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Breathing for Life: The Healing Benefits of Pranayama

by Michael Teh

Breath is essential to life – from the first breath at birth to the last breath upon passing, we take an estimate of a billion breaths in our lifetime, and most are done unconsciously. But do you know that the mind, body, and breath are intimately connected and can influence each other? Fundamentally, our breathing is influenced by our thoughts, and our thoughts and physiology are influenced by our breathing.

“Fundamentally, our breathing is influenced by our thoughts, and our thoughts and physiology are influenced by our breathing. Learning how to breathe consciously and with awareness will be a valuable tool in helping to restore balance for your mind and body – especially during stressful times.”

Breath is essential to life – from the first breath at birth to the last breath upon passing, we take an estimate of a billion breaths in our lifetime, and most are done unconsciously. But do you know that the mind, body, and breath are intimately connected and can influence each other? Fundamentally, our breathing is influenced by our thoughts, and our thoughts and physiology are influenced by our breathing. Learning how to breathe consciously and with awareness will be a valuable tool in helping to restore balance for your mind and body – especially during stressful times.

Pranayama 101
The basis of all deep breathing practices originates from yoga, specifically the fourth limb of yoga, known as pranayama. The word pranayama is derived from two Sanskrit words; prana which means life force and yama means regulating and controlling the life force using the breath. Ancient yogis learned that by controlling the breath, you can influence all aspect of our lives.

So, if you have caught yourself sighing after a long day, this is an example of the body’s natural way of relieving stress. And the more you become aware of the power of the breath, the more you could benefit from its numerous physical and emotional benefits.

Based on research, here are some of the benefits of adapting a regular practice of simple, deep breathing in one’s lifestyle:
i. Reduced anxiety and depression
ii. Lower/stabilized blood pressure
iii. Increased energy levels
iv. Improved immunity
v. Decreased feelings of stress and overwhelm
vi. Reduction in PTSD

That said, the medical community has begun to appreciate the positive impact that deep breathing can have on one’s physiology, both in the mind and body. And according to a study, many of these deep-breathing benefits can be attributed to reducing stress in the body. To understand how this works, let’s look at the stress response in more detail.

Pranayama as a Tool Counter to Stress
When we experience stressful thoughts, our sympathetic nervous system triggers our body’s ancient fight-or-flight response, which gives us a burst of energy to respond to perceived danger. Our breathing then becomes shallow and rapid, and we primarily breathe from the chest and not from our lower lungs or down through the diaphragm.

This could make us be short of breath – a common symptom of feeling anxious or frustrated. In addition, our bodies will produce a surge of hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline), which increase our blood pressure and pulse rate which position us in a revved-up state of high alert.

However, with deep breathing, we can reverse these symptoms instantly and create a sense of calm in our mind and body. And when we breathe deeply and slowly, it activates the parasympathetic nervous system – it reverses the stress response in our bodies. Deep breathing stimulates the main nerve in the parasympathetic nervous system – the vagus nerve – hence it will slow down our heart rate, lowering
blood pressure and calming our body and mind.

At the same time, deep breathing helps to engage our abdominal muscles and diaphragm instead of the muscles in our upper chest and neck. This conditioning of the respiratory muscles result in improved efficiency of oxygen exchange with every breath by allowing more air exchange to occur in the lower lungs. It also reduces the strain on the muscles on the neck and upper chest which allow these muscles to
relax. That said, deep breathing is more relaxing and efficient which allow higher volumes of oxygen to reach the body’s cells and tissues.
Deep breathing can also help calm and slow down the emotional turbulence in the mind as breathing can have immediate effect to diffuse emotional energy so there is less reactivity to our emotions.

