PRANAYAMA = Prana (breath/life force) + Ayama (extention).
Pranayama is the fourth of Ashtanga Yoga, also known as The Eight Limbs of Yoga. Pranayama is an ancient breath technique that originates from yogic practices in India. It involves controlling your breath in different styles and lengths. Pranayama is regarded as a science. It’s believed that you can control the power of your mind by regulating your breath.
Three phases. A pranayama cycle has three phases: Puraka, or inhalation, Kumbhaka, or retention, Rechaka, or exhalation
When we are able to extend our Prana/life force, we will be able to extend our life span. How do we control our Prana? Through our breaths.
Normal respiration rates for an adult person at rest range from 12 to 16 breaths per minute. But when we are being mindful with our breaths, we only need to breathe 4 to 10 breaths per min, which is defined as slow breathing.
Pranayama uses the simple science of “conscious breathing”. Our body has its own way of dealing with stress (both emotional and physical). Stressful situations tend to trigger our body’s stress reactions which, in turn, affect our mind and body in different ways. The system of ‘Fight or Flight Responses’ is automatically triggered when we are faced with emotional or physical stressors. Our bodies can't differentiate when we are being chased by a tiger, or when we are being late to get to the office. Our first line of defense against stressors from the environment is the process that is initiated by the Parasympathetic Nervous System. The stressors stimulate the vagus nerve in the parasympathetic nervous system that runs from the base of the brain all the way to the abdomen. Two of the most important things that this nerve does is – manage the nervous system responses and reduce the heart rate. A neurotransmitter called acetylcholine is released from the vagus nerve that plays an important role in lowering anxiety by increasing focus and calmness. Therefore, the more you are able to stimulate the vagus nerve, the more acetylcholine is released, which in turn lowers the anxiety levels. According to the ancient Yogic text, there is an intimate relationship between breathing and brain function. Both functions are, in a way, mutually dependent.
Here’s a simpler way to understand this process. When we are stressed, nervous, anxious, or scared, our body dives into survival mode also known as the Flight or Fight Response and diverts all our physical and mental activities toward the stressful situation and the corresponding reactions to make sure that we get out of the threatful situation unharmed. In these times you may experience an increased heart rate, faster breathing, and a sudden release of stress hormones. These are the body’s natural way of reacting to stressors or stressful situations and it also has their own way of calming the nerves as well. Now, these changes or bodily responses are survival instincts and are crucial in times of life-threatening situations. They determine how well-adapted we are to deal with the problems that we face in our daily lives and also make sure that once learned, we can do so the next time.
However, these responses can occur even during minor stressful situations where it is simply unnecessary, but we as humans, have the capacity to initiate an opposite response to help us calm down when we don’t need unnecessary stress, and that can be established with the help of Pranayams. As mentioned earlier, it links the brain to the breathing process and hands us the leash to control the production and excretion of the hormone that is associated with stress.
Benefits of Pranayama
Cognitive function (multiple mental abilities, including learning, thinking, reasoning, remembering, problem-solving, decision making, and attention). Both slow and fast kinds of pranayama can help improve your cognitive functions. Studies show that fast pranayama in particular can help to improve auditory and sensory-motor skills.
Lung capacity. Practicing pranayama can help improve lung function. This includes helping you hold your breath longer and increasing strength in your respiratory muscles. Pranayama has the potential to help with all sorts of lung issues. It may aid recovery from pneumonia and strengthen lungs that suffer from asthma.
Quit smoking. Speaking of lung health, the breathing techniques in pranayama can help to cut cravings if you want to quit smoking.
Mindfulness. Much like the more popular forms of yoga, pranayama can increase mindfulness. Its meditative method of breath focus and awareness can aid your ability to live in the present moment.
Stress and emotional regulation. Pranayama’s ability to improve mindfulness has also been found to lower stress and aggression among students taking particularly stressful exams. Pranayama’s focus on breathing and relaxation may alter the levels of stress molecules.
Anxiety. Pranayama can significantly lower anxiety levels and any negative feelings associated with it. Regular pranayama practice can help with anxiety. It can also improve areas of mental focus that are often affected by it such as awareness and attention. Just one session can help you noticeably reduce anxiety.
Reduce hypertension. Bee breath pranayama and chanting may help reduce hypertension or high blood pressure. The benefits of such stress reduction include reducing the chance of various conditions, such as strokes, peripheral vascular disease, and coronary heart disease.
Psychosomatic disorders. Psychosomatic disorders are diseases involving both the body and mind. Some psychosomatic diseases include migraine headaches, ulcers, and psoriasis. By joining the body and mind through the breath, pranayama may help manage these.
The practice of Pranayama is to be done on an empty stomach, ideally 3-3.5 hours after your last meal, also to be done after Asana, and before Meditation.