Why pranayama is a life hack worth your time
Pranayama is the practice of breath control in Yoga. The word “prana” is the body’s life-force energy while “yama” means control or restraint. Pranayama is therefore a number of practices meant to control and consciously expand the life-force into every cell of the human body. Because breath is the source of prana, pranayama is mainly constituted of breathing techniques. However, it can also include a few meditative visualisations and visual locks.
Pranayama plays with the inhalation, exhalation and the pauses in between the breath to create stillness in the mind. In fact, we observe that whenever our breath stops, the mind stops. We notice a reciprocal influence between the breath and mind that allows us to entrain the mind to its most peaceful repose simply by regulating our breath to create a blank in our mind. According to Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga, a step-by-step approach to control the thoughts in the mind, pranayama is the fourth limb of yoga and therefore an important practice to liberate yourself from your mind.
The energetic and physiological effects of pranayama
In both Ayurveda and other Asian Medicinal systems it is understood that stagnancy of life force energy is what creates disease. Therefore, expansion, circulation and retention of life force energy will result in health. With Pranayama, our primary intention is to make conscious this influx of prana to enliven the body. The practice infuses purifying energy through all the chakras and brings consciousness to the flow of life. According to The Upanishads, prana along with meditation could be used to redirect prana into the body's central energy channel called the Sushumna Nadi.
Some of the scientifically-proven benefits of Pranayama are general well-being as well as improved lung function, digestion, blood flow and physical movement. Another benefit proven by the Nobel Prize-winning research on the panacea molecule, is that nitric oxide which is important for many aspects of our health, can only be carried to every cell in the body via nose breathing but not mouth breathing. Therefore, specific pranayama exercises such as brahmari (humming bee sound) have a profound impact on our health and longevity as they can boost nitric oxide production 15x.
I loved learning more about this practice as each type of Pranayama has a different impact on your physiology. It is therefore useful to understand the impact of each type of Pranayama technique and use the one that serves us the most at each specific moment. For example, Ujjayi helps focus the mind while Sitkari is rejuvenating and helps reduce body temperature. Above all, Pranayama is a great practice to start using our lung capacity correctly given that a great part of the population breathes very shallowly due to stress and anxiety.
The science behind Pranayama
Pranayama restrains the auxiliary muscles of breath to maximize the way in which we use the oxygen in the air inside our body. It also tones the nervous system to override panic when breathing intentionally. Furthermore, according to Simon Borg-Olivier, pranayama is the art of learning how to breathe less than normal as this will allow you to accumulate carbon dioxide in the body which is also an important substance that improves blood flow to the brain and heart but also improves breathing by opening the bronchial tubes in the lungs.
Pranayama in practice and recommendations
A lot of breathing exercises today are based on Pranayama. However, there is only a number of breathing exercises that are truly defined as Pranayama. Pranayama techniques are specifically meant to breathe more fully and less frequently. Some of the exercises are Ujjayi breath, Nadi Shodhana, Sitkari or Bhramari.
If you are curious to start experimenting with Pranayma make sure you begin with very short breath retentions and build up until you feel comfortable to move to longer periods. Also, the best time to perform pranayama is usually before sunrise or sunset, ideally on an empty stomach.