What is Pranayama?
The name “pranayama” is derived from the Sanskrit words: “prana” (life force) and “ayama” (control). Translated, it means ‘mastery of the life force’ or ‘removing obstacles to free the flow of the life force.’ Prana refers to the universal energy that runs through the human body and that animates, controls, and permeates everything in the world.
In yoga, pranayama are breathing exercises for the purpose of clearing one’s physical and emotional obstacles so that the life force or energy can flow freely. Pranayama also greatly enhance the practice of meditation, as breathing in yoga is used to achieve inner quiet, stillness, and integration.
How Pranayama in Yoga Works
Through the practice of pranayama, natural breathing becomes conscious and controlled, thereby entering the spiritual realm. Performed properly, it helps develop the skill of focusing complete awareness on the present moment because it is impossible to focus on the breath without being in the here-and-now. The moment we notice the breath, we begin to change it.
In practice, pranayama involves varying the lengths of inhalations and exhalations, as well as retaining or suspending breath altogether. Yet while control of the breath is the goal in the initial phases of pranayama, the ultimate goal is to remain aware the breath and not control it. That is the highest form of pranayama and is the essence of meditation. Almost all forms of meditation begin with the simple breath and techniques to make one aware of the breath, which is a barometer of how we react to the events of our life and a means of connecting us to spirit.
Types of Pranayama: Yoga Breathing Techniques
Among the many types of breathing techniques practiced across different styles of yoga are:
- Abdominal Breathing (also known as Diaphragmatic Breathing and Natural Breathing)
- Dirgha Pranayama or the Yogic Breath (also known as the Three-Part Breath and the Complete Breath)
- Kapalabhati (The Skull-Shining Breath)
- Kumbhaka (Breath Retention)
- Nadi Shodhana or Alternate Nostril Breath (also known as the Sweet Breath or Sukha Pranayama)
- Ujjayi Pranayama (also known as Ocean Sounding or the Victorious Breath)
Benefits of Pranayama
Pranayama has numerous physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits, including:
- Improved respiration and lung capacity
- Improved circulation
- Lower heart rate
- Reduced tension and high blood pressure
- Improved function of the digestive system
- Removal of toxins
- Boosted immune system
- Clearing of negative emotions
- Improved concentration
- Deep relaxation to the body and mind
- Feelings of peace and joy