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Pranayama and Breathing Exercises

Updated on February 17, 2015
Pranayama and simple breathing exercise can help calm the mind.
Pranayama and simple breathing exercise can help calm the mind. | Source

Prana is 'vital energy', which includes will power and ambition, while 'ayama' means 'stretch, expansion and extension'. Pranayama can be described as the 'expansion and extension of energy or life force'. – B. K. S. Iyengar

The way we breathe has a profound effect on the quality of our lives. It might be surprising to note that many of us do not breathe properly. The fact that breathing happens automatically we hardly ever pay attention to it. We have developed poor breathing habits over the years and we use only a small percentage of our 5-quarter lung capacity leading to many ailments. An important question to ask ourselves is, 'Do I breathe high up in my chest or from my navel?'

Do you feel tired and sluggish by the end of the day? The reason is shallow breathing since it does not properly oxygenate the system, allowing toxins to build up. It leads to loss of energy, respiratory problems, mental confusion, and increased tension. It is no wonder that we find ourself so stressed out and unable to cope with life's challenges.

On the other hand deep diaphragmatic breathing helps our respiratory, circulatory, digestive and nervous systems nourishing the blood cells and removing harmful toxins from the body. The practice of Pranayama is one way to fully oxygenate and purify our bodies and to balance our energies. However, it is important to remember that Patanjali specified that pranayama should be attempted only after the asanas or yoga poses were mastered.

Conscious Breathing

Four Parts of Breath
Effects and Benefits
brings nourishment and energy
Retention or holding the breath in
allows prana to fully enter and energize the body
cleanses the system and quiets the emotions
Suspension or holding the breath out
extends the benefits of exhalation by further calming the entire being.

The Yoga of Breath -- A Step-by-step Guide to Pranayama by Richard Rosen is one of the best books I have read on the topic. It can help you practice pranayama for a whole year by yourself if you cannot find a teacher near by or are unable to go to any classes.

Pranayama is Not Deep Breathing

The first step before starting the practice of pranayama is to observe you current breathing pattern by doing conscious breathing. The breath can be divided into four parts and Pranayama practice makes use of them in different combinations:

  • Inhalation
  • Retention or holding the breath in
  • Exhalation
  • Suspension or holding the breath out

It is important to remember that pranayama is not mere deep breathing. Deep breathing tenses the facial muscles, makes the skull and scalp rigid, tightens the chest, and applies external force to the intake or release of breath. This actually creates hardness in the fibers of the lungs and chest, preventing the percolation of breath through the body.

In pranayama practice, the cells of the brain and facial muscles remain soft and receptive, and the breath is drawn in or released gently. The practice of asanas or yoga poses helps to remove the obstructions which impede the flow of prana. Pranayama is a complex process and must be practiced with the greatest sincerity and precision. At first it is difficult and requires great effort. Mastery is achieved when pranayama becomes effortless.

It is a good idea to find a teacher for practicing pranayama. If you are attempting it on your own it would be a good idea to practice it in a reclining position in the beginning. To learn about the benefits and how to practice yogic breathing exercises see Yoga Breathing Exercises, Pranayama.

There are few pranayama or yogic breathing exercises that are safe to do by yourself. They are:

  • Kapalabhati – skull brightener or skull shining breath (preparation for pranayama)
  • Sama-vritti – Equal Ratio breathing
  • Anuloma Viloma – Alternate Nostril Breath

The Basics of Pranayama Yoga w/ Richard Freeman

Anuloma viloma pranayama or alternate nostril breath is one of the breathing techniques.
Anuloma viloma pranayama or alternate nostril breath is one of the breathing techniques. | Source

Kapalabhati – skull brightener or skull shining breath (preparation for Pranayama)

n everyday breathing you will notice that the exhalation is longer than the inhalation and is more of a passive activity. In Kapalabhati this process is reversed. During kapalabhati the exhalation is very fast done by a quick contraction of the lower belly muscles, which pushes the viscera up against the diaphragm.

Sama-vritti – Equal Ratio breathing

Sama-vritti or equal ratio breathing is one of the two basic categories of ratios in pranayama, the other category being Vishama-vritti or unequal ratio breathing. In equal ratio breathing, the times of the inhalations and exhalations are the same.

Anuloma Viloma – Alternate Nostril Breath or Nadi Sodhana

You might be surprised to know that we normally breathe in 1-2 hour-cycles: first one nostril, then the other is dominant. Prolonged breathing through one side can drain our energy. This ancient breathing technique restores the proper balance to our breathing pattern.

Relax in Corpse Pose or Shavasana

These three pranayama techniques are a good way to start your practice. It would be beneficial to keep a pranayama journal as well to monitor your progress. Studying the philosophy of yoga and practicing yoga asanas or poses for some months before starting breathing techniques will enhance your pranayama practice.


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    • Sushma Webber profile image

      Sushma Webber 4 years ago from New Zealand

      Thanks Sarah, glad you found the article helpful.

    • sarahshuihan profile image

      Sarah 4 years ago from USA

      Thanks for this post. I've been looking into starting a practice like this since it's part of the Ashtanga practice. Very informative!

    • Vinaya Ghimire profile image

      Vinaya Ghimire 4 years ago from Nepal

      Though I'm not regular, I practice pranayama. I have been practicing kapalbhati long before Indian satellite Guru Ramdeva made it popular.

      PS: Thanks for reading and commenting on my hub about how to quit smoking.

    • Sushma Webber profile image

      Sushma Webber 4 years ago from New Zealand

      Thanks DreamerMeg, yes it is really a challenge to be always watchful. It is so easy to get into bad habits but very difficult to get out of them. Will power and motivation is what can keep us on track.

    • DreamerMeg profile image

      DreamerMeg 4 years ago from Northern Ireland

      Interesting, thanks. We are always told we are not breathing properly but you have shown how to correct this.