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HomeMeditation & MindfulnessHarnessing the Breath: A Review of Traditional Yogic Breathing Practices

Harnessing the Breath: A Review of Traditional Yogic Breathing Practices

Abstract: This article presents an overview of the primary forms of yogic breathing, or pranayama, describing their respective techniques, origins, and implications on human health. This study provides a foundation for understanding the different modalities of pranayama, citing relevant sources and suggesting a further reading list for individuals keen to explore the subject more extensively is included in the references.

Introduction

Pranayama is the fourth limb of the eightfold path of Yoga described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. ‘Prana’ means life force or vital energy, and ‘Yama’ means control; therefore, pranayama essentially translates to ‘control of the life force’. It involves conscious awareness and manipulation of breath to achieve greater physical health, mental clarity, and spiritual progress.

Types of Yogic Breathing

Anulom Vilom (Alternate Nostril Breathing)

Originating from the ancient practice of Hatha Yoga, Anulom Vilom, also known as Nadi Shodhana or Alternate Nostril Breathing, is a systematic and balancing pranayama technique that has been a staple in yogic traditions for centuries.

The technique of Anulom Vilom involves inhaling deeply through one nostril while closing off the other, retaining the breath momentarily, then exhaling through the opposite nostril while closing off the first. This is followed by inhaling through the same nostril from which we exhaled, and again switching after retention. In the simplest form, the time ratio for inhalation, retention, and exhalation is maintained at 1:4:2, although the ratio can be varied depending on the practitioner’s capacity and progress.

One significant aspect of Anulom Vilom is its role in balancing and purifying the subtle energy channels, or ‘nadis.’ According to yogic philosophy, the human energetic anatomy is composed of 72,000 nadis, with three principal ones – Ida (associated with the left nostril and representing calming, cooling, feminine, and lunar energy), Pingala (associated with the right nostril and representing active, heating, masculine, and solar energy), and Sushumna (the central channel where the Kundalini energy resides). When the breathing is rhythmically alternated between the nostrils, it balances the Ida and Pingala nadis, potentially leading to the awakening of the Sushumna.

The implications of Anulom Vilom extend beyond the yogic spiritual context, influencing physiological and psychological states. Research suggests that regular practice can contribute to reduced heart rate and blood pressure, promoting cardiovascular health. It can also have a calming effect on the mind, reducing stress and anxiety, and enhancing concentration and mental clarity.

The practice of Anulom Vilom serves as a tool for maintaining health and well-being and fostering deeper self-awareness and mindfulness. It demonstrates how an ancient yogic practice remains relevant and beneficial in modern times.

Kapalabhati (Skull Shining Breath)

Kapalabhati, often referred to as the ‘Skull Shining Breath’, originates from the ancient practice of Hatha Yoga and is prominently featured in various yogic traditions. The term Kapalabhati is derived from the Sanskrit words ‘Kapala’, meaning ‘skull’, and ‘Bhati’, meaning ‘light’ or ‘perception’, symbolizing the illuminating effect it is thought to have on the practitioner’s mind and intellect.

The technique of Kapalabhati deviates from regular breathing patterns in that it places emphasis on the exhalation phase rather than inhalation. The process involves active, forceful exhalation through the nose, accompanied by an inward snap of the lower belly toward the spine, followed by a passive, automatic inhalation. The primary force of the breath is focused on the exhalation, clearing out the lungs powerfully and rapidly, while the inhalation remains passive and natural. It is often practiced at a fast pace, but beginners should start slowly and increase their speed gradually with regular practice and increased comfort.

In the yogic tradition, Kapalabhati is viewed as a cleansing technique, often referred to as a ‘Kriya’, rather than merely a pranayama. It is believed to purify the frontal region of the brain, the ‘kapala’, hence its name. The forceful exhalations are considered to cleanse the lungs and respiratory system, increase oxygen supply to the body’s cells, and even stimulate abdominal organs and muscles, thereby enhancing digestive health.

