by Tonya Madia
The word prana is a Sanskrit word meaning “breath” or “life force”; ayama translates to “expansion” or “extension”; together the two words mean breath extension. Pranayama is breath work that connects the mind, body and spirit through the disciplined practice of controlling the breath.
The practice of pranayama directs the flow of energy in the body and is used to balance both emotions and the physical body. A daily practice of focused breath work is extremely beneficial for both the physical and energetic bodies.
There are many different techniques, ranging from simple to extremely challenging. However, the pranayama practice that I often recommend starting with is Alternate Nostril Breathing.
The practice of Alternate Nostril Breathing balances the left and right hemispheres of the brain, improves blood circulation, cleanses the nadis (energy channels), helps to balance the chakras (energy centers), and oxygenates the blood.
Alternate Nostril Breathing Practice
Sit in a comfortable seated position and allow the spine to lengthen and the shoulders to relax.
With the thumb of the right hand, close the right nostril and inhale from the left nostril for a count of eight; gently hold the breath in as you release the right nostril and close the left nostril with the pinky of your right hand.
Exhale from the right nostril for a count of eight, hold for one count, then inhale through the right nostril for a count of eight.
Release the left nostril and bring the thumb back to the right nostril as you inhale from the left nostril for a count of eight.
(Beginners to this practice often get confused, so it is helpful to keep in mind that you will always inhale through the nostril that you just exhaled through, before switching sides).
Each time you inhale and exhale through both nostrils is considered a round; continue the practice for several rounds, or as long as is comfortable. It is best not to overdo it when first starting this practice, and work your way up over time as your body becomes more accustomed to the increase in oxygen this practice provides.
Another simple pranayama technique is abdominal breathing. By the time we are adults, many of us have developed the habit of becoming chest breathers. This method of breathing does not allow for full, proper breaths and therefore inhibits the amount of oxygen our bodies receive.
If you have ever watched a baby sleep, you have observed abdominal breathing. With each inhalation a baby’s belly expands and rises, and it falls with each exhalation. Because we are so obsessed with sucking in our bellies, we develop the habit of breathing essentially backwards, drawing the abdomen in with each inhale and never allowing abdominal muscles to relax to make room for the expansion of the diaphragm.
Abdominal Breathing Practice
Lie down on your back and allow your body to relax. Allow your left arm to rest on the floor next to your body, and place your right hand on your belly.
With each inhale, allow your belly to rise and swell fully and feel your belly gently fall with each exhale.
Allow time for slow, deep breaths, inhaling for a count of ten and exhaling for a count of ten. If possible, try to inhale and exhale through the nose rather than the mouth.
If comfortable, increase the count of each inhale and exhale to achieve as full a breath as possible. Be sure the length of the exhalation matches the length of the inhalation.
Continue this practice for several minutes, or as long as it is comfortable for you to do so.
Abdominal breathing is an excellent method of reducing stress and inducing relaxation. One reason for this is the effect that deep breathing has on the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is the longest of the cranial nerves and controls the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls your relaxation response. Taking deep breaths causes the diaphragm to expand, stimulating the vagus nerve, which in turn activates the parasympathetic nervous system.
Finding time in each day to practice abdominal breathing will not only assist with stress reduction—it will provide you with quiet opportunities to explore the subtle messages your body might be trying to convey.