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Pranayama, also known as yogic breathing or breathwork, dates back millenia. This ancient practice has been used by yogis for ages to purify the body, calm the mind, and reach higher states of consciousness.
Pranayama is certainly a powerful practice that boasts many benefits, but what is it exactly? Let’s explore the ins and outs of yogic breathing to truly understand its power.
Ready to jump right into your breathwork practice? Try this Breath Practice for Presence and Relaxation
The term pranayama is a Sanskrit word that stems from two separate roots. And interestingly, scholars disagree on the roots of this word.
Some believe that pranayama is made up of the roots prana and yama. Prana means life-force energy—essentially everything that drives life. Yama means restraint or to control. So one interpretation of pranayama is restraint or control of the life-force energy.
Other scholars believe that pranayama is made up of the roots prana and ayama. This slight discrepancy completely changes the meaning of the word. That’s because, in Sanskrit, the prefix a- negates the meaning of a word. This is similar to words like asymmetry in English.
Pranayama involves different techniques of either manipulating the breath or allowing it to flow freely.
So in this interpretation, prana still means life-force energy but ayama means total freedom or lack of restraint. Therefore, some interpret pranayama to mean freedom of the life-force energy.
Whichever definition you prefer, pranayama also has a more modern context. Commonly known as yogic breathing or simply breathwork, pranayama typically involves different techniques of either manipulating and controlling the breath or allowing it to flow freely.
There are many prescribed practices of pranayama that have been passed down from generation to generation of yogic students. These varying techniques offer varying benefits to the practitioner.
There are innumerable traditional breathwork practices in the yogic canon, but these are a select handful of the more commonly utilized techniques.
Although it is undoubtedly the most simple breathwork practice, breath awareness is in no way easy. This straightforward practice requires you to draw your attention to your breath without affecting its rhythm.
This can be challenging to do but is a helpful practice to draw awareness and single-pointed attention to your sacred breath. This simple practice helps to calm and soothe both the body and the mind.
This very common yogic breathing technique is often utilized in asana practices. Many flow-style yoga classes encourage students to breathe both in and out through the nose with a slight constriction in the back of the throat to create sound.
This breathwork practice is believed to warm the breath, which then helps to warm the body. It is also a very soothing practice and because of its audible quality, it stimulates the vagus nerve which downregulates the nervous system.
Because of its stable rhythm, it can also create a hypnotic effect to slow down the body and mind.
Depending on the yogic school, this simple breathwork technique may sometimes be called “square breath,” "box breath," or “same breath.” But regardless of its name, its basic principles are universal.
This yogic breathing technique focuses on an equal count of all parts of the breath.
So for example, you’d inhale for a count of four, pause at the top of the inhale for a count of four, exhale for a count of four, and hold at the bottom of the exhale for a count of four. The count can be anything that suits you, but it’s always an equal count to create equanimity in body and mind.
Nadi shodhana is a deeply soothing and balancing pranayama practice that works by flowing breath through alternating nostrils.
The yogis believe that there is both a solar and a lunar channel in the body that each terminate in a different nostril. So by breathing directly through one nostril or the other, we can distinctly stimulate each channel.
When we alternate our breath through these channels, it’s believed that we create an energetic balance in the body and the mind. The slow pace of this practice also helps to calm and soothe the nervous system.
Bhramari pranayama is another excellent breathwork technique to downregulate and relax the nervous system. This soothing yogic breathing practice utilizes sound by humming on the exhalation.
Vibrating the vocal cords helps to stimulate the vagus nerve, which is intimately connected with the parasympathetic nervous system (or the “rest-and-digest” response). The vibrational sound of humming also mimics the cosmic sound of “om,” which is a sacred sound to yogis.
So this breathwork practice is meant to soothe your physical body while simultaneously awakening you to cosmic unity.
Need more soothing practices? Check out: What Is Restorative Yoga? Here’s Your In-Depth Guide to This Soothing Practice
Unlike the previously mentioned breathwork techniques, breath of fire or skull-shining breath is an extremely invigorating pranayama practice. Not intended to calm or soothe, kapalabhati is actually intended to stimulate and awaken.
This yogic breathing exercise uses sharp, forceful exhales through the nose to “pump” the belly and release “stale” prana from the body. The yogis believe that this is a purifying and detoxifying pranayama practice.
Similar to breath of fire, bhastrika pranayama is a forceful and invigorating breathwork practice.
This technique focuses on sharp, forceful breaths on both the inhale and the exhale to “pump” the belly like the bellows of an organ.
This yogic breathing practice is also believed to clear the body of “stale” prana and invite freshly oxygenated blood throughout.
Pranayama can be practiced by anyone and everyone. Because there are so many different practices, you can certainly find a yogic breathing technique that benefits you.
However, not all breathwork practices have the same goal. Some pranayama techniques are meant to calm and soothe while others are intended to awaken and invigorate. So while anyone can practice pranayama, certain people may wish to pick and choose the practices that they utilize.
Pregnant women, for example, should avoid any strong breathwork practices, particularly ones that require holding the breath. Those with a history of trauma may wish to avoid stimulating techniques so as not to overstimulate the nervous system.
While there are some contraindications for particular breathwork practices, as a general rule, pranayama is safe and beneficial for all. It’s usually best to start with soothing, slow pranayama practices before dabbling in more invigorating techniques (if you wish to ever do so).
Want to give pranayama a try? Practice this Diaphragmatic Breath Practice for Instant Stress Relief
Pranayama has been a staple in yogic practices for ages, and for valid reasons! Simple breathwork practices can offer the body and mind a world of good.
A lot of research has shown that yogic breathing techniques can calm and soothe the body and the mind. But pranayama can also stimulate and invigorate to help you take on your day.
In general, pranayama helps to draw your attention and awareness to something that you do automatically and unconsciously every moment of every day.
By either consciously controlling our breath or allowing for its complete freedom, we can positively affect the prana or life-force energy within us.
Join Leah Sugerman for the in-depth course Pranayama: Control Your Breath to Calm Your Mind
Join Nomad Yoga for a 200 Hour Yoga Teacher Training in Hatha, Vinyasa, Restorative, and Yin Yoga in a magical paradise location.
All Nomad Yoga teacher trainings dive heavily into the art, science, and practice of pranayama, including experiential learning as well as practice teaching this ancient tradition.