Moreover, Kapalabhati is often hailed for its potential energizing and invigorating effects, awakening the brain and clearing the mind, thus increasing alertness and concentration. It also serves as an excellent preparation for deeper meditation practices, as it helps to quiet and steady the mind.

However, despite its numerous purported benefits, Kapalabhati should be practiced with caution. It is not recommended for individuals with high blood pressure, heart disease, hernia, gastric ulcers, or during pregnancy. As with all pranayama, it is best learned under the guidance of a qualified yoga teacher.

Ujjayi (Victorious Breath or Ocean Breath)

Ujjayi Pranayama, commonly known as the ‘Victorious Breath’ or ‘Ocean Breath’, is a fundamental breathing technique utilized widely in the practices of Ashtanga and Vinyasa yoga, though it originates from the broader framework of Hatha Yoga.

The term ‘Ujjayi’ is derived from the Sanskrit prefix ‘ud’ (upwards) and ‘ji’ (to conquer or acquire by conquest). It metaphorically signifies the process of elevating and mastering one’s prana, or vital energy.

Ujjayi Pranayama distinguishes itself through its unique combination of diaphragmatic breathing and a slight constriction of the glottis, which is the opening between the vocal cords. This constriction generates a soft, soothing sound reminiscent of ocean waves or a whispering wind during both the inhalation and exhalation, leading to the nickname ‘Ocean Breath’. The sound serves as a biofeedback mechanism, allowing practitioners to listen to their breath, thus enhancing focus and mindfulness.

To perform Ujjayi Pranayama, one must inhale deeply through the nose, slightly constrict the back of the throat, and then exhale slowly through the nose while maintaining the same gentle throat constriction. The breath should be long, smooth, and steady, filling and emptying the lungs completely.

Among its many benefits, Ujjayi Pranayama is known for its capacity to enhance concentration and instill a meditative state, making it a valuable tool for any yoga practice. The slight resistance to the airflow caused by the throat constriction leads to a warming effect, gently increasing the body’s internal heat, promoting flexibility, and helping to prevent injuries during physical postures. Furthermore, studies suggest that it may also improve cardiovascular function by enhancing oxygenation, regulating blood pressure, and promoting a more balanced heart rate.

As with any breathing practice, Ujjayi Pranayama should be approached mindfully and gradually, starting with a few minutes a day and increasing the duration over time. It is always advisable to learn under the guidance of a qualified teacher, especially for those with pre-existing respiratory or cardiovascular condition.

Bhramari (Bee Breath)

The Bhramari pranayama, also known as ‘Bee Breath’, is a unique yogic breathing technique that draws its name and technique from the humming sound of the black Indian bee, ‘Bhramari’. This practice stems from the traditional discipline of Hatha Yoga and is cherished for its simplicity and the powerful soothing effect it has on the practitioner’s mind and nervous system.

To perform Bhramari pranayama, the practitioner assumes a comfortable seated position, takes a slow and deep inhalation, and upon exhalation, produces a long, continuous humming sound. This sound is created by gently constricting the glottis (similar to the Ujjayi breath), but with the lips closed, causing the vibrations to resonate within the head and chest. To further enhance the practice, the yogi can use the fingers to gently close the ears and eyes, which directs the focus inward and amplifies the vibration’s effect.

In the context of yogic tradition, Bhramari pranayama is highly revered for its capacity to immediately quieten and stabilize the mind, making it an effective prelude to meditation. The calming effect is largely attributed to the monotonous humming sound, which can potentially stimulate the vagus nerve and activate the parasympathetic (rest and digest) response in the nervous system. This results in lower heart rate, slower respiration, and a general sense of calm and relaxation.

From a physiological standpoint, the gentle vibration caused by the humming sound is believed to stimulate the thyroid gland, situated in the throat, thus improving its health and function.

Furthermore, recent scientific research supports the positive effects of Bhramari pranayama on stress reduction and mental health. A study published in the ‘International Journal of Yoga’ found that regular practice of Bhramari significantly reduces stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms in adults.