That said, here are FIVE simple yogic breathing techniques for us to learn and apply in our lives.
1. The Belly Breath
This is a core of breathing technique that is often used in yoga classes where it helps bring awareness to the body and calms the mind. If you’re new to pranayama, it’s helpful to initially perform this lying down, knee bent if needed, to feel the muscles of abdomen engaging. And once you become familiar with the practice, you can continue while sitting.

i. Place one hand on your belly
ii. Take a deep breath in through your nostril, drawing the air down through the diaphragm toward your lower belly. Feel the belly expand and rise as you inhale
iii. Exhale through the nose and feel the belly contract and lower. The hand on your belly should move down to its original position. The breaths should be deep and elongated
iv. Practice this technique 3 to 5 minutes several times a day, or whenever you feel stressed

2. The Complete Breath
The Complete Breath is known as Dirgha Pranayama. Dirgha means “long” in Sanskrit and includes the expansion of the abdomen, chest, and neck region. This breath helps to calm the mind and develop deeper awareness.
i. While lying down or sitting, place one hand on your belly and the other on your upper chest
ii. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose, drawing the air into the lower abdomen and pelvic area, feeling your hand rise with your belly
iii. Continuing to inhale, feel the rib cage begin to expand outward as the mid-section of the torso becomes engaged
iv. Finally, draw air into the upper chest and allow the collar bones to rise. Feel the hand rise with the chest
v. At the peak of inhalation, pause for a moment, then exhale gently in reverse order, releasing the upper chest first, then the diaphragm
and ribs, and finally the lower abdomen. Slightly contract the abdominal muscles to push residual air out of the bottom of your
lungs
vi. After some practice, it should start to feel like a gentle wave motion
vii. Perform a few rounds and the notice how you feel

3. The Alternate Nostril Breathing
When you’re feeling anxious or ungrounded, practice the Alternate Nostril Breathing, known as Nadi Shodhana in the yogic tradition. This will immediately help you feel calmer.
i. Hold your right thumb over your right nostril and inhale deeply though your left nostril
ii. At the peak of your inhalation, close off your left nostril with your fourth finger, lift your right thumb, and then exhale smoothly through
your right nostril
iii. After a full exhalation, inhale through the right nostril, closing it off with your right thumb at the peak of inhalation, lift your fourth finger
and exhale smoothly through your left nostril
iv. Continue with this practice for 3 – 5 minutes, alternating your breathing through each nostril. Your breathing should be effortless,
with your mind gently observing the inflow and outflow of breath

4. The Ocean’s Breath
When you feel angry, irritated, or frustrated, try the Ocean’s Breath or Ujjayi (pronounced as oo-jai) as it can soothe and settle your mind
immediately.
i. Take an inhalation that is slightly deeper than normal. With your mouth closed, exhale through your nose while constricting your
throat muscles. If you are doing this correctly, you should sound like waves on the ocean.
ii. Another way to get the hang of this practice is to try exhaling the sound “haaaaah” with your mouth open. Now make a similar sound
with your mouth closed, feeling the outflow of air through your nasal passages.
iii. Once you have mastered this on the outflow, use the same method for the inflow breath, gently constricting your throat as you inhale
iv. Continue for 3 – 5 minutes or however long it feels comfortable

5. The Energizing Breath
When you are feeling blue or sluggish, try the Energizing Breath or Bhastrika. This will give you an immediate surge of energy and invigorate
your mind.
i. Begin by relaxing your shoulders and take a few deep, full breaths from your abdomen
ii. Now start exhaling forcefully through your nose, followed by forceful, deep, inhalations at the rate of one second per cycle. Your
breathing is entirely from your diaphragms, keeping your head, neck, shoulder and chest relatively still while your belly moves in
and out
iii. Start by doing a round of 10 breaths, then breathe naturally and notice the sensation in your body. After 15 to 30 seconds, begin the
next round with 20 breaths. Finally, after pausing for another 30 seconds, complete a third round of 30 breaths. Beginners are
advised to take a break between rounds.

Although Bhastrika is a safe practice, stay tuned in to your body during the process. If you feel light-headed or very uncomfortable, stop for a few moments before resuming in a less intense manner.
Contraindications: Do not practice Bhastrikla if you’re pregnant or have uncontrolled hypertension, epilepsy/seizure, panic disorder, hernia, gastric ulcer, glaucoma, or vertigo. Use caution if there is an underlying lung disease. Perform one of these breath techniques for five minutes twice daily, and you can see its long-term benefits. You can also use them anytime you’re feeling stressed or notice that your breathing has become constricted.

By training your body with regular practice of deep breathing, you will begin to breathe more effectively without concentrating on it.

Source: chopra.com

Michael Teh, 11th March 2021.