Pranayama is an ancient practice that is used to harness the energetic power of the breath as a tool for personal practice. It is also the fourth limb of Patanajli’s eight limbed path, or ashtanga yoga, as set forth in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. It comes after yama, niyama, and asana. When we break down the Sanskrit word itself, Pranayama, we see two parts; ‘prana’ which means vital life force, and ‘yama’ which means to control. In this case, the prana that is referred to is the breath. The breath is an extremely powerful tool in and of itself. When harnessed intentionally, it can have astounding effects on the practitioner. In fact, the breath is the only tool besides medical intervention that can influence the autonomic nervous system. This means that the breath has a profound effect on the heart rate and blood pressure. For some, it can be as simple as just directing the attention to the breath and noticing how short and shallow their breath might be to make the adjustment and deepen it. For others, bringing awareness to the breath might cause unease and panic. What’s important to remember, just like with asana, is that everyone’s experience is different and what works for some people may not work for others. For those who enjoy breath work exercises, there are many techniques that can be utilized to bring about ease and balance in the felt experience.
Box breathing is an easy pranayama technique that can be offered to anyone. Just like it sounds, this practice involves counting each inhale and exhale so that both parts of the breath are equal in length. When first beginning box breathing, the practitioner can allow each inhale and exhale to lead into the next. As they get further into their practice, they might begin to explore holding the inhalation and exhalation for a moment or two. Eventually, the practitioner might explore holding them for the same length of time as it takes to inhale and exhale (creating the box-like shape). This is a pranayama technique that can also be offered in general public yoga classes.
Alternate nostril breathing, or nadi shodhana, is a bit more complex than box breathing and the name is pretty self-explanatory. It involves intentionally closing one nostril to breathe out of the other nostril. As we cross the body with the breath, we are creating a clearer communication pathway for both sides of the brain and body. Each side of the body has a different set of qualities, the right side being our solar/fiery side and the left side being our lunar/cool side. With nadi shodhana, when we are looking for a calming and grounded effect, we start with an exhale from the right nostril followed by an inhale from the right nostril before switching to the left and repeating. The practitioner can move through this pattern as many times as they’d like. Taking as few as three breaths in nadi shodhana can be beneficial. This can also be offered in general public yoga classes.
These are just two of the many different ways the breath can be utilized to promote healing. There is also bumble bee breath, breath of fire, ujjayi breath, and many more. That being said, it can be as simple as bringing your awareness to your breath to find a bit of ease. You don’t have to know complex breath practices to experience the benefits of pranayama. To learn more about pranayama and the breath, you might consider a 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training or Pranayama & Breath Work certification such as what is offered with My Vinyasa Practice. Breath work exercises are regularly offered on the live stream & on-demand video content on the MVP App.