What is Pranayama? Characteristics and Techniques

El Pranayama es una de las prácticas básicas del yoga y consiste en el control respiratorio.

Although yoga is usually related (and sometimes even reduced) only to postures or asanas, the truth is that there are a large number of yogic practices, among which is Pranayama.

Pranayama is the practice of respiratory regulation and control. The term comes from the Sanskrit:“prana“, which means “vital force” or “vital energy“, and “ayama“, which means “control” or “extension“. So Pranayama essentially consists of a series of breathing techniques designed to control the flow of prana through the body.

In this article we will delve into this ancient practice and discuss all the necessary details so that you can have a foundation on the different techniques and know the benefits derived from the practice of breath control.

What is Prana?

In the spiritual traditions of India, prana is considered to be the essential energy or vital breath that permeates everything in the universe, both material and non-material. It is analogous to concepts found in other cultures and traditions, such as“qi” or“chi” in the Chinese tradition,“ki” in the Japanese, and “spirit” or “vital breath” in many Western mystical traditions.

It is considered to be the primordial energy that gives life and movement to everything in the universe. It is both the source of life and the bridge between the physical body and the more subtle dimensions of our being, hence its importance in yoga. It is believed to enter the body primarily through the breath, but also through food and the sun.

In the subtle anatomy of yoga, prana is said to flow through energetic channels called “nadis“. The points where various nadis intersect form the energy centers known as “chakras“. Yogis, through practices such as Pranayama, seek to control and regulate the flow of prana within their bodies to achieve higher states of consciousness, improve health and increase longevity. In the philosophy of Ayurveda, a proper balance of prana is considered essential for health. Imbalances in prana flow can contribute to diseases and disorders.

Phases of Pranayama Practice

In order to practice Pranayama properly, it is essential that we know each of the phases into which the breathing process is divided. This will allow us to understand later the different techniques of respiratory control that are usually used:

Puraka (Inhalation)

The first phase of Pranayama is“Puraka” or inhalation. In this phase, we inhale air, actively filling our lungs. It is the beginning of the respiratory cycle and the phase in which oxygen enters the body. The inhalation can be deep and slow, or fast and rhythmic, depending on the specific Pranayama technique being practiced. This phase represents the absorption of prana or vital energy, revitalizing and energizing the body.

Antar Kumbhaka (Holding with air)

After inhalation, in many Pranayama practices, there follows a breath holding phase called “Antar Kumbhaka“. In this phase we hold the breath, closing both the intake and output of air. The aim is not to create a feeling of deprivation, but to allow the prana to be evenly distributed throughout the body. This retention can last from a few seconds to several minutes, depending on the ability of the practitioner and the technique being used. Breath retention strengthens the respiratory system, calms the mind and facilitates concentration within.

Rechaka (Exhalation)

After the breath retention, we continue with “Rechaka“, the exhalation phase. During this phase, we release the air from the lungs, either slowly or in a controlled and rapid manner, depending on the technique we are practicing. This phase helps to eliminate carbon dioxide and other toxins from the body. Also, symbolically, the exhalation represents the release of tensions, worries and negative thoughts, creating a space for new energy and renewed awareness.

Bahya Kumbhaka (Airless Holding)

Not all breath control techniques include this phase, but in those that do,“Bahya Kumbhaka” is the retention of the breath after we have fully exhaled. This emptiness allows for a deep state of introspection and tranquility. By holding without air, the body experiences a feeling of lightness and emptiness, allowing the mind to become more receptive and alert.

Pranayama Techniques

Las técnicas de pranayama son variadas y se adaptan a las necesidades de cada practicante.

Within Pranayama we find different techniques, each of which has its own characteristics, purposes and benefits. We will give a brief overview of each of the main techniques of Pranayama:

Anulom Vilom (Alternate Breathing)

This technique, also known as “alternate nostril breathing“, is a simple but tremendously powerful practice that seeks to harmonize and balance the energies of the body and mind.

It is performed seated in a comfortable posture. The essence of Anulom Vilom is to inhale through one nostril while closing the other nostril with the finger, hold the breath briefly and then exhale through the opposite nostril, repeating the process in reverse.

Within some yogic currents it is said that our body has several energy channels or“nadis“. The two most relevant to Anulom Vilom are Ida and Pingala. Ida is associated with lunar energy, is of a colder, passive nature and is related to the mental and emotional aspect. On the other hand, Pingala is associated with solar energy, is more active, warmer and is linked to the physical and vital aspect of being. These two energies flow through the left and right nostrils, respectively. The practice of Anulom Vilom aims to balance the energetic flow of these two channels.

