“The main problem in the world is stress. It is not going to decrease—it is going to increase. If through pranayam the shock can be harnessed, the entire stress and disease can be eliminated”—Yogi Bhajan
What is Pranayama? (also called pranayam)
As we come into this world we take our first breath of air and let out a loud cry. To breath is to be alive. Interestingly though, many of us do not breath correctly, often due to stress, anxiety, and/or depression. The yogic technique of pranayama (also called pranayam) is the ancient yogic science of breath control. By controlling your breath you are also directing prana, the life force energy, throughout your body and mind. Pranayam is conscious breathing, and all knowledge is said to come from the wisdom of the breath. Let’s take a moment and break down the Sanskrit word prana:
- Prana = the life force energy
- Pran = first unit
- Ayam = expansion
- The “Science of Breath” controls the movement of prana through the use of breathing techniques
The air we breathe contains oxygen, nitrogen, water vapor, argon, carbon dioxide, and other trace gases. Various yogic traditions teach us that there is so much more going on then mechanistic exchange of gases. Prana rides on the wave of the breath, and as we breath we move the life force energy in and through our body and mind.
Why Practice Pranayama?
Yogic pranayam breathing is the first line of defense in reducing stress, anxiety, and stress-induced depression. Pranayam is free to practice and simple to learn. Although there are more advanced pranayam practices, simple techniques are abundant and can be done by just about anyone. Here are a few important reasons to consider adding pranayam to your daily routine.
- Your rate of breathing and your state of mind are linked.
- As you slow your rate of breathing, you gain more control over your mind.
- When the mind follows the breath, then the body follows the mind.
- When breathing slows, the mind calms down and becomes less anxious.
- When breathing increases (assuming you’re not exercising) the mind becomes more chaotic.
- Practicing pranayam reduces diseases by helping to heal the autonomous nervous system.
- When practiced as directed, pranayam is safe, free, and easy to do.
- Reduces health care costs.
When practiced correctly and consistently, pranayam is highly effective for improving health, building resilience, increasing vitality, and developing higher consciousness. This can readily be demonstrated using heart rate variability biofeedback, because pranayam has an immediate impact on the autonomous nervous system. I have found that a regular practice of pranayam has reduced my stress naturally and lifts my spirits as well.
How Do I Practice Pranayama?
There are many different schools of yoga that teach pranayam, perhaps there is a local yoga class near you that incorporates pranayam. When I teach Kundalini yoga I almost always begin the class with at least 5 minutes of pranayam. You can watch many of my YouTube videos for free. I highly recommend beginning with Long Deep Breathing, because it is the cornerstone to proper breathing and has no negative side effects when practiced as directed.
I highly recommend Praana, Praanee, Praanayam:Exploring the Breath Technology of Kundalini Yoga as Taught by Yogi Bhajan®. Pranayam is used by various schools of yoga and there is significant overlap in how to do yogic breathing. I like this book because it is pragmatic, easy to follow, and suitable for beginners and advanced practitioners alike.
A few important elements to remember when practicing pranayam are the following:
- Keep your spine straight if the directions call for a seated posture.
- On the inhale, be sure to fill your lungs as completely as you can. Allow your diaphragm to expand downwards. Your lung capacity will expand with practice.
- On the exhale, be sure to empty your lungs as completely as you can. The diaphragm will rise up as you exhale.
- Pay attention to the number of counts if the pranayam calls for it.
- Apply neck lock, unless otherwise directed.
- Keep the breath controlled with an even inhale and fluid exhale. Don’t gasp for air–back off the on the time if this happens until your lung capacity develops.
- If you feel dizzy-STOP. Take a few normal breaths and slowly return. If dizziness continues select a different pranayam.
- Follow directions and precautions, if any.
When Do I Practice Pranayama?
Pranayam can be practiced at any time and best done on an empty stomach. It is best to be consistent with your practice time, however until you establish a natural routine, any time is much better than no time. Pranayam is often combined with meditation or exercise postures, but can be done by itself. If I have trouble sleeping, I often practice a simple pranayam to draw my focus away from my thoughts and gradually sleep returns.
Please share your experience with pranayam so that others may be inclined to give it a try. Thank you!