What is Pranayama?
Updated: Mar 18
If you're venturing into the world of yoga for the first time, there are probably a lot of terms and jargon that you've never seen before. A lot of the language that is used when speaking about yoga comes from Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language.
But don't worry! This kind of language can be broken down and explained pretty easily. For instance, if you've started looking into yoga, you've probably seen the word Pranayama pop up.
To put it simply, Pranayama is the practice of breath regulation. The root word, Prana, means breath, life force, or energy. The second part, Yama, means restraint or control.
The breathing techniques of Pranayama are often combined with other aspects of yoga. The Asana (the physical poses or posture used in yoga) is its most common partner. But even if you choose not to use Asana positions, Pranayama can be used by itself as a calming and centering breathing exercise.
Benefits of Pranayama
Improved Relaxation and Meditation
Your body is programmed to react to stressful environments and situations by speeding up your breathing to increase your heart rate and blood flow. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing because it’s your body’s way of protecting you. But this natural, and sometimes necessary, response can increase your stress and levels of worry.
Pregnancy and parenthood are times of huge emotional upheaval. You've got a lot of new things to juggle, whether it be your changing body, physical pain, mood swings, a baby that can't get to sleep, or a thousand other little worries that make up the life of a new parent.
Pranayama isn't a miracle cure for this transition - however, it is something that can help ease the process and give you some time to calm down and focus on what you need.
When you recognize yourself becoming worried or overwhelmed, it can be hugely beneficial to practice some calming breathing techniques to help yourself relax. If you focus on your breathing, and only your breathing, there just isn't enough room in your mind for everything else.
When you combine this with the practice of meditation, you'll be able to manage your stress and think about your situation more clearly. There's a reason that breathing techniques are a huge part of overcoming stress and emotional meltdowns. Calming your breathing helps you to calm your emotions.
Mental, Physical, and Emotional Wellness
It’s a well established pattern now that physical activity almost always leads to better mental and emotional health. Intense workouts can be difficult in the time before, during, and after pregnancy, so yoga is a wonderful way for new mothers to take care of themselves and maintain good health in all areas.
Pranayama is essential to most yoga practices and it’s one of the major reasons why it works so well. Now of course, everyone has different preferences and needs when it comes to their physical fitness, and it’s definitely not wrong to do other exercises apart from yoga!
However, yoga does offer some unique benefits that other types of exercise don’t have. For instance, there was a study performed by the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine that compared the mental health of 2 groups of people. Everyone was assigned into either yoga groups or walking groups that met 3 times a week for 12 weeks.
At the end of the study, the yoga group measured in with better results in the form of decreased anxiety and improved moods.
One major thing that yoga offers that other types of exercise don’t is the practice of Pranayama. This breathing exercise is very centering and can help bring your mind, body, and emotions into harmony with each other. The fact that it’s easy to learn, and widely applicable can also make it attractive to people who want convenient ways to maintain their health.
Motherhood is full of new and unfamiliar situations. It's easy to feel overwhelmed and lost in the sea of opinions and conflicting information. When everyone you meet is teaching you different parenting methods and no two books or studies seem to be in complete agreement, it's no wonder that as new mothers we can feel unsure of ourselves.
This is why Pranayama can become a great base practice for your pregnancy and transition into motherhood. It is a simple and empowering way to gain a new level of confidence in your life. Once you've tried a few different methods and found the ones that help you to relax, you'll be able to apply them in the future without worrying about what others might think.
If you've tested and tried something for yourself, you can know if it's helpful to you. Even though it might be scary at first, you can usually trust your own judgement when it comes to what is best for your body.
Once you have these habits in place, they can also guide you in future situations that are stressful and uncertain. The process of labor and childbirth relies heavily on the implementation of steady, calming breathing techniques. If you've already established a Pranayama practice, you'll feel more prepared to deal with situations like this.
Common Pranayama Techniques
Each of the following Pranayama are simple and common breathing techniques that can be applied pretty much whenever and wherever you need them. There are more methods that the 4 listed below, but these are some that are easy to learn.
