Breathing is the involuntary act that keeps us alive, but it’s more than that. When you experience anxiety, you may breathe heavily. This heaviness may make you feel as if you’re having a heart attack, or make it hard for you to focus. The ability to manipulate one’s breath, according to various studies, benefits one’s mental and bodily states.
We often think of breathing as inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide. Despite the popular belief that the body only needs oxygen, it actually requires carbon dioxide (CO2) to maintain pH balance, stabilize brain cell synapses, and stimulate the nervous system. Thus, understanding how breathing works, its impact on the body, and the techniques to manipulate breath can lead to improved physical and mental health.
Pranayama is an ancient yogic practice that encompasses various breathing techniques. Pranayama can either mean breath interruption (yama) or breath extension (ayama). The word prana can be broken further down into two words: Pra means to exist independently and Ana is short for Anna, or a cell. An anu is an atom or molecule.
As all life comprises atoms, molecules and cells, the word prana means ‘that which existed before any atomic or cellular life that came into being’. Some would say this is the divine life force that pervades all life. it works to help the practitioner sense and feel this very subtle energy flowing through the channels throughout the body. Through consciously controlling the length of the inhalation and exhalation, profound physiological effects can occur.
In Western medical and scientific research, pranayama is sometimes referred to as paced breathing.
What Studies on Yogic Breathwork Say
A study published in the Frontiers of Human Neuroscience found that paced breathing, such as pranayama that reduces breathing to six breaths per minute has multiple effects on the body and mind. These benefits include increased activity in the subcortical area of the brain, which controls heart rate and digestion. Additionally, regulated breathing enhances emotions, energy levels, and reasoning abilities through increased Blood Oxygenation Level Dependent (BOLD) brain activity. Finally, the nasal breathing technique in pranayama improves the autonomic nervous system, which regulates digestion, blood pressure, and arousal.
Furthermore, another study published in Frontiers in Psychology, found that yogic breathing increases physiological stimulation, improving coping mechanisms, mental states, and cognitive functions, such as memory. The same research also found links to improved cardiac health, as well.
Sama Vritti vs. Vishama Vritti
Pranayamic breathing methods are classified into two categories: sama vritti and vishama vritti.
Sama vritti involves equal lengths of inhalation and exhalation. Two standard pranayama techniques fall under this category. Nadi Shodhana, alternate nostril breathing, develops a balance between both brain hemispheres. Ujjayi, slow and deep breathing, relax the mind and nervous system. It can also help with baroreflex sensitivity (BRS) for people coping with heart failure, hypertension, and COPD.
Vishama vritti refers to uneven breathing where the exhale exceeds the length of the inhale. There are five techniques that fall under this category. Kapalabhati is a fast breathing technique that includes short, strong exhales and passive inhales. Bhastrika is another form of fast and powerful breathing. Then there is shitali where one inhales through the mouth and then exhales through the nose, creating a cooling effect). Sitkari starts with an audible hiss like inhaling and exhaling through the nose. Finally, surya bhedana is where you inhale deeply through the right nostril, then exhale through the left nostril.
The Personal Benefits of Yogic Breathwork
Practicing yogic breathwork offers numerous benefits in personal life. By pacing the breath to six beats per minute, an optimal breathing cycle, one can experience a calm and present state of being. This focused attention on the breath allows for calming the mind and body, promoting a positive and centered outlook on life.
Moreover, regulating the breath helps in improving concentration, focus, and the ability to handle tasks without confusion or distraction.
Yogic breathwork also enhances self-awareness of the body, thoughts, and emotions, leading to more conscious choices and overall well-being. One can cultivate inner peace and calmness by intentionally slowing and controlling the breath, creating a sense of centeredness and groundedness.
How Yogic Breathwork Benefits Professional Life
In the professional realm, where stress levels are on the rise, yogic breathwork is beneficial. Factors such as the need to acquire new technological skills, heavy workloads, and daily commutes contribute to increased anxiety among professionals.
Incorporating pranayama or paced breathing techniques in the workplace can help reduce stress levels, increase productivity, and improve job performance. Additionally, yogic breathing enhances communication skills by reducing nervousness and anxiety, fostering a sense of inner calm and clarity that allows for better expression and effective interaction with others.
Nostril breathing techniques stimulate creative thinking, boosting innovative problem-solving and idea generation. The cognitive benefits of yogic breathwork extend to leadership skills by promoting self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and the ability to stay composed under pressure. By cultivating these qualities, professionals can become more effective and inspiring leaders.
A regular breathwork practice develops resilience and adaptability, enabling individuals to navigate challenges and changes with greater ease and composure.
Overall, yogic breathwork brings focus, clarity, and resilience to one’s personal and professional life, supporting individuals in achieving their goals and performing at their best.
To master yogic breathwork, it is essential to learn from a qualified yoga professional who can guide and tailor the breathing techniques to individual needs and issues, ensuring maximum benefits are derived from the practice.
If I can help you develop a yogic breathing practice to help you with your personal or professional life, please feel free to get in touch or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Yogamaharishi Dr Swami Gitananda Giri, (1999). The Ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali. SATYA Press, Tamil Nadu, India.