Ujjayi (Victorious Breathing)

Often referred to as “victorious breathing” or “ocean breathing,” Ujjayi is one of the fundamental techniques of breath control. It is a specialized form of breathing that, through its distinctive sonority and calming rhythm, helps to synchronize movement with the breath. It is a meditation in itself, a way to connect with ourselves and reach states of tranquility.

The distinctive feature of Ujjayi is the whispering sound created by slightly constricting the glottis as we breathe. This sound is similar to the sound we hear when we put a seashell in our ear, or the sound of ocean waves breaking on the shore.

Here are the steps to practice this breathing technique:

  • Start by inhaling and exhaling through your mouth.
  • As you exhale, try to emulate the sound you make when you blow a mirror with your breath.
  • Once you have the correct sound and sensation, close your mouth and try to maintain the same sound, but breathing through your nose.

Bhastrika (Bellows Breathing)

Known as “bellows breathing,” it is named for its resemblance to a bellows used in blacksmithing, which propels air vigorously to stoke the fire. Like this instrument, the Bhastrika technique seeks to enliven the vital energy in the body, generating internal heat and invigorating the mind.

The key to Bhastrika is rapid and vigorous inhalation and exhalation. Each breathing cycle is powerful and is performed using the entire diaphragm and not just the upper chest.

Here is a description of how to perform this technique:

  • Sit in a comfortable posture, with your spine erect and your hands on your knees.
  • Inhale deeply and exhale forcefully and quickly through the nostrils. The inhalation should be equally vigorous and rapid.
  • Make successive cycles of rapid inhalations and exhalations, making sure that the movement comes from the diaphragm.
  • After a series of rapid inhalations and exhalations, take a deep breath and exhale slowly.

Kapalbhati

Also known as“frontal fire breathing,” Kapalbhati seeks to bring clarity and luminosity to the mind through an intense and revitalizing breathing technique characterized by a series of rapid, vigorous exhalations followed by passive inhalations. The focus is on the active exhalation, which is achieved through a rapid and powerful contraction of the abdominal muscles.

To practice Kapalbhati sit in a posture that is comfortable for you, with your back straight and hands on your knees, and follow the steps below:

  • Begin by inhaling in a relaxed manner.
  • Exhale quickly and forcefully, contracting the abdomen. Imagine that you are trying to push the air out of your lungs using the pressure of your diaphragm.
  • Allow the inhalation to occur naturally and passively.
  • Repeat the process of active exhalation and passive inhalation in rapid succession

Brahmari ( Bee Breathing)

The word “Brahmari” comes from Sanskrit and means “bee“. This technique is so named because of the characteristic bee-like buzzing sound produced during its practice. Beyond its distinctive sonority, Brahmari offers a number of benefits ranging from deep relaxation to improved concentration and inner hearing.Its essence lies in the production of a buzzing sound during exhalation. This sound vibration has a direct effect on our nervous system, inducing states of calm and relaxation.

To perform this technique, as in the previous ones, you should adopt a comfortable posture with an upright back and proceed as follows:

  • Close your eyes and bring your awareness inward.
  • Place your thumbs on your ears to close them and your index fingers on your eyebrows. The rest of the fingers can rest gently on the eyes.
  • Take a deep breath in and, as you exhale, produce a buzzing sound like that of a bee. Keep the sound steady and constant.
  • Repeat several times, letting each buzzing sound become longer and deeper.

Sitali and Sitkari (Refreshing Breath)

Sitali and Sitkari are two Pranayama techniques that produce a cooling and calming effect. Sitali is practiced by inhaling through the mouth with the tongue rolled into a tube, and exhaling through the nose. Although Sitkari is similar in many ways to Sitali and produces similar results, the former is especially suited to those who cannot roll their tongue.

Let us proceed first to detail the practice of Sitali. As in all the techniques described, the first step is to use a comfortable posture that allows us to have a straight back:

  • Stick out your tongue and fold it over the sides to form a tube (note: not all people have the genetic ability to do this, and for them there is Sitkari, which we will describe later).
  • Inhale deeply through the tube formed by your tongue. As you inhale, you will feel the cool air passing over your tongue and into your throat, cooling your entire system.
  • Close your mouth and exhale completely through your nose.
  • Repeat this process several times, concentrating on the cooling effect of the inhalation.

For those who cannot perform Sitali or are simply looking for an alternative technique that provides the same results we have Sitkari, which is also distinguished by its characteristic sound and is practiced as follows:

  • Slightly open the mouth, keeping the teeth together. The tongue may rest gently behind the teeth.
  • Inhale air through the teeth, allowing the air to cool the mouth and tongue before entering the lungs.
  • Close your mouth and exhale through your nose.
  • Repeat this process several times, feeling the coolness each time you inhale.