Nadi Sodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing)
Nadi Sodhana is designed to help you clear your sinuses and improve the flow of energy in your body. It emphasizes the soothing, cleansing aspect of breathing by helping you breathe through both sides of your nose. This practice is especially useful for new moms; it has an very calming and relaxing effect on the mind.
Begin by sitting on a comfortable surface in a cross-legged position
Use the thumb of your right hand to press firmly on your right nostril, closing it off entirely
Inhale deeply through the left nostril, letting your lungs fill completely
Exhale and release your right nostril
Close off the left nostril with the thumb of your left hand
Inhale and exhale deeply through the right nostril
Continue to alternate between the right and left sides for 10-15 minutes
Dirga Pranayama (Three Part Breathing)
Dirga Pranayama helps you become adjusted to using your full lung capacity by completely filling and emptying your lungs. It can help you get adjusted to using mindful breathing techniques and is a great way to get warmed up for exercise or yoga.
Begin by lying on your back on a flat, comfortable surface. Depending on which is more comfortable, you can stretch your legs out or bend them with the soles of your feet flat against the floor
Close your eyes and breathe naturally for a minute or two, letting your body relax
You can now begin step 1: Breathing with the belly
Begin to inhale and exhale through your nose, breathing slowly and deeply
On each inhale, focus the air to your stomach, letting it fill fully like a balloon
Exhale through your nose, letting as much air leave you as possible
Repeat this process about 5 times
You can now begin step 2: Breathing with the belly and rib cage
Continue to inhale through your nose, filling your belly fully with air
Once it is full, focus on directing air to your ribcage, expanding it as well
Exhale through your nose, letting the ribcage contract, followed by the belly
Repeat this process for about 5 times
You can now begin step 3: Breathing with the entire torso
Take deep breaths through the nose, filling the belly, then the rib cage
Once those are full, inhale a bit more air into your upper chest, letting the area around your heart rise up
Exhale from the upper chest first, then the ribs, then the belly
Continue breathing in this form until the three areas flow together easily
Repeat this process about 10 times
Sinhasana (Lion's Breath)
Sinhasana is a breathing technique that is good for venting emotions, relieving stress, and releasing tension in the muscles of the face and body. This is a great Pranayama to use if you're feeling angry, frustrated, or overly emotional.
Begin by kneeling on a comfortable surface with your buttocks resting on your ankles. You can also cross your ankles over each other if that is more comfortable for you
Rest your hands on your knees with your arms and fingers fully extended
Inhale deeply through your nose
Exhale forcefully through your mouth, opening your mouth widely and letting the air rush out in a "ha" sound
Some people also like to stick their tongue out as far as possible toward their chin (This is optional though)
Inhale deeply through your nose again, closing your mouth and returning to a neutral position
Repeat the process 4-6 times
Shitali Pranayama (Cooling Breath)
The Shitali Pranayama is a good technique to use when you're feeling overheated - both emotionally or physically. If you’re feeling angry or frustrated, this is a fantastic practice! This practice is especially useful for women who are pregnant - we can get very warm while we are pregnant, and this can help us cool down.
Begin by sitting cross legged on a comfortable surface. Relax your shoulders and align your chin so that it's parallel with the floor.
Take 2-3 normal breaths to stabilize yourself and relax
Roll your tongue to create a folded tube shape and stick your tongue out (If you can't roll your tongue, just purse your lips into a small 'O' shape and keep your tongue flat to the bottom of your mouth)
Inhale slowly through your mouth, letting the air fill your chest and then your stomach
Close your mouth and slowly breath out through your nose
Repeat the process 5-10 times, or as long as it takes to cool down a bit!
Here and Now Motherhood is proud to incorporate Pranayama breathing techniques into our yoga courses.
If you'd like to learn more or begin to practice this for yourself, join our mom-centered yoga classes. Join us for prenatal (or postpartum) yoga! Visit our website for time and location. Free childcare is always included and you can visit our location at 207 N Boone Street, Suite 23, Johnson City TN or sign up for a class here.