A Sanskrit word meaning control of the breath or life force, the practice of Pranayama is often viewed as an ancient science in its own right.
Pranayama is the fourth limb of Yoga in accordance to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, dating back between 200 BCE – 500 CE.
Fast forward to modern day, and you can find Pranayama techniques in the Third Metric, Mindfulness, or Stress Relief Columns on your favorite news sites.
In the West, we seem to be fixated on the benefits of the Third limb of yoga — Yoga Asana or postures. In fact, many studies you will find on Yoga are based strictly on postures in general.
How the Breath Works
In the simplest of terms, we automatically inhale, the lungs fill with oxygen, and we exhale carbon dioxide.
This involuntary mechanism is what keeps our hearts pumping fresh, oxygenated blood throughout the body.
It is a rather unique motor function in the sense that it is both involuntary and voluntary.
Voluntary Control of the Breath
Voluntary control of the breath is activated, broadly, in the motor cortex of the brain. Talking and singing are good examples of how we can behaviorally control the breath for a short time.
With focus, you can, to a degree, control the length of your inhalation and exhalation.
The Effect of Stress on the Nervous System
In a nutshell, the autonomic nervous system is divided into the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) — the “fight or flight” response — and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) involved in bringing the body back to homeostasis, or “rest and digest.” In this day and age, much of the stress we see here in the West is attributed to psychological stress.
Things like worrying, being late to work, getting stuck in traffic, and occasional life-threatening moments activate the SNS response that once was more consumed with not dying in the wilderness.
The biological responses seen with stress are pretty obvious: increased heart rate, shortness of breath, clenching of muscles, halting of digestion, etc.
In this day and age, many of us respond to physical stressors and psychological stressors in the same way. This becomes problematic in the long run due to the physiological and behavioral effects of continual activation of the SNS.
Being consistently in a GO, GO, GO mentality means we are continually wreaking havoc on our minds and bodies, placing our “normal” resting baseline at a higher level.
Pranayama and Its Effect on the PNS
Ever been told to take a long, deep breath and slowly count to ten to calm down and focus?
In most cases, when we are at a stress level of “10,” that concentration of the breath and counting slowly decreases our stress response by the time we count down to one.
With some voluntary control of the breath, we are able to activate the “rest and digest” Parasympathetic Nervous System, in turn bringing our baseline and cortisol levels back down to whatever is considered normal for your body.
Most Pranayama techniques aid in activation of the PNS. There are some techniques that allow for the heat-building energy created by our breaths to be focused in on a general area of the body, gaining an energetic edge when practicing some yoga postures.
A Pranayama technique that we will focus on in this article is one of many that can help in activating the PNS and, in turn, bring us to a calmer, more peaceful state.
This breath is often called the “victorious” breath and is often used during yoga asana practice.
It resembles ocean waves or the sound of Darth Vader.
It encourages full expansion of our lungs on the inhalation and full expelling of the lungs on our exhalation with an emphasis on directing the airflow during exhalation to the back of the throat with a slightly more forceful audible “Ha” sound.
Combine this breathing through the nose with a longer exhalation than inhalation, and it can almost instantly calm and refresh the mind.
Lie down on your back and place your left hand on your heart and your right hand on your belly. Take a steady breath in through the nose.
Inhale until you reach your lung capacity and feel your left hand rise. Hold your breath for a second, then constrict some of the breath at the back of your throat, as if you were about to fog up a mirror, and exhale slowly through the nose. Notice the fall of your right hand as your fully expire the air from your lungs.
This exhalation will sound like an ocean wave or kind of like Darth Vader.
You should feel the warm air on the roof of your mouth upon your slow exhalation. Stay with this for 10 breaths and play with a longer, slower length of exhalation. Notice how this calms your senses when controlling the length of your exhale.
There are many other Pranayama techniques that have been used for thousands of years for differing purposes.
For this day and age, a greater emphasis on balance and slowing down in our daily lives can help us to reach a better state of contentment, happiness, and inner peace.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tina Ward is a professional scientist and yogini. She teaches and subs at Krama Yoga Center. You can catch her every Thursday @ 6pm for a gentle class for all levels.