breathing techniques: pranayama

Harnessing the breath helps you tap directly into a calmer, more relaxed state. Lisa Ash Drackert explains the yoga breathing exercises and guides you through the process below.

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The Power of Pranayama

Beginning meditation students are consistently given the same advice: just sit down and breathe and you’ll relax eventually. On the outside, this may look like nothing but adult time-out. On the inside, however, a complex and beneficial collaboration is happening between regions of the brain, the autonomic nervous and adrenal systems, vagus nerve, diaphragm, lungs and heart, resulting in a phenomenon called the Relaxation Response.

“The breath really is the key to the mind-body connection we are looking for in meditation,” says Rachel Workman, owner of Longview Yoga Studio in Longview, Texas. “First, you learn to witness the breath as it is without changing it and notice how it affects your body and your emotions. Then, when you become more adept at working with your breath, you can consciously manipulate it to make it longer, shorter, more or less more forceful, which systematically affects your nervous system. In the yoga tradition, breathwork exercises like these are called pranayama,” Workman explains.

Pranayama breathing practices have been around for hundreds of years and are powerful allies of meditation and relaxation. In Sanskrit, the language of yoga, pranayama means “energy control.”

What is Prana?

Prana is energetic life force; it enters your body through the vehicle of your breath. Pranayama exercises are breathing practices done specifically to re-direct the flow of your energy. Pranayama is the fourth aspect of the Classical Yoga tradition, which also includes ethical actions, physical poses, mental focus and meditation. Pranayama exercises are traditionally done to prepare for seated, formal meditation.

Some pranayama exercises, such as ujjayi breath are audible and energizing. Others, such as sukha breath are quiet and relaxing. One exercise, known as nadi shodhana, or alternate nostril breathing, hones focus and attention as it balances energy between the right and left side of the body.

“The best pranayama practice to prepare for meditation is dependent upon the practitioner. If you are not familiar with pranayama, then simply paying attention to the breath would be a perfect place to begin,” suggests Dr. Rashmi Bismark, Preventive Medicine Physician and yoga instructor.  “Once you have explored more practices, you may choose ones to support your mood and energy levels.  If you are tired and worried about falling asleep in meditation, then perhaps a more energetic practice such as kapalabhati [skull shining breath] might suit you. If you are feeling stressed, and are really looking to relax, then breath with an extended exhale could be a nice option.” See below for an Audio Guided Teaching of Extended Exhale Breathing.

Why the Breath Works

In the course of a typical day, you’ll take an average of 17,000 to 30,000 breaths. This usually happens automatically and unconsciously, a result of a healthy autonomic nervous system (ANS) supporting metabolic functions that keep you alive, thinking and feeling. The ANS, a branch of the peripheral nervous system, controls internal involuntary activities such as blood pressure, body temperature, digestion, heart rate, hormone secretion, and metabolism. It also controls your body’s physiological stress response, which means you don’t always get to choose when and how you feel the effects of stress: catecholamines surge through your blood stream, your blood pressure catapults, your pupils dilate, your pulse quickens, your breath becomes erratic. Overall, your system feels hijacked. The good news? You have a secret weapon in your arsenal against stress: you can control your breathing. And by doing so, tap into a clear, calm mental and physical state.

“Physiologically, exercises such as simple, slow and rhythmic diaphragmatic breathing have been shown to impact the autonomic nervous system in ways that promote relaxation,” explains Dr. Bismark. By changing the duration of the inhale, exhale, or retention in between the breath, which is what pranayama exercises call for, you can slow down your heart rate, normalize your blood pressure, encourage proper digestion, reduce inflammation, and moderate feelings of anxiety and depression.

In one 2011 study published in the Integrative Journal of Yoga Therapy, participants with high blood pressure practiced a type of pranayama called sukha pranayama, where the inhale is equal in length to the exhale, for just five minutes at a time. Immediately afterward, they saw a significant reduction in heart rate and blood pressure, specifically systolic pressure. Pranayama techniques have immediate and positive effects.

The Diaphragm Connection

Another way pranayama breathing practices help you relax is through the conscious manipulation of your main breathing muscle: the diaphragm. Taking rhythmic, deep, full breaths—you may have heard this referred to as “diaphragmatic breathing”—induces the parasympathetic nervous system response we associate with the Relaxation Response.

