What is Pranayama?

The Sanskrit term 'pranayama' translates into 'regulation of life force energy' (prana), explains Dr. Apar Avinash Saoji (Ph.D. Yoga and Psychophysiology). Pranayama is a breath-control technique. In Sanskrit, prana means life, and Ayama means way. Pranayama can help you regulate your system, change your mood, and ensure longevity. These pranayamas are an easy but very effective tool for comfort.

Pranayama is a process of breath regulation and considered to be an essential component of Yoga. Pranayama, when performed daily, can influence the physiological systems. Pranayama plays an intermediate link between the mental and physical disciplines, and provide physical well being while keeping your mind and body calm, lucid, and steady.

Pranayama is the composition of two words, Prana, a vital life force manifested in the body as breath and Ayama is an action/exercise that helps control your prana through your breath.

Pranayama is a state of being aware of your breath and is the most essential as well as the subtlest part of it.

Breath is a continuous process of inhaling and exhaling where inhaling nourishes your body with oxygen and calms our mind, whereas exhalation cleanses and removes impurities out of the body.

In short, Pranayama is an act of controlling life by modifying prana within the body.

 Pranayam has three components:

1. Pooraka which means Inhalation

2. Rechaka means Exhalation

3. Kumbhaka means Retention

Kumbhaka is of two types, Antar Kumbhaka is holding the breath after inhaling, and Bahya Kumbhaka holding the breath after expiration.[1.2].

See: Nadi Shodana Pranayama - Alternate Nostril Breathing

Types of Pranayama

There are many types of Pranayama. One can practice different types of pranayama based on their classification:

- Ujjaiyi Pranayama

- Bhramri Pranayama

- Bhastrika Pranayama 

- Kapalbhati Pranayama

- Sheetkari Pranayama 

- Sheetli Pranayama

- Palawani Pranayama

- Moorchha Pranayama

  

Some of the most commonly performed pranayamas are: 

1. Bhastrika pranayama

Bhastrika pranayama is an energetic breathing technique that involves heavy breathing through nostrils. Bhastrika is a dynamic yogic breathing technique, created by ancient yogis to provide ample oxygen to every cell of the body and mind. Heavy postures usually follow the Bhastrika pranayama to heat the body.

There are three types of Bhastrika pranayamas based on the frequency & rate of breathing.

a. Fast Pace Bhastrika

Active young people should practice this pranayama in teevre gati or fast pace to realize the maximum benefit.

Your abdominal muscles move at a swift pace, and you'll hear a sharp hissing sound.

b. Medium Pace Bhastrika

People with chronic medical conditions such as back pain, migraine, or arthritis should perform this practice in Madhyam Gati or an average breathing rate.

In this exercise, one can focus more on the in-and-out movement of air as you breathe, and try to keep the body more aligned with your breath. You'll hear a slow hissing sound.

c. Slow Pace Bhastrika

People with heart disease, blood pressure, or the elderly with a weak respiratory system should practice this pranayama in samanya gati, i.e., slow pace.

Perform this in a very slow in-and-out breathing movement followed by slow abdomen movement.

The pace of this pranayama holds great importance as it varies according to different age and body types.

2) Anulom-Vilom: 

Anulom Vilom pranayama is the most common yogic breathing practice that requires inhalation and exhalation through alternate nostrils. The process involves breathing or inhaling through the left nostril by closing the right nostril with the right thumb. After that repeating the same procedure with the right nostril where the person should exhale by using the right index finger to close the left nostril. The alternate inhalation and exhalation performed two times make for one cycle of Anulom-Vilom.

Improvement of autonomic modulation of the heart, a positive effect on the autonomic nervous system, & efficacy in treating nervous and cardiovascular disorders result from practicing Anulom Vilom pranayama daily for 10 minutes.[2].



See: Ashwagandha benefits for anxiety

Pranayama Health Benefits

The complete experience of yoga in its entirety is more of a lifestyle than a workout. A big portion of the yogic path involves Pranayama practice. It includes a series of deep breathing exercises and other methods that aim to control inhalations and exhalations, and at times contain breath retention. There are various sorts of pranayama exercises. Some are supposed to calm the nervous system down while others are supposed to energize the nervous system. The normal practice of pranayama provides a large number of physical, psychological, and psychological health benefits. Here are research-based, scientifically-proven advantages of taking up a routine pranayama practice:

- Helps improve hypertension: Studies show that certain pranayama techniques can help alleviate hypertension symptoms by normalizing heart rate and higher blood pressure.

 - Helps enhance digestive system: When you pair pranayama with belly breathing, you activate the diaphragm -- the dome-shaped muscle that sits beneath your lungs and over your digestive and inner organs. The act of breathing this manner causes the diaphragm to rise and fall, and this move makes a gentle massage for those organs.

- Boosts the immune system: The exact same diaphragmatic movement also helps to stimulate the movement of lymph or fluid with white blood cells. Studies also show that breath retention may also improve immune function.

 - Can assist with weight loss: Pranayama may be an exceptional addition to your healthy habits repertoire if you are trying simple hacks for weight control.

-- Strengthens the respiratory system: Pranayama can improve lung health and ability since you are using more of your lungs, and you are really giving them a workout each time you practice. Pranayama has been shown to have beneficial effects on asthma and COPD (chronic destructive pulmonary disease) patients.

