Pranayama (breath control) is the fourth limb in the eight limbs of yoga. Within Pranayama there are many techniques. Pranayama’s simplest and most beneficial effect on the body is bringing more oxygen into your bloodstream, likely giving it its main healing power.
There are, in fact, numerous medical studies that have examined oxygen levels in the bloodstream and the increased production of a bodily chemical, Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP), which fights disease and premature aging. These studies claim that oxygen in the bloodstream is the most vital nutrient that creates and sustains ATP in our bodies. The healthful benefit of practicing Pranayama thereby becomes a little more clear.
In our daily lives, there are several ways we breathe that is not healthful. At times, nearly all of us are guilty of one of the following unhealthy manners of breathing:
- Breathing through the upper-chest and not drawing your breath into your abdomen.
- Shallow breathing, not using our lungs to their fullest capacities.
- Over-breathing by inhaling longer than we exhale.
- Holding our breath for too long after inhaling.
- Breathing primarily, or almost entirely, out of our mouths.
By integrating Pranayama techniques into our yoga practices, we can learn how to carry their benefits over into our sub-conscious breathing.
Broken down, Pranayama contains four stages: Puraka (the inhaling), Abhyantara Kumbhaka (the retaining), Rechaka (the exhaling) and Bahya Kumbhaka (the pause after exhaling). Different Pranayama techniques place varying emphases on these four primary parts of a yoga breath.
A very common Pranayama technique is Alternate-Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhana Pranayama). This technique helps you feel centered with a clear mind, open for meditation. For your first breath, inhale and exhale through both nostrils. On your next breath, only inhale through your left nostril, closing off your right. Then close off your left nostril and exhale through the right. Inhale through the right nostril, closing the left, and then exhale through the left while closing the right.
To properly close off your nostrils, use the ring finger and thumb of your right hand, curling your index and middle fingers away from the bridge of your nose (Deer Mudra). It is believed that inhaling through your left nostril brings a feeling of calmness and breathing through your right nostril energizes and invigorates, thus leaving you balanced.