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Pranayama - Controlling the Breath

The word "pranayama" is derived from two Sanskrit words: "prana," meaning life force or breath, and "ayama," meaning extension or control and refers to the practice of regulating the breath in order to promote physical and mental wellbeing. This ancient yogic technique has been used for thousands of years to help people manage stress, anxiety, and other health issues.

Breathing is part of our autonomic nervous system, which includes the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system controls our responses to triggers and tells the body how to react. It is better known as “fight or flight”. The parasympathetic nervous system helps the body calm down after the danger or threat has passed. It is know as “rest and relax”.

"The practice of pranayama is the key to unlocking the full potential of the body and mind." - Ralph Waldo Emerson, philosopher and writer

In the presence of perceived danger, the breath becomes fast and short as your body tries to load itself with oxygen to prepare for fight or flight. With awareness we can deliberately slow and deepen the breath by signaling the body to calm down. Your breath is a powerful force you can use to control your body's responses to stress. As the famous yoga teacher B.K.S. Iyengar once said, "Pranayama is the bridge between the physical and mental realms of yoga."

Here are some basic pranayama techniques and their benefits:

Three-Part Breathing - Dirga Pranayama

A good breathing exercise for beginners, a simple yet powerful breathing technique in the practice of yoga. This technique involves breathing deeply and slowly, filling the lungs with air in three parts: the lower abdomen, the chest, and the upper lungs.


  1. Dirga Pranayama helps to calm the mind and body, reducing feelings of stress and anxiety. This is because slow, deep breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps to relax the body and reduce the "fight or flight" response.

  2. This technique helps to increase lung capacity by expanding the lungs fully and efficiently. This can be especially beneficial for people who have respiratory issues or who participate in sports that require a lot of cardiovascular endurance.

  3. By breathing deeply and fully, Dirga Pranayama increases oxygenation throughout the body, which can improve overall health and energy levels.

  4. The deep breathing involved in Dirga Pranayama can stimulate the digestive system, helping to improve digestion and elimination.

How to practice three-part breathing

Equal Breathing - Sama Vritti Pranayama

Sama Vritti Pranayama is a powerful breathing technique that has numerous benefits for both the body and mind. The technique involves equalizing the length of inhalation and exhalation, and can be done in a seated or lying down position.


  1. By regulating the breath, Sama Vritti Pranayama can calm the mind and reduce feelings of stress and anxiety.

  2. This technique can help to improve concentration and mental clarity, making it a great tool for students or anyone who needs to focus on a task.

  3. By bringing the inhalation and exhalation into balance, Sama Vritti Pranayama can help to balance the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, leading to a feeling of overall relaxation and well-being.

  4. This technique can help to increase the amount of oxygen in the body, which can improve overall health and energy levels.

  5. By focusing on the breath, Sama Vritti Pranayama can help to enhance self-awareness and bring a sense of inner calm.

How to practice equal breathing

Ocean Breath - Ujjayi Pranayama

This technique involves inhaling deeply through the nose, and then exhaling through the mouth with a slight constriction in the back of the throat. This creates a sound similar to ocean waves, and helps to calm the mind and reduce stress.


  1. Ujjayi breathing has a calming effect on the mind and body, helping to reduce stress and anxiety.

  2. The sound and rhythm of Ujjayi breath can help to improve concentration and focus, allowing for a more meditative practice.

  3. By taking deep breaths, Ujjayi Pranayama helps to increase lung capacity and oxygen intake.

  4. The slight constriction in the back of the throat during Ujjayi breath can help to strengthen the respiratory muscles over time.

  5. Ujjayi breathing has been shown to help regulate heart rate, leading to a more stable and balanced cardiovascular system.

How to practice ocean breath

Alternate Nostril Breathing - Nadi Shodhana Pranayama

It involves alternating the inhalation and exhalation between the left and right nostrils, and is believed to have a number of physical and mental benefits. To perform this technique, sit comfortably and use your right thumb to close your right nostril. Inhale deeply through your left nostril, then use your right ring finger to close your left nostril and exhale through your right nostril. Repeat this process, alternating between your nostrils with each inhale and exhale.


  1. By slowing down the breath and focusing on the inhalations and exhalations, this technique can help to calm the nervous system and promote relaxation. It has been shown to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can have a positive impact on overall health and wellbeing.

  2. It improves respiratory function by increasing lung capacity and strengthening the respiratory muscles. This can be particularly beneficial for individuals with respiratory conditions such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

  3. This technique balances the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Nadi Shodhana Pranayama can help to promote a sense of mental clarity and focus, and may even enhance cognitive function.

  4. It also regulates blood pressure, improves circulation, and boosts the immune system. It is also believed to have a positive effect on digestion and can help to alleviate symptoms of gastrointestinal issues such as bloating and constipation.

How to practice alternate nostril breathing

In addition to these techniques, there are many books and resources available to help you learn and deepen your practice of pranayama. Some of these include "Light on Pranayama" by B.K.S. Iyengar, "The Yoga of Breath" by Richard Rosen, and "Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art" by James Nestor. With some basic pranayama practice, we can learn to harness the power of the breath to promote health, happiness, and spiritual growth.

Happy breathing!

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