 - Increase GABA: One study found that after only a single yoga exercise session,  people had a boost in a neurotransmitter called GABA, which can help to relax us, particularly when we are most anxious. Following one yoga asana session, which includes positions, prāṇāyāma, meditation, and chanting, subjects experienced a 27% increase in GABA levels.

-- Lower chronic stress and mood imbalances: Studies show that specific pranayama techniques like Ujjayi breathing may reduce symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression.

-- May improve PTSD (post-traumatic anxiety disorder) symptoms: A study that analyzed the effects of prāṇāyāma for post-traumatic anxiety disorder and depression in survivors of the 2004 South-East Asia Tsunami discovered that the results were important, concluding that yoga breath-based interventions might help alleviate psychological distress following mass disasters.

 - Improve sleep disorders: Slow, deep pranayama exercises have been shown to improve sleep quality and decrease sleeplessness when practiced regularly and consistently before bed and during the day. Pranayama is an exceptional addition to a sleep meditation (Yoga Nidra) practice.

 - Enhances parasympathetic nervous system function, calms the fight or flight reaction, & reduces stress hormones: Slow breathing pranayama cycles seem to stimulate the Vagus nerve, among the main nerves involved in the relaxation response. Increased relaxation reaction leads to increased internal calm and the release of hormones, which can counter the negative effects of stress hormones

See: Deep Breathing Exercises For Relaxation

Studies in Pranayama for health benefits

  1. 1. First study: Effect of short-term practice of Pranayama breathing exercises on cognition, anxiety, general well being, and heart rate variability.[4]

In the study, two groups were created by randomizing ninety-six medical students.

Group 1 - was advised to perform Bhastrika and Anulom Vilom Pranayam

and Group 2- was asked to perform Suryanamaskar 

The duration of the treatment was for six weeks. Parameters like heart rate variability, general well being, cognition, and anxiety were recorded at baseline and after six weeks of treatment.

The study shows that the practice of slow breathing type of pranayama for six weeks may increase high frequency (HF) components of heart rate variability, improve cognition, increases the parasympathetic activity, improves anxiety and general well being. Whereas, there was no significant effect observed in the group performing yoga asana in the above parameters except for the improvements in the general well being.


 2. The second study: The immediate effect of the slow pace bhastrika pranayama on blood pressure and heart rate.5.

The study was done on 39 individuals suffering from high blood pressure and heart rate. The patients were advised to perform slow pace bhastrika pranayama for 5 minutes. The other group with ten patients was administered with hyoscine-N-butyl bromide 20 mg along with slow pace bhastrika pranayama for the same duration.

 After 5 minutes of practicing slow pace bhastrika pranayama, parameters like the blood pressure and heart rate were recorded. Similarly, the other group receiving hyoscine-N-butyl bromide 20 mg was also assessed for the same parameters immediately after half an hour of its oral intake. 

The results reported showed that slow bhastrika pranayamic breathing for 5 minutes, can help decrease both the systolic and diastolic blood pressure significantly with a slight fall in heart rate. Whereas, there was no significant effect found on both blood pressure and heart rate in volunteers who performed the same breathing exercise following oral intake of hyoscine-N-butyl bromide.

See: Ayurvedic Diet

Summary

Practicing Pranayama is a regulated way of breathing that has proved to provide various benefits. It can not only balance the energy within the body but also stabilizes mood and trains the lungs and improves the capacity of the respiratory system. It helps you experience mindfulness by directly working on the nervous system, which in turn controls and governs numerous essential functions of the body like the heart rate, respiration, blood flow, regulating hormone levels in the body and improving blood pressure.

See: Learn best ways to meditate properly

References

1. BHAYANI, MILAN & Upadhiya, Dr. (2012). Effect of Anuloma Viloma Pranayama on Selected Respiratory Variables. International Journal of Scientific Research. 2. 358-359. 10.15373/22778179/MAR2013/117. 
2. Ghiya, Shreya. (2017). Alternate nostril breathing (systematic review of clinical trials). International Journal of Research in Medical Sciences. 5. 3273. 10.18203/2320-6012.ijrms20173523. 
3. Nivethitha, L. & Mooventhan, A. & Manjunath, N. (2016). Effects of Various Prāṇāyāma on Cardiovascular and Autonomic Variables. Ancient Science of Life. 36. 72. 10.4103/asl.ASL_178_16. 
4. Chandla, Sukhdev & Sood, S & Dogra, R & Das, S & Shukla, S & Gupta, Sanjay. (2013). Effect of short-term practice of pranayamic breathing exercises on cognition, anxiety, general well being, and heart rate variability. Journal of the Indian Medical Association. 111. 662-5. 
5. Pramanik, Tapas & Sharma, Hari & Mishra, Suchita & Mishra, Anurag & Prajapati, Rajesh & Singh, Smriti. (2009). The immediate effect of the slow pace Bhastrika Pranayama on blood pressure & heart rate. Journal of alternative and complementary medicine (New York, N.Y.). 15. 293-5. 10.1089/acm.2008.0440. 

See: Deep and Slow Abdominal Breathing by Contracting the Diaphragm

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