What is Pranayama?
Pranayama is a Sanskrit word made up of “prana”, often understood to be life force, and “yama”, meaning to control or work with. Pranayama techniques usually work with the breath, or life force, clearing out physical, emotional and spiritual blockages, so that the life force or prana can move through the body, mind and spirit more freely.
Essentially then pranayama includes breath work exercises that allows energy to flow more easily around the body. It is a practice that I am very new to myself and one that again I have learnt about through Yoga With Adriene and other videos on YouTube as well as various articles on the internet.
There are numerous types but ones that I have used frequently and found particularly beneficial include alternate-nostril breathing, skull-shining breath, Ujjayi breathing and lion’s breath. I’ve found these to have a very calming effect on me whenever I’ve practised them either as part of or instead of the physical Hatha yoga postures.
Up until starting a pranayama practice, I really took for granted all the breaths I took each day. It happens so easily and without thinking, most of the time as an involuntary bodily action, that many of us are so accustomed to it and don’t appreciate how effective different types of breathing can be for us at any given time. Examples of this for me include whenever I come down with a cold and I’m all congested desperately wishing I could breathe “normally” so I can sleep well or after a pleasurable moment, such as a nice meal, when I notice a satisfied sigh, or even when I’m feeling stressed and I’m taking a moment to “count to ten”.
Before starting a pranayama practice, it is again important to know your body and any particular conditions or health issues that may affect you. A good (and recommended) place to start then is to check in with your healthcare provider to ensure that the exercises are suitable for you. This is particularly true for pregnant women, anyone suffering with either low or high blood pressure or heart conditions, diabetes, epilepsy or vertigo.
It is also important never to restrict the breath or to force excessively – the key is to be balanced and to do the best you can when completing the exercise without it feeling difficult to breathe. Over time, you should find the exercises become easier as lung capacity improves. Don’t try to rush the learning process! Take it slowly and carefully and be fully aware of how the exercise is being completed rather than rushing through it. As with any new practice, it will take time for the benefits of the practice to become fully noticeable.
Keeping an awareness as you practice will also be key in identifying any uncomfortable symptoms or dizziness – should this happen I would recommend ending the practice and breathing as normal. Ideally, working with a qualified instructor is the safest and recommended way of learning these techniques.
An easier place to start could be just sitting quietly in a suitable meditation posture for you and practising breathing deeply in and out, keeping your breaths equal and measured for a couple of minutes regularly. Many meditation postures actually use the breath as a focal point during the meditation and you may therefore find that this would be a good place to start for you.