Pranayama Guide: Science and Benefits of Breathwork
By: Steph Ball-Mitchell, E-RYT-500, RPYT, RCYT, YACEP
Imagine waking up in a room bathed in soft sunlight. A warm golden glow filters in through the open windows by the east end of your bed and casts tinted shadows upon your bedsheets and face. You smile, your body in tune with the energies kindling within and the life force emanating from nature around you. This feeling of “being” exists because you are a vessel of constant energies. Not only you, me, or other human beings, everything that makes this world a living, breathing whole is made up of subtle energies. The core of all energies lies in one root, the prana.
Prana is a system of energy pulsing through our bodies via an interconnected network of channels. Also known as nadis, these channels connect the body to the mind and therefore act as the conduits through which our prana flows within and radiates on the outside. The world experiences our prana because of this balance of interactions and connections. Historically, there are more than three thousand years worth of references to prana, transcending spiritual customs across different cultures. Prana constitutes the mainstay of eastern traditions and religions, particularly Hinduism, which emphasizes its relevance through Tantric Yoga and Hatha Yoga traditions. References to this kind of energy can also be found in the Roman concept of anima, the Islamic tradition of Ruh, and the Chinese principle of Chi.
We could look at prana as respiration, but a more holistic way of seeing it would be to visualize it as a spiritual energy, the spirit innate to each one of us and bears a power of its own. This spirit has nothing to do with our material skins. It will endear irrespective of the winds of time. Some traditions recognize up to ten kinds of prana, covering inward, outward, upward, and downward energy flows. There is also the tradition of relating the presence of specific energy to particular parts of the body, such as the heart, stomach, head, and throat.
The philosophy ensconcing the concept of prana is old as time and natural as mother Nature. All of us have a physical shape. In tandem with this shape, we also have an energy body that is subtle in itself. This subtle energy body is our aura. It is what distinguishes one person from the next. For instance, when someone lively and happy walks into a room, we often say, “they’ve got the energy of a golden retriever!” That’s a reference to someone who is sunny, adorable, happy-go-lucky, and loyal. We may not even know the person before we pass this evaluation— it is all because of the energy radiating from them and touching upon us. When we say, “she just lights up the room,” it is, once more, the energy of the person we speak of and praise.
Therefore, prana is the energy flowing through our bodies. Using breathwork and breathing techniques is essential, not because breathwork is synonymous with pranayama, but because the former is a means to increase the vitality of the latter. Eastern medical practitioners of ages beyond discerned that pranayama incorporating safe and intentional breath modification practices could work wonders for human health. There is so much chaos and darkness around us. This beautiful practice, of which “Yama” stands for control, aims to bring peace via specific breathing techniques that energize and rejuvenate the body's organs and functions. Its revitalizing powers can improve cardiovascular function, strengthen metabolism and gut mechanisms, and enhance the activity of the channels that circulate blood to and from the brain.
What is the science here? Well, on a cellular level, we need oxygen-rich blood to create energy. The blood bears this oxygen via hemoglobin or dissolved into plasma. Plasma helps transport nutrients, proteins, and hormones to different body parts depending on need. Pranayama incorporates deep breathing practices that illuminate the activities and strength in the lower part of the lungs, which in turn helps with oxygen absorption. We learn to use breathing techniques that emphasize long, slow breaths. Our inhalations and exhalations become pronounced and intentional, helping us achieve more oxygen levels. When we breathe too quickly, we are not utilizing the total functional capacity of our lungs, which causes stale air to accumulate and compromise the oxygen flow within our bodies.
Naturally, the benefits of pranayama are far and manifold. The most obvious and impactful use of pranayama is that it can help you alleviate stress. In this post-pandemic world, where so many of us have gone through so much, we could all use a minute just to tune inward. I speak of this from a level of personal learning. My daughter could not attend her prom because of the necessity of surviving when the world was in the wake of a human health crisis. I watched my child miss out on milestones we all learn to expect growing up.
We have dreams about the perfect dress, the dances, the night that we’re supposed to remember forever until it doesn’t happen. COVID-19 did more than disrupt a physical level— it left millions dealing with depression, stress, anxiety, and a sense of profound loss. At a time when so much felt uncertain, breathwork was one of the primary things that helped my family stay grounded.
Pranayama is a method in which you regulate the timing, length, and frequency of each breath and hold to strengthen the connection between your body and mind. Pranayama helps maintain asanas (physical posture) and dhyana (meditation) in yoga. The benefits of pranayama go beyond yoga because easy, slow breathing can leave us feeling holistically well and mindful for longer than a session lasts. It's fascinating to think that while you cultivate breathing, your body receives the advantages of a higher oxygen concentration and eliminating waste products. Here are some of the beautiful benefits of Pranayama.
