…The Benefits of Practising Pranayama in Yoga
What is prana? Or pranayama, for that matter?
Well, let’s look at the word itself: prana means breath or life force and ayama means to extend or draw out. Together, in a nutshell, it means ‘breath control’.
Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? Except pranayama means an awful lot more than ‘breathing exercises’ to a yogi. For some yoga practitioners, controlling the breath is the very foundation of yoga; even more important than the asana (the poses) that we adopt.
‘Breathing?’ I hear you scoff. ‘I don’t want to breathe in my yoga class – I want to exercise!’ But for yoga to really achieve the benefits it’s famed for – calming an overactive mind, lifting a depressed mental state – breath and movement need to work together.
Yes, yoga poses are designed to focus the mind too, but when we remove the distraction of movement and engage in pranayama, we’re far more attuned to the subtle rhythms of the breath and the body. Our attention turns inwards and, as we focus on our breathing and bodily rhythms in a still, meditative state, it becomes easier to be aware of them (and control them) in our asana practice.
We think of mindfulness as a new, trendy concept, but actually we’ve wanted – needed, in fact – to control our busy minds for thousands of years. It was the early yogis who realised that controlling the breath – slowing it down, evening it out – can slow down our thoughts. The word yoga itself in Sanskrit means ‘union’, and you can understand this word in many different ways – the union of body and mind, of physical and mental focus (achieved through breathing techniques) or an individual moving into a state of complete union and acceptance with all aspects of him/herself.
Pranayama is so much more than ‘just breathing’; it’s a transformational practice which cleanses us physically and mentally.
Breath for Health
We’ve already covered off one of the obvious benefits of pranayama: a calm mind. However, slowing your breathing and making the process more conscious has numerous other psychological and physical benefits. As you increase the oxygen flow to the blood system, brain and lungs, physical benefits range from lowering blood pressure and balancing the metabolism to improving the appearance of your skin.
Newsflash: yoga makes you younger! I know!
Psychological benefits include a sense of increased energy and focus, lower stress levels and relief from many of the symptoms of depression. I find it astonishing that pranic breathing is both a calming force and can settle an overactive mind and yet is also powerful enough to awaken, lift and open a depressed mind. I’m still trying to find someone on antidepressants who isn’t depressed – my point being that although they help the symptoms, they don’t address the root problem.
Pranayama also provides spiritual benefits: a deeper connection to our soul and our samskaras – our ‘psychological blueprints’ or the mental impressions left behind by our experiences, good and bad, which form a huge part of our decision-making process. Understanding our samskaras can help us make better decisions.
A useful way of thinking about it is that our bodily intelligence depends on our mental baggage. Understanding and connecting with that baggage through regular pranic breathing gives us a freedom and an openness to learning impossible to cultivate through other means.
The best way to practise pranayama? With a qualified practitioner leading you through a sequence of breathing exercises. There are so many different types of breathing in yoga – anuloma viloma, kapalabati, ujjayi, abdominal breathing, sitali, alternate nostril breathing etc – with a range of different benefits that it’s best to speak to a professional about your individual needs before starting.
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