With the support of yogic breathing you can make small changes that lead to big ones. One breath at a time. Learn more about how the yogic practice of pranayama can work as an alternative method to cultivate well-being!
The health benefits of pranayama
Psychological distress and mental health difficulties
According to the World Health Organisation, mental health difficulties are a global issue. Studies conducted in the U.K., the U.S and in the Nordic countries, demonstrate that mental health difficulties and sources of psychological distress such as depression, anxiety and chronic stress are on the rise.
Adolescents and young adults seem to be suffering the most from these disorders, with suicide being the second leading cause of death in those aged 15-29. This matter needs to be taken seriously and acted upon. One way of doing this is to offer people in need the appropriate support through a variety of channels such as the national health care system, therapy work, community support groups, educational sources and self-care practices.
In recent years, alternative complementary therapies have been increasingly employed with people who are living with mental health difficulties. An example of this has been the integration of psychosomatic techniques such as yoga, dance and mindfulness meditation into therapy programmes, with the aim of improving people’s well-being. Studies show that people who are living with psychological difficulties can, in an attempt to support their healing process, draw from practices like yoga and mindfulness meditation to help improve their well-being. Furthermore, the findings of a ground-breaking journal article published in 2015 showed that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is equally effective as antidepressants in the prevention of depressive relapse.
With yoga- and mindfulness-based therapies as our central focus, this article will introduce the yogic practice of pranayama as an alternative method to cultivate well-being, and will discuss its potential health benefits for a person’s overall health.
What is pranayama?
Without breath, we cannot live. The flow of breath regulates the movement of the life force i.e. prana in our bodies; our breath thus keeps us alive and vibrant. According to yoga philosophy, prana brings movement to the mind and by altering the flow of prana, we can alter the state of our mind. In part 1 of this article series, I discussed how the breath functions and how one can establish more free and harmonious breathing. Pranayama is different in that it does not refer to our natural breathing. Rather, it refers to particular breathing exercises whereby you consciously alter your natural breathing pattern in a controlled manner. Pranayama can thus be used as a tool to regulate prana and is described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali as follows:
- Pranayama is the conscious, deliberate regulation of the breath, replacing unconscious patterns of breathing (2.49).
- The regular practice of pranayama reduces the obstacles that inhibit clear perception.
And the mind is now prepared for the process of direction toward a chosen goal (2.53).
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (Desikashar, 1995: 181-182)
Dos and don’ts when practicing pranayama
Pranayama can have a strong effect on the body and mind. Therefore, all breathing exercises should be practiced purposefully and carefully. I recommend that you practice pranayama with the guidance of an experienced teacher. Best is to practice on an empty stomach. Avoid drinking caffeinated drinks before or after the practice. Make sure to include a couple of minutes of supine rest after practicing pranayama, to relax your nervous system.
Each breathing exercise has a certain effect on the body and mind. The effect will differ from person to person. Some pranayamas are more challenging than others, as they can involve breath retention and quicker inhalations, and exhalations. Deep fast breathing, and/or holding the breath for a long time can be triggering for some people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, or have experienced panic attacks or psychosis in the past. Therefore, pranayama should be practiced with great care.
If you experience discomfort, dizziness, or a lack of breath, stop immediately and return to your own natural breath. Less is more when practicing pranayama. If you live with a medical condition of some kind, then make sure you consult your doctor before trying these exercises.
Exploring the practice of pranayama
Pranayama is an experiential practice. For the purposes of this article, I will introduce two basic pranayama exercises that are suitable for both beginners, as well as advanced students. I will include a brief instruction video and describe the benefits associated with each exercise.
Brahmari – the humming bee breath
This exercise is appropriate for beginners, as there is no breath retention, alternation between nostrils, or counting of breaths. The practitioner goes at their own pace. The sound makes it easier to give the practitioner something to focus on and they can further assess their breathing more easily by evaluating the quality and evenness of the sound.
Instruction video, for free:
Benefits: Brahmari changes your normal breathing rhythm by shortening the inhalation and prolonging the exhalation through the “hmmm” sound. This can have a significant impact on our physiological system. Research demonstrates that brahmari can help decrease heart rate and lower blood pressure. It is also associated with enhanced cognitive control and response inhibition. Brahmari can help to balance the autonomic nervous system, and induce the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps us to calm down. It can be practiced for mental relaxation and stress reduction.
Nadi Shodana – alternate nostril breathing
Alternate nostril breathing is a gentle exercise for the beginner, as well as the advanced student. Clear the nostrils before starting the exercise to ensure good airflow. The synchronisation of hand movements with the breath can be confusing at first. Give it a bit of time and practice to master.
Instruction video, for free:
Benefits: This exercise has shown to have a balancing effect on the activity of the two cerebral hemispheres, providing a more balanced state of mind and an improved attention span. Additionally, nadi shodana has shown to increase the amplitude of P300 – a brain wave that concerns cognitive function in decision making processes, helps one to discriminate between different stimuli, and affects attention and memory.
Our P300 is affected by our emotions and can decline in amplitude if we experience emotional distress. Alternate nostril breathing can reduce autonomic arousal and lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure rates, as well as increase one’s vital capacity, which improves overall wellbeing. With lower levels of arousals and anxiety, one can assume that this supports participants in feeling more relaxed, thus also increasing the amplitude of P300. Therefore, alternate nostril breathing helps one to concentrate better and to improve one’s performance in tasks requiring attention.
Contribute to your own healing and well-being
Our body has an innate capacity to heal and re-balance itself. Through the support of yogic breathing, conducted in a safe and responsible way, we can consciously contribute to this healing through our own initiative. Follow these videos on a daily basis and take note of how they make you feel. Small changes can lead to big ones. One breath at a time.
A social mission as well as an individual one
I wish to acknowledge that supporting the healing of people living with mental illness is a societal mission, as well as an individual commitment. It is not sufficient to put the sole responsibility on the person who is suffering, expecting them to be able to deal with their mental health difficulties by themselves.
Mental illness is a social issue that needs to be addressed not only by the individual person, but also within larger social structures, such as workplaces, schools, social and natural environments, social media, and so forth. Yoga can be a great tool to support us in coping with different stressors, and to help us improve our immune system. However, it alone is not a panacea for the characterisation and treatment of mental illness. Rather, we must work together to develop more comprehensive and tailor-made interventions for each individual, whilst addressing the roots of mental distress, which lie in an unequal social system, and its corresponding stigmas.
- Exploring the breath – part 1, by Eleonora Ramsby Herrera.
- Learn more about Pranayma through the online course The Art of Breathing!
- Prāṇa - does it really exist? by Simon Krohn.
- WHO, 2018
- Mental Health Foundation UK, 2018
- American Psychological Association, 2019
- Nordic Council of Ministries, 2018
- Pilkington et al. 2005
- Van der Kolk, 2015
- Van der Kolk et al. 2014: Rhodes, 2015: Price et al. 2017
- Kuyken et al. 2015
- Kuppusamy et al. 2018
- Telles, Singh, & Puthige, 2013
- Singh, Gaurav, & Parkash, 2011