In the traditional form of Ashtanga, there are 8 limbs of yoga: yama (abstinences), niyama (observances), asana (yoga postures), pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (absorption). These limbs are set out in Patanjali’s sutras, providing guidelines on how to live a purposeful and meaningful life. The most popular and well-known limbs of yoga are Asana (yoga poses) and Dhyana (meditation). Whilst all the limbs require an in-depth explanation, Pranayama is arguably one of the most important limbs, both for your physical and mental wellbeing.
What is Pranayama?
Pranayama is the regulation of the breath through certain techniques and exercises. Simply put, it is the science of breathing.
You may be sat there thinking "breathing is pretty easy", you’ve done it every day without any effort or thought whatsoever (unless you’re running or swimming, then that takes some serious focus). But once you try altering your breathing technique or paying attention to exactly how you breathe, it suddenly become a bit more difficult. Imagine someone one day points out you’ve been walking wrong, it’s not heel to toe, but toe to heel; you would find it difficult to alter your normal gait and even standing up suddenly becomes a challenge while you overthink everything.
So why is pranayama so amazing?
1) Aids in weight loss
The practice of pranayama involves contracting and expanding the abdominal muscles. By modifying your breathing techniques and bringing focus to different parts of the body, you are activating different muscle groups, releasing energy and, in some cases sweating. All of which helps to burn fat.
A good pranayama for aiding weight loss is “Kapalbhati Pranayama”. This focuses on the abdominal region of the body; it tones the abdomen and results in fat reduction from the belly.
2) Improves skin complexion
Looking at the science, it is easy to see how pranayama improves your complexion. In certain pranayama techniques, you practice breath retention (or Kumbhaka) for a certain amount of time. When you hold your breath inside the body, it supplies oxygen to the skin cells. These breathing techniques increase the supply of oxygen which increases the blood thrush and improves the appearance of skin. They also detoxify the blood which often is considered as the root cause for various skin problems.
A good pranayama for specifically for improving your face complexion is Bhramari breathing. By taking a deep inhale and slowly exhaling, you are retaining the oxygen long enough to help produce a healthy glow after continued practice.
3) Improves digestion
Whilst IBS and other digestive issues are physical ailments, there have been many studies showing that mental anxiety and stress manifest in the body in the form of digestive issues. Diseases like diarrhoea and gastritis can also be caused by stress and anxiety affecting the gut. Pranayama helps to calm the mind and provide relief from anxiety which in turn reduces these digestive issues.
Simply practicing Yogic breathing can help to calm the mind and reduce some of these symptoms.
4) Increases lung capacity and lung health
As you may expect, pranayama is fantastic for your lung health. By practicing pranayama, you are strengthening your expiratory powers and decreasing resistance to the lungs – resulting in an enhanced airflow. Pranayama is a great exercise to help control your breathing, and in turn maintains the isometric contraction of your respiratory muscles.
In addition, pranayama increases the expansion of the chest wall and the lungs, thus improving your lung capacity and function. As a result, it also can be used to alleviate lung diseases and ailments such as asthma.
A great pranayama for improving your lung capacity is Nadi Shodan Pranayama, also known as alternated nostril breathing.
5) Improves cardiovascular health
Pranayama plays an important role in the functioning of the circulatory system. By modifying the normal breathing techniques, it also modifies the heart rate and, as previously stated, increases oxygen intake. By increasing the circulation around the body, pranayama helps to detoxify the body, decrease the heart rate and improves the overall blood pressure.
A good pranayama for improving circulation, blood pressure and general cardiovascular health is Pranava Pranayama. It is also one of the simplest forms of pranayama.
1) Reduces stress
When a person is feeling depressed, anxious or fearful, there is a physiological impact on the body as well as an impact on the person’s psychological behaviour. When suffering with these conditions, the person remains agitated, irritable, and has lowered productivity. Pranayama helps to relax your mind and body, reducing the anxious or depressive thoughts and overall improving their psychological outlook.
The regular practice of Ujjayi Pranayama helps to eliminate the negativity and destructive thoughts, leading to a more positive outlook and improved way of thinking.
2) Improves concentration
By increasing your oxygen supply to the brain, pranayama helps to calm the mind, take charge of your thoughts, and reduce distractions. Thus, reducing anxiety and increasing your ability to focus and concentrate. The use of pranayama also results in strengthening your parasympathetic nervous system.
Any form of pranayama will help improve your concentration, but Bhramari Pranayama is highly effective. By humming as part of the pranayama, other thoughts or distractions are forced out of the mind.
3) Helps alleviate insomnia and other sleep disorders
Insomnia and other sleep disorders can often be triggered by anxiety or depression. As previously stated, pranayama is great for reducing anxiety and stress, as well as helping to alleviate depression.
By combining pranayama with meditation, the practitioner can relieve themselves of any stresses keeping them awake and are able to have a more restful nights sleep. In turn, leading to an improved quality of life.
If you are suffering from insomnia or other sleep disorders, try yogi breathing combined with Yoga Nidra.
4) Effective for brain disorders
Again, pranayama helps to detoxify the body, not only releasing toxins from the blood, but also enhancing the filtering capacity of the brain i.e. removing toxins ingested through pollution, smoking etc.
The practice of certain pranayama also helps to reduce brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and brain cancer. A pranayama for this type of purpose would be continued practice of Surya Bhedana Pranayama.
5) Increases grey matter of the brain
Grey matter contains most of the brain’s neuronal cells and bodies. It includes regions of the brain involved in muscle control as well as in sensory perception (i.e. seeing, hearing, memory, emotions, speech, decision making etc.).
By practicing pranayama, you keep the brain calm and quiet with less anxiety. With this occurring, the volume of the brain’s grey matter increases. This leads to improved vision, critical thinking, and memory retention.
Any practice of pranayama and meditation will generally help to increase your grey matter and improve your brain functioning.
So how do you practice it?
All you need to practice pranayama is roughly 10 minutes a day and it is best to practice on an empty stomach. Just be sure to investigate the contra-indications for any pranayama before you decide to do it, just to make sure it is the best one for you.
In conclusion, pranayama is an amazing practice for both the mind and the body. Whilst there are many more benefits to practicing pranayama, and hundreds of scientific studies to support them. Writing it all down would put even an insomniac to sleep.
Until then, happy breathing! If you have any comments or questions, feel free to share below!