“We know that higher parasympathetic [influence] primes the body to rest, digest and repair. This feeds back to our amygdala (the reactive brain) and eventually to our cortex (the conscious brain) leaving us with a feeling of overall well-being,” explains Dr. Amy Sedgwick, founder of Medicine Within, LLC.

The key to effective diaphragmatic breathing is to consciously and slowly fill your belly with each inhale. The alternative is taking short, erratic inhales with your chest heaving. Optimal parasympathetic influence is achieved when the diaphragm is moving without obstruction and the breath slows from the typical 10 to 14 breaths per minute to five to seven breaths per minute. This simultaneously stimulates and soothes the vagus nerve, the tenth cranial nerve intimately involved in breathing and relaxation. To achieve this, try extending your exhale longer than your inhale, essentially telling your brain and body, “It’s ok to relax.”

And it is: It is ok to relax. Even when life is challenging and erratic, you have the power to alter your mental state and your physiological state to become more attuned to ease and calm.

Try these specific pranayama exercises for 6 to 8 minutes and let me know how you feel afterward.

3 Part Breathing: Dirgha Pranayama

Think of dirgha breathing as consciously “directing” the breath into three parts of your body to obtain a full, complete diaphragmatic breath, instead of shallow breathing into the chest.

Diaphragmatic breathing promotes mental relaxation by lowering the harmful effects of the stress hormone cortisol on your body. It lowers your heart rate and can lower or stabilize blood pressure.  Physically, deep abdominal breathing encourages full oxygen exchange — that is, the beneficial trade of incoming oxygen for outgoing carbon dioxide. Concentrating on slow, deep breathing aids in disengaging from distracting thoughts and sensations.

Try Dirgha Pranayama:

Extended Exhale Breathing:  Vishama Vritti Pranayama

Consciously increasing the duration of the exhale calms the body and allows for stress hormones to work through our blood stream and then dissipate. When practiced, this breathing can support the parasympathetic nervous system and activate what is known as the Relaxation Response, reducing stress and its potentially harmful effects on both body and mind. As a result, resilience in the face of challenge or adversity increases, and the mind becomes more focused and still. Extended exhale also combats insomnia and promotes a feeling of calm and ease.

The most common approach is to double the inhale count on the exhale; for instance, the inhale is 4 counts and the exhale is 8 counts. Your breath should be smooth, calm, even and without sound.

Try Extended Exhale Breathing:

Same Duration Breathing: sama- vritti or sukha pranayama

In sukha breathing (it means “easy breath” in Sanskrit), the length of your inhales and exhales is equal. While this takes some concentration, avoid forcing or holding your breath.  It shouldn’t feel strained.

Vritti refers to the fluctuations of the mind and sama-vritti is generally thought of as a soothing, centering practice, which helps to calm the mind and induce the Relaxation Response consistent with healthy parasympathetic nervous system tone. This breath decreases agitation, distraction and anxiety by returning mind and breath to equilibrium. Studies have shown that the optimal breathing rate for lowering blood pressure, heart rate and stress response is 6 inhales per minute.

Try Sukha Pranayama:

Alternate Nostril Breathing: Nadi Shodhana Pranayma

In Sanskrit, Alternate Nostril Breathing is called Nadi Shodhana Pranayama, which translates to “subtle energy clearing breathing technique” and it has many benefits.

Alternate Nostril Breathing helps calm the mind, lower heart rate, reduce anxiety and bring a feeling of relaxation to the entire body. It synchronizes the two hemispheres of the brain and purifies the subtle energy channels (nadis) of the body so the prana flows more easily during pranayama practice.

It also relaxes the mind in preparation for meditation, which can be helpful for those struggling to settle down before meditating. When performed for just a few minutes, Alternate Nostril Breathing can instantly reduce stress and fatigue, and is a quick and efficient practice to do before high-stress situations.

Try Nadi Shodhana Pranayma:

Love these Resources? Consider partnering with Lisa to continue providing valuable teachings that promote hope, health and happiness here:

Pranayama Guided Teachings



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