Breathing is a necessary function of life. We involuntarily breathe whether we are walking, working out, or sleeping – it’s a natural and automatic process. As previously discussed, the ancient yogis termed the action of breathing Pranayama, meaning “control of life force” or “extension of breath”. In essence, Pranayama rids the body of both physical and mental blocks to allow prana – universal life force – to flow smoothly, which positively influences the body and mind.
There are four primary categories to attain, increase, and support your prana level; rest, food, inner calm, and a happy mind. For instance, fresh foods are better than canned or frozen foods, and vegetarian food has a higher level of prana than meat, as meat is dead. Nevertheless, the most immediate and direct source of prana is the breath. Breath is living and without it, we die.
Shallow vs Deep Breathing
Have you ever observed the breathing pattern of a newborn baby? Their abdomen slowly and gently rises and falls as they breathe in and out. If we remembered to keep this pattern going throughout our lives, we would be much better off because as we have learned, breathing from the abdomen improves respiration and sends a much- needed supply of nutrient-enriched oxygen to the brain, signaling to the brain that all is well. Unfortunately at some point in our older years, we begin to breathe from the chest which alerts the brain that we are stressed and unwell.
Prana Levels and Emotions
One’s state of mind is determined by the quality and quantity of prana that flows through the energy channels, or nadis. When we neglect our energy channels, they can become blocked which creates a broken flow of prana. The results from this can bring on a flurry of negative emotions or state of mind; such as depression, fear, tension, doubt, and conflict. Contrarily, when our prana level is elevated, smooth, and continuous, the mind is content, positive, hopeful, and tranquil.
Breathing in, I calm body and mind. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is the only moment. – Thich Nhat Hanh
Pranayama are exercises that regulate the breath and have the ability to reduce stress, increase our energy levels, and improve our physical health and mental clarity. Pranayama works on the principle that instead of letting our emotions alter our breathing patterns, the skillful use of breath can modify our emotional states. While it is true that managing our feelings can be difficult, using the various pranayama breathing techniques gives us a powerful tool to overpower and transform negative emotions into positive ones. Below we will look at a few of the most common Pranayama techniques.
Bhramari (Humming Bee Breath): This is a very good technique when your mind is buzzing around with jumbled thoughts and activity or for those people with hypertension. It involves inhaling and exhaling through the nostrils, making the sound of the letter M. Bhramari comes from the Sanskrit word for bee because of the bee-like buzzing sound that is produced when exhaling.
Bhastrika (Bellows Breath): This is ideal if you are experiencing low energy levels. While vigorously inhaling and exhaling, this breathing method rapidly and effectively raises energy levels and calms the mind.
Kapalbhati (Skull Shining Breath): This technique is thought to be the best form of breathing for clearing energy channels, detoxifying the body, and increasing intuition. Here you passively inhale and forcefully exhale.
Nadi Shodhan (Alternate Nostril Breath): This is ideal if concentration is an issue. Here, you alternately inhale and exhale through the left and right nostril in a specified pattern. It calms and focuses the mind by bringing the left and right hemispheres of the brain (which represent the emotional and logical sides of our personality) into harmony. The left nostril (Pingala nadi) is tied to the right hemisphere of the brain, and the right nostril (Ida nadi) is connected to the left side. The idea is that both hemispheres are thus balanced via breathing through alternate nostrils.
Ujjayi (Victorious Breath): This approach is by far the clearest demonstration of how the breath and emotions are connected and calms the mind by focusing on the breath. It is also the most common form of pranayama used during body posture/pose (asana) practices. During Ujjayi, you keep your mouth closed and constrict the throat to make a rushing noise that often sounds like snoring. While controlling your breath with the diaphragm, you inhale and exhale in equal durations.