Despite its many benefits, it’s advisable to practice Bhramari pranayama under the guidance of a trained yoga teacher, especially for those with pre-existing conditions. Pregnant women and individuals with severe cardiac conditions should also seek professional advice before starting the practice.

Sheetali (Cooling Breath)

Sheetali Pranayama, also known as ‘Cooling Breath’, is a pranayama technique rooted in the ancient discipline of Hatha Yoga. The term ‘Sheetali’ is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Sheetal’, meaning ‘cooling’ or ‘soothing’, which well describes the central effect of this practice.

To perform Sheetali Pranayama, the practitioner first sits comfortably with the spine erect. The tongue is extended out of the mouth and rolled on the sides to form a tube-like shape. This formation is then used to draw in a deep, slow breath, similar to sipping through a straw. After a full inhalation, the tongue is withdrawn, the mouth is closed, and the breath is retained for a comfortable duration. The exhalation then follows through the nostrils. The process is repeated for several rounds, during which the practitioner can observe the cooling sensation on the tongue and the throat, spreading gradually to the rest of the body.

In the traditional yogic texts, Sheetali Pranayama is lauded for its cooling and calming effects, both on the body and the mind. It is particularly recommended for pacifying excess heat in the system, related to the ‘Pitta’ dosha in Ayurveda, which can manifest as physical heat, inflammation, acidity, or even feelings of anger and irritability. By reducing the internal heat, it helps in soothing various related disorders such as gastritis, hyperacidity, and hypertension.

Beyond its cooling effects, Sheetali Pranayama is also believed to have a pacifying effect on the nervous system, reducing mental agitation, anxiety, and stress. This can result in improved sleep quality, better focus, and increased mental clarity.

Despite its numerous benefits, it’s crucial to note that Sheetali Pranayama may not be suitable for everyone. People living in very cold climates or those suffering from cold, cough, asthma, or respiratory disorders should practice it with caution or under the guidance of a trained yoga teacher.

Implications: Health Benefits of Pranayama

Pranayama, the yogic practice of breath regulation, has been an integral part of yoga for centuries, renowned for its potential to harmonize the body, mind, and spirit. In recent years, a growing body of scientific research has begun to explore and confirm the various health benefits traditionally associated with pranayama, revealing its multifaceted potential for fostering health and well-being.

Stress and Anxiety Reduction

Pranayama techniques like Anulom Vilom, Bhramari, and Ujjayi have been observed to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body’s ‘rest and digest’ response. By doing so, they help decrease physiological markers of stress, such as heart rate and blood pressure, and promote a state of relaxation. Furthermore, the increased focus on breath and the present moment during pranayama can help reduce anxiety and promote a more peaceful mental state.

Cardiovascular and Respiratory Health

Breathing techniques such as Kapalabhati and Ujjayi can enhance cardiovascular health by improving oxygenation, regulating blood pressure, and promoting a more balanced heart rate. Moreover, these practices can also boost respiratory health, by strengthening respiratory muscles, enhancing lung capacity, and improving breathing efficiency. This can particularly benefit individuals with respiratory conditions like asthma.

Cognitive Function

Pranayama has also been associated with enhanced cognitive function. By helping to quiet the mind, techniques such as Anulom Vilom and Bhramari can improve focus, attention, and memory. The mindful attention to breath can also promote improved mental clarity and a greater sense of self-awareness.

Overall Wellbeing

Pranayama’s ability to foster relaxation, enhance physical health, and promote mental clarity can significantly contribute to improved overall wellbeing. Regular practice can foster a greater sense of balance, vitality, and contentment, improving both quality of life and resilience to health challenges.

However, despite these numerous benefits, it’s crucial to approach pranayama mindfully, starting slowly, and preferably under the guidance of a trained teacher. Those with pre-existing medical conditions should also consult a healthcare professional before starting pranayama.

Conclusion

Yogic breathing techniques, or pranayama, constitute an integral part of yoga practice. They have originated from various traditional yogic paths and have potential physical, mental, and spiritual benefits. However, further empirical research is needed to understand the mechanisms behind these effects.

