We breathe every moment, it keeps us alive, yet we never pay much attention to our breath. Our emotional and physical state can change our respiratory rhythm and likewise, even our breath can also influence our state of mind. In fact, we can even say that us being happy or sad even depends upon the quality of our breath.
Importance of Pranayama and Breath
Our life begins with the inhalation of breath and ends with the exhalation of breath. In fact, we may say, life happens in-between incoming and outgoing breaths. Our life depends upon a constant flow of oxygen being delivered to each cell in our body. Thus, every part of our body, our every action, and even our thoughts and emotions are related to our breath.
All our emotional, physical, and mental states have a corresponding pattern of breathing associated with it. Moreover, the elemental rhythm of our heartbeat is intimately connected with the rest of our body.
But what does breath have to offer that has such a massive effect on our body, our life, and our existence? The answer is ‘Prana‘ – the universal life force. As the level of prana in the body rises, we bubble with joy. This explains why focusing on the breath is important. As a result, pranayama plays a pivotal role in all aspects of yoga.
What is Pranayama?
The word Pranayama is made up of two words, “Prana” and “Ayama”. ‘Prana’ means the vital life force energy, and ‘Ayama’ means to regulate or lengthen. Pranayama is the practice of regulating and uplifting that life-force energy in our body.
Pranayama is the practicing that brings the breath and prana to its natural rhythm. As every living (and even non-living) organisms have prana in them, it is what regulates everything and even connects everything. Thus, once we have our rhythm of prana on-check, yoga happens in life.
Importance of Pranayama In Yoga
Prana is the vital energy for our physical and subtle layers. It flows in our body through thousands of subtle energy channels called the ‘Nadis’ (energy channels) and energy centers (junctions of those Nadis) called ‘Chakras’.
The proper flow of fuel and other essential energy components in the vehicle determines the quality of its performance. Likewise, the proper flow of Prana through the Nadis and Chakras maintains the quality functioning of our body and our mind. Having a continuous, smooth, steady flow and high level of prana keeps the mind calm, positive, and enthusiastic.
Eventually, the vehicle will consume its fuel and its performance will also deteriorate over time with its continuous usage. Thus it needs to be refueled and serviced time and again.
Likewise, even our body and mind need to be refueled and serviced just like a vehicle to keep running properly. Ensuing, ‘Prana’ would be the fuel, ‘Pranayama’ is the process of refueling and practicing ‘Yoga Asanas’ and ‘Meditation’ would be similar to servicing the body and the mind.
As a result, Pranayama is mentioned as one of the 8 limbs of yoga (Ashtanga Yoga) in Patanjali Yoga Sutras. Pranayama is a yogic way of breathing to increase our prana. Thus, with the help of breath, increasing prana levels makes one more energetic, enthusiastic, positive and maintains a good state of mind.
Additionally, science acknowledges that everything in this world is just a vibration. Each vibration has its frequency and each frequency has its rhythm. Naturally, when two or more rhythms align with each other, it creates harmony.
Similarly, when the rhythm of our breath, mind and other bodily synchronizes, it creates an amazing harmony, which is called Yoga. Pranayama adjusts the rhythm of our breath to its natural states and lets yoga happen.
Stages of Breathing Process in Pranayama
When we inhale and exhale air, in the normal respiratory cycle, we consider it as one cycle of respiration. Additionally, even this single cycle of respiration can be broken down into four phases. Moreover, as per Patanjali Yoga Sutras, even prolonging or shortening in anyone of the cycle can produce a different effect in our body.
Similarly, all the stages of one respiratory cycle have their own names and these are the essential component of pranayama. To understand Pranayama, one needs to understand the breathing process thoroughly. Breathing is a process that includes these four basic steps:
1. Puraka (Inhalation)
The process of inhaling air gently and smoothly is known as ‘Puraka’. It is a process of drawing in the air; it is expected to be smooth and continuous. If a person should pause one or more times during the process of a single inhaling, the process might be spoken of as a broken Puraka rather than as a series of Puraka.
2. Abhyantara Kumbhaka (Pause After Inhalation)
This stage of pranayama consists of holding the breath for a short while after inhalation of air. Kumbhaka consists of a deliberate stoppage of the flow of air and retention of the air in the lungs, without any movement of lungs or muscles or any part of the body and without any incipient movements. A beginner may experiment by using some force to keep such pause motionless. Quite elaborate instructions and techniques have been worked out for this purpose.
3. Rechaka (Exhalation)
The simple process of exhalation is known as ‘Rechaka’. Moreover, in simple pranayama expiration is done without using any muscular force, as due to the recoil of alveoli and the air pressure, the air from the lungs should be released freely.
Like inhalation, it too should be smooth and continuous, though often the speed of exhaling is different from that of inhaling. Normally, muscular energy is used for inhaling whereas exhaling consists merely in relaxing the tensed muscles. Such relaxing forces air from the lungs as they return to an untensed condition.
However, a person can force air out with muscular effort; so when he sits or stands erect and has his abdominal muscles under constant control, a muscular effort may be used for both inhaling and exhaling.
Especially if one deliberately smoothes the course of his breathing and holds the cycles in regular or definitely irregular patterns, he is likely to use muscular energy at each stage, including the pauses. However, in a condition of complete relaxation, one should expect an effort to be needed only for inhaling.
