypertension, epilepsy/seizures, panic disorder, hernia, gastric ulcer, glaucoma, or vertigo. Use caution if there is an underlying lung disease.

Performing one of these breath techniques for only five minutes twice daily can produce long-term benefits. You can also use them any time you are feeling stressed or notice that your breathing has become constricted. By training your body with a regular practice of deep breathing, you will begin to breathe more effectively even without concentrating on it. You can practice anytime and anywhere; you literally have the power to change your life within you through the power of the breath.

“Healing is every breath.” –Thich Nhat Hanh