In my May 10th, 2018 Coastal Breeze Column (www.coastalbreezenews.com/articles/ diaphragmatic-breathing-to-reduce-stress/) I discussed how breathing is the basis of both life and all relaxation activities. I mentioned how important breathing is yet how little attention we pay to it. The simple practice of being more mindful of your breathing can help you relax. When you practice mindful breathing your thinking slows down and you stop over-thinking, especially about past and future worries.
In this column I want to focus on Pranayama a more advanced form of breathing. The two halves of the Sanskrit word, prana and yama , refer to the breath and control, respectively. Together the word means restraint or control of the breath. In the yogic tradition, air is the primary source of prana, also referred to as the life force. Prana is a force that permeates the universe and influences the body and the mind. Yoga training incorporates breathing techniques as a way to cleanse and strengthen the body and mind. The ancient yogis developed many breathing techniques to maximize the benefits of prana (Savananda, 2006). Pranayama is most often used in preparation for meditation and the practice of yoga postures called asanas. In these practices pranayama is used to clear and cleanse the body and focus the mind to help maximize the benefits of the postures (Posadzki & Sheetal, 2009).
There are several forms of pranayama, but they all focus on separating breathing into four phases: (1) inhalation, (2) holding the breath, (3) exhalation, and (4) pausing after exhalation. In Sanskrit the four phases are called puraka , kumbhaka , rechak, and bahya kumbhaka , respectively. In addition, each phase is timed differently, and success in practicing the techniques depends upon obtaining the proper ratios of inhalation, holding, exhalation, and pausing.
Different forms of pranayama use different inhalation, holding, exhalation, and pausing techniques (Blonna, 2012). For example, in three-part breathing inhalation starts with the first breath filling the belly with air. When the belly is full a little more breath is drawn in, forcing the ribs to expand into the rib cage and to widen apart. After exhaling without holding the breath when the belly and rib cage are expanded, a little more breath is drawn in filling the upper chest, all the way up to the collarbone, causing the area around the heart to expand and rise. There is no noticeable pause before the next inhalation.
In alternate nostril breathing inhalation and exhalation are accomplished one nostril at a time. Air is drawn in through the right nostril slowly until the lungs are filled. There is a minimal pause and air is exhaled slowly and gently through the same nostril. The procedure is then performed with the other nostril. There is no noticeable pause before the next inhalation.
In retained pranayama breathing there is a ratio for the time used to inhale, hold, and exhale. The proper ratio for the three phases is 1:4:2. For example, if it took you 5 seconds to inhale, you would then hold your breath for 20 seconds and exhale for 10 seconds. If you took 4 seconds you’d need to hold your breath for 16 seconds and release the air in 8 seconds. A second can be counted by saying “one thousand and one” to yourself silently. There is no noticeable pause before the next inhalation.
According to yogic tradition, each phase affects the health and functioning of the body. Inhalation stimulates the respiratory system and fills the lungs with fresh air; holding the breath raises the internal temperature and plays an important part in increasing the absorption of oxygen; exhalation causes the diaphragm to return to the original position; and air full of toxins and impurities is forced out by the contraction of the muscles used in respiration. The effect of inhaling, holding, and expiring massages the chest, back, and abdominal muscles and stimulates various organs in the body. This ensures the proper functioning of these organs and the flow of vital energy to all body systems (Savananda, 2006). Pranayama techniques have been shown to be effective in treating stress-related disorders and inducing a relaxed state (Blonna, 2012).
Instructions for Retained Pranayama
- Find a quiet place away from others to practice.
- Minimize distractions by closing doors and turning off the radio, television, and phone.
- Sit on a chair with your back straight, head up.
- Visualize a picture of your lungs.
- Slowly breathe in through your nose.
- As you breathe in, push your stomach forward.
- Let your ribs expand and your shoulders rise as the air fills your lungs completely from the bottom up.
- Count the number of seconds it takes to fill your lungs comfortably.
- Breathe in and out for four more breaths to remember the number of seconds it takes you to comfortably fill your lungs.
- On the fifth breath hold your breath for four times the number of seconds it took to fill your lungs. For example, if it took 5 seconds to inhale, you would then hold your breath for 20 seconds.
- Slowly exhale and without any noticeable pause take another breath.
- On the fifth breath hold your breath for four times the number of seconds it took to fill your lungs. When you exhale take half of that amount of time to empty your lungs. For example, if it took 5 seconds to inhale, you would hold your breath for 20 seconds and then exhale for 10 seconds.
- Continue to breathe this way for an additional 5 breaths, remembering to use the 1:4:2 ratio of inhaling, holding, and exhaling.
In time, with regular practice, this type of breathing will increase your lung capacity and stimulate the muscles and organs in your torso. In addition to relaxing you, it will promote other beneficial health-enhancing effects.
Until the next time remember to Stress Less and Live More.
Blonna, R. (2012). Coping With Stress in a Changing World, 5th Edition. McGraw-Hill Publishing, NYC, NY.
Posadzki, P. & Sheetal Parekh, S. (2009). Yoga and physiotherapy: A speculative review and conceptual synthesis. Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine , 15(1), pp. 66–72.
Sivananda, S., Swami. (2006). The science of pranayama . Shivanandanagar Dist., India: Yoga-Vendata Forest Academy Press.
Dr Rich Blonna is an expert in understanding how the mind and body work together in creating and managing stress. He is the author of several stress self-help books and courses and the popular college textbook, Coping With Stress in a Changing World 5th Ed; McGraw-Hill Publishing. He is a semi-retired Professor Emeritus from William Paterson University in NJ.