Breathing is not something most of us think about; it is so involuntary that we often take it for granted. Breath, however, is the crux of life. When we are born, the first thing we do is take a breath, and breath is the last thing we take before taking leave of our earthly body. Breath is essence.
In the system of yoga, the name given to the practice of regulated and conscious breathing is pranayama- prana meaning "life force" and ayama meaning to "control" or "extend." In the ancient Yoga Sutras, pranayama is recorded as the fourth limb of the sacred eightfold path to a more purposeful life and is practiced to increase the body's life force or vital energy while also harmonizing the connection between the mind, body and spirit.
The Effects of Pranayama Practice
When controlled and properly employed, the benefits of pranayama are numerous. The practice of pranayama can be an invaluable tool to declutter the mind, increase mental and emotional clarity, dispel negative thought patterns, and reduce anxiety. It is especially helpful during times of uncertainty and or transformation. In addition to the numerous psycho-emotional benefits, pranayama can also have a significant impact on physiology. According to one study, participants who practiced pranayama breathing for 30 minutes every day, three days a week experienced reduced levels of stress, lowered blood pressure. and decreased heart rate. Although pranayama is beneficial anytime you practice it, the effects become more pronounced when it becomes part of a routine daily practice.
How to Practice Pranayama
Practicing pranayama is not difficult. In fact, it's relatively easy, and most people find it quite relaxing. One of my favorite breathing techniques is alternate nostril breathing or Nadi Shodhana. This is a purification breath technique that can have a calming effect on both the mind and nervous system by rebalancing the right and left hemispheres of the brain. It can also help to reduce stress by clearing away any congested or blocked energy within the meridians of the body.
Below are some simple instructions on how to practice alternate nostril breathing.
1. Make sure you are sitting in a comfortable seated position. I like to sit in easy pose, which is a crossed legged seated position
2. Next, close the right nostril by using the thumb of the right hand and gently inhale through the left nostril.
3. Then once you have inhaled a full deep breath, close the left nostril with your index or ring finger and exhale through your right nostril.
4. Continue to repeat this sequence of alternate nostril breathing for as long or short of a time as you would like. Beginners may want to start at a shorter time of 3 minutes and gradually work their way up from there.
Reasons to Practice Pranayama
Never has there been a better time to practice pranayama. The world is in a state of swift and deep transformation. We are living in an unprecedented time in history. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us find ourselves in a state of uncertainty and anxiety as we witness the world we once knew being turned upside down in what seems like the blink of an eye. Schools, restaurants and retailers are closed. The global economy is collapsing. People are losing their jobs and their sanity while trying to cope with the major changes this virus has brought to our way of life.
The direction you take during this time of transition is up to you, but pranayama can help you weather the storms of life and shift your perspective in a way that is more directly aligned with your inner truth and purpose. In yogic tradition, it is said that if you can change your breath you can change your life…so breathe.