Pranayama calms the nervous system and improves our stress response. It helps you feel more refreshed afterward by cooling your body, relaxing your muscles, and managing your mind.
The next benefit of Pranayama is the beauty of sleep. Pranayama techniques slow down breathing and heart rate. They help calm your system and bring your attention to the present moment, keeping all worries to the side. They teach you to take comfort and strength in yourself and all you are. Doesn’t that sound like a good recipe for a sound night’s rest?
Pranayama eliminates harmful carbon dioxide and raises oxygen levels, fueling brain cells that help us become more mindful. We learn to focus on the present moment rather than spend too much time or precious energy dwelling on the past or future. This is crucial for improving concentration.
Research has shown that Pranayama is a way to reduce blood pressure, possibly in tandem with its ability to reduce stress and keep us calm and grounded, irrespective of our circumstances and surroundings.
Another benefit of Pranayama is its ability to strengthen lung function, which, as a corollary, can also help stave off viral infections and keep our immunity strong.
Finally, one of the benefits of Pranayama that don’t get spoken of often is its ability to reduce smoking cravings. Research from 2012 demonstrated that even just ten minutes of yogic respiration reduced cigarette cravings.
Although there are many online resources for learning Pranayama and even more distinct Pranayama techniques, we recommend beginning with the fundamentals and cultivating regular practice to experience the full mind-body benefits. That, of course, will equip you to reap the benefits of breathwork. Breathwork has become more hip now, given that so many celebrities, from Beiber to Gwyneth Paltrow, are all swearing by its magical healing abilities. It is intrinsically linked to Pranayama and refers to deep breathing from the belly or diaphragm. Science backs up this practice by stating it can trigger pleasurable relaxation responses. Essentially, you allow your body a chance to reset and recover from the wrinkling impact of stress. The benefits of breathwork are all centered around helping your body heal from tension.
It's safe to say that almost everyone has experienced some degree of stress or sadness in contemporary times. Breathwork is a risk-free method of confronting and overcoming anxiety, worry, sadness, despair, and rage. It's common knowledge that the way we breathe reflects our emotional state. Long, deep breaths that begin in the belly may help us feel peaceful, focused, grounded, and energetic in the same way that short, shallow breaths can make us feel agitated and exhausted. The parasympathetic nervous system is activated with deep breathing, removing us from the "fight or flight" response (the sympathetic nervous system). As the parasympathetic nervous system gets stimulated, your heart rate and blood pressure naturally decrease, resulting in a profound sense of peace and lessened stress and worry.
The physical benefits of breathwork include the following:
A balance of blood pressure.
PTSD and trauma healing.
Better immunity, and
Stronger immune function.
This isn’t all, of course! There are emotional benefits of breathwork too! These include:
Contentment and a feeling of profound happiness.
Better mental clarity.
Fewer feelings of anxiety and depression.
Lesser proclivity toward addictive behaviors.
A sense of internal healing.
The rise of a desire to enjoy life.
In breathwork and Pranayama, we learn to breathe with our entire being, creating a life-changing experience of being profoundly present and self-aware. You give yourself the gift of going within, where there is no time-bound limit or restriction upon your heightened self-awareness. In this expanded state, your brainwaves get room to enter a dreamlike world where you are wholly present, free of all ties to what came before and what may come in the future. Happiness and joy wash over you, and there is a shift in consciousness because you, dear friend, have become boundless.
There is a beautiful word in Bengali, which was also the name of the protagonist of the book The Namesake. Ashima. The literal translation I can give is “to exist without boundaries.” When you learn breathwork as part of Pranayama, you will know what it feels like to be Ashima. There will be nothing between you and complete, utter, golden, warm contentment.
Of course, you could take this further and earn a breathwork certification. This will enable you to learn more about the magic and craft of this ancient practice and enlighten the world around you about it. Breathwork certification necessitates taking a few courses that will guide and heal you while also preparing you to do the same for others. Individual and group sessions with a trained facilitator are available for anyone curious about trying breathwork. One may also consider obtaining breathwork certification via various training programs, seminars, and events to get the authority to lead people in breathwork sessions.
Suppose you are interested in learning more about breathwork or becoming a teacher. In that case, there are courses accessible to you, among which, I highly recommend you join us in our Pranayama Teacher Training, where we take you through the central nervous system and its ties to breathwork techniques. You’ll learn about the ancient wisdom behind the practice and how you can lock vital energies (bandha) within your system. Plus, there are over thirty Pranayama videos to get you started on your own journey! It should be nothing short of beautiful, impactful, and revelational.