Chapter 3: Relaxation
Prāṇāyāma is a Sanskrit word alternatively translated as “extension of the prāṇa (breath or life force)” or “breath control.” The word is composed from two Sanskrit words: prana meaning life force (noted particularly as the breath), and either yama (to restrain or control the prana, implying a set of breathing techniques where the breath is intentionally altered in order to produce specific results) or the negative form ayāma, meaning to extend or draw out (as in extension of the life force). It is a yogic discipline with origins in ancient India.
Several researchers have reported that pranayama techniques are beneficial in treating a range of stress-related disorders. A Cochrane systematic review on the symptomatic relief of asthma by breathing exercises did not find a statistically significant improvement but did find that there was a statistically significant increase in the dose of histamine needed to provoke a 20% reduction in FEV1 (PD20) during pranayama breathing but not with the placebo device.
Authoritative texts on Yoga state that, in order to avoid injuries and unwanted side effects, pranayama should only be undertaken when one has a firmly established yoga practice and then only under the guidance of an experienced Guru. Although relatively safe, Hatha Yoga is not risk free. Sensible precautions can usefully be taken such as beginners should avoid advanced moves if they have any physical health related issue. It can get dangerous if someone is trying to pose tough exercise which requires extreme flexibility and good shapes of bones. Hatha Yoga should not be combined with psychoactive drug use, and competitive Hatha Yoga should be avoided. Person should inform the teacher or trainer of their physical limitations and concerns before getting involved themselves for extreme pose positions. Functional limitations should be taken into consideration. Modifications can then be made using props, altering the duration or poses.
According to at least one study, pranayama was the yoga practice leading to most injuries, with four injuries in a study of 76 practitioners. There have been limited reports of adverse effects including haematoma and pneumothorax, though the connections are not always well established.
Most of us think that breathing is an involuntary act and that there is no right or wrong way to do it. But there is, and most of us do it wrong. Pranayama is a yoga breathing exercise that is used to prepare participants for meditation and to help them on their spiritual journey. It teaches us that we should take note of our breathing, and that we should use the full extent of our lungs. Basically it teaches us how to breathe properly.
The Pranayama exercise that yoga beginners tend to learn first is called the Three Part Breath or Dirga Pranayama. In ancient traditions it was thought best to perform the exercise lying down. This way the participants can really feel their breath flowing through their body, but it is not essential to feel the full effects of the exercise. It is called the three part breath because it is performed in three stages, first using the bottom of the lungs, then the middle and lastly the top. This means that the full capacity of the lungs is being used instead of the 20% that most of us scrape by on.
When we are young we naturally breathe this way, deeply and using all of our lungs. But as our lives become stressful due to work, financial pressures and kids our breathing tends to become fast and shallow. This means that our lungs do not fill up with enough oxygen and are therefore unable to distribute the optimum amount around our body. Many health problems ranging from heart disease to sleep disorders may in fact be due to what is known as oxygen starvation. We all know that our body needs oxygen to function properly. Our brain and muscles feed on it making us feel more alert and energized. Our lymphatic system, which is the system that rids the body of toxins, is controlled by the simple motion of breathing deeply.
The great thing about this type of deep Pranayama breathing is that it can be performed almost anywhere. It will help keep your mind calm and clear in any situation and done regularly it can give you an amazing sense of euphoria. This is because deep breathing is our built in defense against stress. It lowers your heart rate and blood pressure while easing muscle tension. So next time life seems to be getting on top of you just stop, take a step back, breathe deeply and try to use your lungs’ full capacity. You will be amazed by the results.