In this article you will get a thorough introduction into the benefits of establishing a breathing / pranayama practice. You will learn how a regular practice of working with your breath can help you to manage better daily stress, feel calmer and happier, be less reactive and more emotionally balanced, strengthen your immune system, give you more vitality, and release unease and tensions in your body.
Based on my over-15-years of daily breathing practice, I will answer the most common questions and you will leave with an understanding of the most important aspects, benefits, and effects.
At the end I will also show you how to get started today, and provide resources so you can start developing the power of your breath savely, quickly and with support of an experienced teacher.
Ready? Let’s dive in and start with the basics:
We are breathing 24/7. It keeps us alive. Our breath is one of, if not the most important, functions to sustain us - without it, our body dies within minutes. That’s why our body does it completely autonomously. But not only that - our body will adjust the breathing rate and volume according to the particular needs of each moment. And those needs vary depending on how we move, how we feel, what we think and what kind of environment (positive or negative, save or dangerous) we perceive.
Yet we can change the way we breathe with our will. And with the change of breath, we also affect all the other functions in our body.
That’s where the power of a breathing practice lies as we can consciously affect the autonomic processes in our body - not directly but through the intermediary that is our breath.
In fact, breathing practices can be so powerful that yogis call it pranayama, which can be translated as the extension of life force (prana= life force, ayama= extension).
Let me use an analogy here: you do take care of your teeth - you do it every day diligently. It might not always feel „necessary“ but you do it anyway. It immediately makes you feel refreshed, but even more importantly, it preserves your teeth and your long term health.
Pranayama is taking care of our health on a cellular level. It’s a cleansing and energizing practice that reaches every cell in our body. And I believe that in 100 years it will be, what tooth brushing is to us today - a standard practice that we teach kids from an early age on.
And not only does it affect every cell in our body. A breathing practice works on various levels - some gross, some rather subtle:
To give you a detailed idea of the various benefits of pranayama, let me distinguish between effects you feel immediately, and long term effects.
No matter whether you use breathing exercises to start your day the right way or use them to „realign“ throughout the day, they can be part of your natural pharmacy and wellness package that is always available to you, wherever you are.
When you sit down for 5 minutes and just focus on your breath, you are not only working your breathing muscles, you are shutting off the world around you, turning your mind inward. Simply by taking our focus out of the constant stimulation cycle that we are exposed to all day long, we relax.
The deep breathing immediately shifts the chemical balance in our lungs, blood stream and cells towards more favorable ratios. Long exhalations trigger a prompt relaxation response that affects the way our heart works. Our cells get an extra dose of oxygen transported to them.
While you breathe, you automatically adjust your posture, so any misalignment, rounded or sunk-in spine gets „fixed“. This realignment releases unnecessary loads on your tissues, and also gives you the confidence and brightness that comes from being upright, with your chest open and full, and your core stable and supported.
Furthermore, only five to ten minutes of breathing consciously might also help alleviate certain kinds of tension pain (including certain kinds of headaches) - like taking a painkiller pill, but without the side effects.
So to sum up: the right kind of breathing practice gives you energy, releases stress and relaxes you - instantly. It’s like a power bar that you eat (without the calories) or the coffee - but without giving you the jitters.
As you form a habit of regular breathing practice, you change the way you breathe and interact with your environment throughout your whole day, every day, and even how you breathe during your sleep. That means that by having a 10-minute breathing practice every day, you eventually change the way you unconsciously take your 17.000 to 30.000 breaths per day. This is how such a simple practice can be so powerful and have such amazing effects on your overall health.
Some of the long-term effects are:
As you develop your breathing practice, you slow down your breathing, exhaling longer, and eventually introduce breath holds. This way, you teach your body to stay calm and relaxed with higher levels of carbon dioxide. This way your body can stay calmer and breath less throughout the day while enjoying better CO2-saturation in your cells and increased bloodflow to all vital organs. Your body will function much more efficiently in any activity you engage in.
Please note that I am not implying that you should „force“ yourself to breathe less to get higher CO2 levels in your body. Rather, the mechanism explained here is highlightling how a breathing practice will naturally shift the way your body functions over time.
What we consider physical Practice (Asana), Breathing practice (pranayama) and meditation practice all contain elements of each other:
A physical Yoga practice is done with a strong focus on breath-aligned movements and a focal point to keep the mind fixed internally - hence it’s a moving meditation, and a breathing practice in movement.
A practice that would be considered a stand-alone breathing practice is done while sitting in a physical posture with the body well-aligned and relaxed. Again the meditative aspect is contained in the practice as we are fixing the mind on one thing - our breath.
And a practice that would be primarily considered meditation might just advise you to breathe calmly or to focus on your breath, and you still have to be able to keep sitting quietly in a well-aligned physical posture. Again all three elements are there - just what is considered the main element varies.
The question is: Are you ready to do less - meaning can you embrace a practice of simply being present?
When I started with yoga, the idea of just sitting seemed extremely unattractive. If it hadn’t been for a strong, demanding and kinda crazy putting-my-body-in-weird-shapes practice like Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, I never would have started practicing Yoga. The breathing and meditative aspects were introduced once I was hooked on the practice. Then the longer I practiced, the more I felt the importance of the more subtle aspects, like breathing and being present. And it took years until I was ready to cultivate a stand-alone sitting practice - just breathing and meditating.
Now that I know well the benefits that I experienced when I started adding a separate pranayama practice, I encourage students to start with a breathing (and meditation) practice as soon as possible. But I do understand everyone who wants to stay focused on their moving practice as well. I myself still love my demanding and empowering Ashtanga practice alongside my sitting practices.
I just wanna give you 3 simple but important bullet points, that make establishing a breathing practice so easy to implement for you:
It’s a simple rhythm of
4-second inhalation - 4-second pause - 4-second exhalation - 4-second pause.
It’s super basic. Yet the simple practice of counting your breath and pausing after each inhalation and each exhalation makes you extremely aware of your breath. This is all we want at the beginning.
When you have done this exercise a couple of times, notice how you feel afterwards and start to notice, with which parts of your upper body you use to create each breath (abdominals, ribs, chest, shouldergirdle etc.).
In this article I will show you three simple, quick and very effective practices to keep you bright, healthy and functional on all levels on a daily basis. At the end you will find a link to a 7 Minuted guided practice video.
You also have the option to keep learning in 2 follow-up workshops in April and July.
Click here to learn about the Pranayama-Course. It includes 3 One-Day-Workshops (plus a 4th one just for teachers). You can book them individually. After each workshop, you can develop your practice at home and come in once a week, so we can check your practice and give you personal guidance. Apply by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org
If you have any questions, write us an email or join us at GaiaYoga for one of our classes. We love to answer your questions in person at the shala.