While most yoga routines utilize many of the same poses and share similar goals, such as inner calmness and increased strength, pranayama yoga is one school of yoga that has slightly unique properties. Here we look at what makes pranayama special and what it can do for your body.
Pranayama = Breath
Pranayama is a Sanskrit compound word, meaning "breathe" and "cessation." Pranayama yoga concentrates on breath control. Almost all forms of yoga contain the concept of mindful breathing, but in pranayama yoga, breathing is the main focus. Its advocates believe that most people only use a fraction of their lung power unless they are skilled in pranayama. The pranayama school teaches students to be mindful of the three stages of breathing: puraka (inhalation), kumbhaka (retention, or hold the breath), and rechaka, which is exhalation. The more complete your control of your breathing, the easier it will be to perform other aspects of yoga, including challenging poses. Pranayama supporters believe mastering these stages of breathing can increase nearly every aspect of your mental and physical health.
Some practitioners of pranayama yoga believe is can cure almost anything. Benefits claimed include stronger memory functions, curing asthma, cooling the body temperature in hot weather, and elevating physical beauty. While these side effects of controlled breathing have not been proven, other effects have. Deep breathing does raise the oxygen level in your red blood cells. This can have many physical benefits. The more oxygen you give your body (up to a certain amount) the more energy you have. Increased oxygen consumption can help you achieve better physical performance in your day to day life and in your exercise routines. It can lead to stronger muscles, a higher metabolism, and a clearer mind.
Pranayama can also provide a psychological benefit when used correctly. Mindful breathing is a component of almost all forms of meditation, and pranayama is one of the more intense mindful breathing programs. Studies have shown that people who add meditative deep breathing to their daily schedule have less stress than those who do not. A relaxed body is less likely to become a victim of physical strains and even illness. A peaceful mind is better able to hand daily stresses and setbacks than a completely frazzled one. Pranayama yoga can help combat all these mental aches through increased oxygen and muscle relaxation.
Take it Slow
Pranayama is more than just deep breathing. At an advanced level, the breathing techniques used in pranayama can be complicated enough to be dangerous to a beginner. Part of the program is learning to hold your breathe and not give in to the immediate desire in inhale or exhale. Most advocates of pranayama do not recommend trying the process without a teacher nearby to guide you. Some exercises can't be attempted if you have any pre-existing medical conditions, particularly distresses in your heart or respiratory system. Be sure to consult a doctor before attempting pranayama yoga, and make sure your instructor knows of any health concerns you might have.
Though some aspects of mindful breathing are usually found in all schools of yoga, pranayama yoga focuses most deeply on the breathing process. Once mastered, it helps you perform yoga with increased control and ease.