Although both techniques are harmless, it is necessary to take into account a series of precautions if we are thinking of including them in our practice as there are some contraindications:

  • It is not recommended to practice Sitali and Sitkari in cold climates as the cold air can irritate the respiratory tract.
  • People with breathing related illnesses, such as asthma or colds, should proceed with caution or avoid this technique.
  • Make sure you are in a clean place while practicing, as you will be inhaling directly through the mouth and the mouth, unlike the nose, lacks filters that help prevent the entry of external agents.

What are the recommended postures to practice Pranayama?

Posturas recomendadas para la práctica del Pranayama o control respiratorio.

There are a number of specific postures that are especially recommended for the practice of Pranayama as they help to keep the spine erect and facilitate deep breathing and concentration. In addition to choosing a posture that allows us to keep our back straight, it is necessary that it is comfortable. Add to this that practicing in a quiet place is an important aspect to take into account. Without further ado, we will describe the most appropriate postures to perform the techniques of Pranayama:

  • Sukhasana (Easy posture): It is a simple posture. We cross our legs and sit with our back straight. The hands can rest on the knees. This posture is suitable for beginners.
  • Padmasana (Lotus Pose): In this posture, we cross our legs so that the feet rest on opposite thighs. This is a traditional posture for both meditation and Pranayama.
  • Siddhasana (Perfected Pose): Similar to Padmasana, but with one foot placed at the base of the perineum and the other foot in front of it. It is especially recommended for meditative and Pranayama practices.
  • Vajrasana (Lightning Pose): This is the only yoga posture that is recommended after eating, as it aids in digestion. We simply sit on our heels with our back straight.
  • Swastikasana (Auspicious Pose): In this asana, the legs are crossed similarly to Sukhasana, but the feet are placed between the calf and thigh of the opposite leg.
  • Ardha Padmasana (Half Lotus): This is a gentler version of Padmasana. One leg is bent and the foot is placed on the opposite thigh, while the other leg is bent normally.
  • Virasana (Hero’s Pose): We sit between the heels with the hips resting on the floor or on a folded blanket if necessary.
  • Dandasana (Staff Pose): A beginner’s posture in which we sit with our legs extended forward and together, hands at our sides and back erect.

Benefits of Pranayama

La práctica continuada del Pranayama tiene múltiples beneficios para la salud mental y física.

If you’ve gotten this far you’re probably thinking; okay, this is all well and good, but what are the benefits of practicing these breathing techniques? And although we always stress that the utilitarian mentality is not suitable for yoga (because the results are not immediate), here are some of the benefits derived from the continued practice of Pranayama, supported by both science and thousands of years of practice:

Emotional stability and stress reduction

The most obvious and quickest benefit people experience when practicing Pranayama is calmness on a mental level and reduced stress levels. The connection between the mind and the breath is profound; by controlling and regulating our breath, we can access a state of mental calm. Many people find that practicing pranayama regularly helps manage anxiety, depression and other emotional disorders.

Improved concentration

When practiced regularly, it helps improve the ability to concentrate. This is because, by focusing on the breath, we are training our mind to concentrate on a single task, which helps improve mental clarity and the ability to focus.

Strengthening the respiratory system

Just like any other system in the body, the respiratory system also needs to be exercised. Pranayama strengthens and purifies it, improving lung capacity and efficiency in oxygen absorption. This can be especially beneficial for athletes and those seeking to improve their physical endurance, and even for people suffering from some type of respiratory deficiency.

Improved circulatory system

When we breathe in a deep and controlled manner we help to improve our blood circulation, facilitating an adequate supply of oxygen and nutrients to all the cells of our body.

Balance of the nervous system

In the yogic tradition it is often expressed that the breath is the bridge between the body and the mind. Breathing control has a direct effect on the nervous system, balancing both the sympathetic nervous system (which activates us) and the parasympathetic nervous system (which relaxes us). This helps to keep us in a state of balance, where we are neither too excited nor too relaxed.

Detoxification of the body

Breathing deeply helps in the expulsion of toxins and other waste from the body. By exhaling completely, we are helping the body release carbon dioxide and other wastes.

Increased energy and vitality

Continued practice of breath control can lead to increased energy and vitality. By improving the efficiency of the respiratory and circulatory systems, and balancing the nervous system, the body can function more optimally, giving us a feeling of increased energy and vitality.

Promotes self-control

It’s not just about breathing, Pranayama is about controlling and regulating that breathing. Through this practice, we learn self-control, not only of our breathing, but also of our reactions and emotions.

Strengthening the immune system

Reducing stress and balancing the nervous system naturally results in strengthening our immune system, making us less susceptible to disease.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top