4. Bhaya Khumbaka (Pause After Exhalation)
This component is a pause after expiration, which mostly goes unnoticed in normal physiological respiration. The fourth stage, the empty pause, completes the cycle which terminates as the pause ends and a new inhalation begins.
Scientific Benefits of Pranayama
There are many benefits to practising pranayama. As mentioned earlier, having a proper flow of prana in the Nadis and Chakras enhances the overall bodily and mental functions.
Naturally, these benefits don’t come from magic. Therefore, there have been various scientific and medical research on yoga, pranayama, and its benefits on health. Here are some of the scientific examples of how Pranayama works.
1. How Does Pranayama Relieve Stress
Our body has an autonomic nervous system with parasympathetic and sympathetic outflow. This system is mostly beyond our control and its main function is to help our body respond to the external stimulus so we can adapt to the environment where we are present.
Here, the sympathetic system is responsible for coping up with stress, or in simple words, it prepares our body for fight, flight, and fright condition. On the other hand, the parasympathetic system helps to bring everything to normal and make us calm.
When we are exposed to chronic stress, irregular sleeping pattern, and a monotonous lifestyle, our sympathetic system activates quickly. This activation results in an increased breathing rate, hypertension, chronic anxiety, cardiac problems, and severe case depression.
Therefore, conscious long and deep breathing helps to stimulate the parasympathetic outflow through the vagus nerve (the neurotransmitter being acetyl-choline). The acetyl-choline, in turn, acts as a depressant and relaxant which decreases the heart rate, relaxes the sphincter of the bowel and bladder, improves salivation and release of gastric juices for digestion, and most importantly, calms the brain.
Moreover, acetylcholine plays an important role in attention, motivation, arousal, and memory. Maybe this is the reason why you can’t remember what you study when you are giving an exam under stress!
2. Pranayama and Stem Cells
Stem cells are the cells that are present in the body from the embryonic period of life and which can replicate to give the same copy as the parent cell. These cells can be very important in the time of growth and also replace the dead and damaged cells.
However, there are conditions in which stem cells cannot proliferate which directly impacts the well-being of the body. It has been scientifically proven that pranayama plays a very important role in the division of stem cells in the body.
The yogic breathing techniques help to stimulate the brain to send the chemical signal to the stem cells located near the damaged/diseased cells. These cells then migrate to the dead/damaged cells and due to their ability to self-renewing they make new cells and revitalize the damaged cells.
Moreover, pranayama also has been thought of as a technique that can generate new stem cells. According to the yogic sutras our mind and body complex work in the three power level which consists of Ida, Pingla, and Sushumna. The normal flow of prana is in the Ida and Pingla which then reach up to the chakra.
However, while performing pranayama the flow of prana is in the Sushumna Nadi due to which stem cell generation increases rapidly. In scientific terms, it is believed that the controlled breathing technique is responsible for the stimulation of cells in the hypothalamus region which decreases the aging process and increases the formation of stem cells.
3. Pranayama Helps With Anti-Aging
It is no wonder that one will age slowly after describing the fact about stem cells and how pranayama helps in replacing the dead/damaged cells. However, here, aging isn’t only being mentioned as physical aging, like getting wrinkles and weak bones, but it is being referred to as the aging of the brain.
As we age, our brain tissue goes into the demyelination process and many neurons die. Unfortunately, neurons cannot grow once they have become revitalized. Therefore, we end up having a very bad memory as we grow old. So, can pranayama help to fix this issue? Yes, it can! Pranayama cannot give you a perfect memory of a child but it can help you prevent speedy memory loss which comes with age.
- Firstly, this technique helps to increase stem cell growth and division.
- Secondly, the release of acetyl-choline improves the nerve connection as it helps in memory.
- Thirdly, the flow of blood and oxygenation is so good after pranayama that no cell in the brain will undergo anaerobic respiration which in turn decreases the neuron death and production of free radicals.
4. Pranayama Helps To Stay Emotionally Balanced
Whenever we are stressed, anxious, sad, and angry, we are asked to take deep long breaths. This advice is very effective and helpful, as it is also a type of pranayama. So, how do we achieve emotional stability by having long deep breaths?
Well, practicing pranayama helps to stimulate the pineal and hypothalamic gland. The pineal gland is known as ‘Ajna chakra’ or the third eye which lies in between the eyebrow.
Moreover, our emotional fluctuation is mainly due to hormonal imbalance. And as the main controller of the endocrine system is stimulated, the hormonal balance is achieved inevitably due we which we attain emotional balance.
Pranayama is a simple technique with unlimited benefits, and the deep-rooted science behind the pranayama explains why this process is so effective. Therefore, it is wise to learn and practice pranayama.
Also, Pranayama deals with the subtle life force, thus it is important to learn them from a proper instructor and practice them with discipline. Random experimentation with pranayama techniques may have adverse effects.
For those seeking to pursue a spiritual path, pranayama is THE stepping stone. Regular practice of Pranayama for a long time also helps to feel perception beyond the physical body. The perception of chakra, the flow of prana, the elements of Pacha tattva, and the proper use of hand mudra all help to attain a certain level of spiritual wellbeing.
Therefore, pranayama is not just a practice for physical lung ventilation, it is much more and much deeper than we could ever imagine.