Sources Consulted and Further Reading

  1. Bernardi, L., Sleight, P., Bandinelli, G., Cencetti, S., Fattorini, L., Wdowczyc-Szulc, J., & Lagi, A. (2001). Effect of rosary prayer and yoga mantras on autonomic cardiovascular rhythms: comparative study. BMJ, 323(7327), 1446–1449. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.323.7327.1446.
  2. Brown, R. P., & Gerbarg, P. L. (2005). Sudarshan Kriya yogic breathing in the treatment of stress, anxiety, and depression. Part II—clinical applications and guidelines. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 11(4), 711–717.
  3. Brown, R. P., & Gerbarg, P. L. (2005). Sudarshan Kriya yogic breathing in the treatment of stress, anxiety, and depression. Part II—clinical applications and guidelines. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 11(4), 711–717.
  4. Iyengar, B. K. S. (2002). Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. HarperCollins UK.
  5. Iyengar, B. K. S. (2012). Light on Yoga: Yoga Dipika. Thorsons.
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  7. Jerath, R., Edry, J. W., Barnes, V. A., & Jerath, V. (2006). Physiology of long pranayamic breathing: Neural respiratory elements may provide a mechanism that explains how slow deep breathing shifts the autonomic nervous system. Medical hypotheses, 67(3), 566–571. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mehy.2006.02.042.
  8. Lad, V. (2002). Textbook of Ayurveda. Ayurvedic Press.
  9. Rama, Swami, Ballentine, R., Hymes, A. (1979). Science of Breath: A Practical Guide. Himalayan Institute Press.
  10. Rama, Swami, Ballentine, R., Hymes, A. (1979). Science of Breath: A Practical Guide. Himalayan Institute Press.
  11. Rama, Swami, Ballentine, R., Hymes, A. (1979). Science of Breath: A Practical Guide. Himalayan Institute Press.
  12. Saoji, A. A., Raghavendra, B. R., Manjunath, N. K. (2017). Effects of yogic breath regulation: A narrative review of scientific evidence. Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine, 10(2), 50-58. doi:10.1016/j.jaim.2017.07.008.
  13. Saoji, A. A., Raghavendra, B. R., Manjunath, N. K. (2019). Effects of yogic breath regulation: A narrative review of scientific evidence. Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine, 10(2), 50-58. doi:10.1016/j.jaim.2017.07.008.
  14. Saraswati, Swami Niranjanananda (2009). Prana and Pranayama. Yoga Publications Trust.
  15. Saraswati, Swami Satyananda (2006). Asana, Pranayama, Mudra, Bandha. Yoga Publications Trust.
  16. Saraswati, Swami Satyananda (2006). Asana, Pranayama, Mudra, Bandha. Yoga Publications Trust.
  17. Saraswati, Swami Satyananda (2006). Asana, Pranayama, Mudra, Bandha. Yoga Publications Trust.
  18. Saraswati, Swami Satyananda (2006). Asana, Pranayama, Mudra, Bandha. Yoga Publications Trust.
  19. Sharma, H. (2015). Meditation: Process and effects. Ayu, 36(3), 233–237. https://doi.org/10.4103/0974-8520.182756.
  20. Swami Rama, Ballentine, R., Hymes, A. (1979). Science of Breath: A Practical Guide. Himalayan Institute Press.
  21. Telles, S., Sharma, S. K., & Balkrishna, A. (2014). Pranayama: The power of breath. International Journal of Yoga, 7(1), 1–2. https://doi.org/10.4103/0973-6131.123472.
  22. Telles, S., Sharma, S. K., & Balkrishna, A. (2014). Pranayama: The power of breath. International Journal of Yoga, 7(1), 1–2. https://doi.org/10.4103/0973-6131.123472.
  23. Telles, S., Singh, N., & Balkrishna, A. (2011). Finger dexterity and visual discrimination following two yoga breathing practices. International Journal of Yoga, 4(1), 26–30. https://doi.org/10.4103/0973-6131.78178.
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