Beauty in Breath

Changing the way we breathe can help us manage stress, which in turn benefits or physical and emotional health.

| January / February 2018

woman in meditation

Pranayama practices are common alongside yoga poses, but they are also valuable exercises in and of themselves.

Photo by GettyImages/Poike

Pranayama is the yogic practice of controlling breath. If you’ve taken a yoga class, you’re probably familiar with the concept of breathing consciously as you move through poses. This effort to take long, controlled breaths — to maintain calm despite difficulty — is an integral part of the practice. However, pranayama does not have to be done in conjunction with poses; it is a valuable exercise in and of itself and can be practiced in a seated or reclined position.

The word pranayama is made up of two parts: prana, meaning “life force” or “breath which sustains the body,” and ayama, “to extend or draw out.” This focused practice of breathing is a vital component of our overall health, as it helps determine how we experience stress.

The act of breathing is controlled by our autonomic nervous system, which comprises two branches: the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. The sympathetic system is responsible for our fight-or-flight response, and it’s tied to our breath. The pace of busy lifestyles can cause stress, making our sympathetic systems go into overdrive. Our breathing becomes a part of the stress cycle: Stress can cause us to unconsciously start taking shorter, quicker breaths. Taking too many short, quick breaths can trigger our sympathetic system, and with it our fight-or-flight stress response. Experiencing fight-or-flight in excess wreaks havoc on our bodies, causing digestive issues, anxiety, high blood pressure and even disease. However, we only need to tap into our parasympathetic system to calm down and relax. This is where pranayama is most effective.

The way we breathe has a “trickle-up effect” on our minds, meaning it can positively or negatively impact our mental state. The practice of yogic breathing is renowned for reducing anxiety, alleviating depression, lowering blood pressure, assisting sleep, reducing back pain, boosting the immune system, decreasing gastrointestinal discomforts and even prolonging life. The increased movement of the diaphragm when using these techniques also provides a gentle massage to the internal organs.

Practicing pranayama allows us to tap into calming energy while paying attention to the sensations and experiences of our own bodies. When practicing pranayama, do so without comment, instead focusing on how your extremities, organs, muscles and mind feel. As thoughts cross your mind, let them pass without judgment, then return your focus to your breath and body. As you do this, you will let go of daily tension and tap into your parasympathetic system.

Getting Started

Practicing pranayama can be done in a seated position, either on the floor or in a chair. When sitting, it’s important to make sure your hips are above your knees to support proper body alignment. This may require you to sit on a bolster or folded blanket. Five yoga positions are recommended for pranayama exercises: sukhasana (cross-legged), siddhasana (pose of the adept), vajrasana (sitting on the heels), ardha padmasana (half-lotus) and padmasana (lotus). Many people use visualization techniques while practicing: Some envision a bright, cleansing light surging through their bodies, nourishing areas of depletion and discomfort; others visualize a wave of colors filling their chakras. Any visualization technique that works to calm and center you is fine to use.

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