Thousands of years ago, medical practitioners from the East made a remarkable discovery. They noticed that consciously manipulating the breath could have profound effects on their physical, mental, and spiritual states. This led to the creation of pranayama: ancient yogic breathing techniques that promoted the flow of life force energy, known as prana, in the body.
Today, research continues to uncover the incredible benefits of pranayama, validating the truth our ancestors knew all those years ago. From slowing down aging to boosting self awareness and reducing stress, yoga breathwork has the power to enhance our everyday lives in more ways than we thought imaginable.
Read on to discover proven pranayama benefits and daily breathing techniques you can practice for a healthier and longer life.
What Is Pranayama Breathing?
Meaning life force expansion, Pranayama is an umbrella term often used to describe yogic breathing techniques.
Not to be confused with breathing exercises, pranayama refers to specific techniques that use retention with bandhas (energy locks) to purify our energy channels (nadis) and improve the body’s capacity to retain and increase prana.
This ancient practice typically involves complex breathing techniques that are designed to consciously manipulate the breath, like Ujjayi Pranayama or Nadi Shodhana Pranayama. By regulating the breath in this way, pranayama techniques can improve cardiovascular functioning, blood circulation to the brain, and metabolic and endocrine activities.
On a spiritual level, we practice pranayama breathing in yoga and meditation to reach deeper states of relaxation and self-awareness. It’s also an effective tool for stimulating the energy system and balancing the 7 chakras.
How Does Pranayama Breathing Affect the Body?
The body needs oxygen-rich blood to function and create energy. Oxygen is carried through the blood in two ways:
1: Oxygen attaching to haemoglobin (protein inside red blood cells)
2: Oxygen dissolving in the body’s plasma (liquid portion of blood)
Research shows that pranayama deep breathing exercises that focus on the lower part of the lungs maximize the absorption of oxygen. When we practice a breathwork technique that slows down our breathing, we take longer and fewer inhalations. This helps us get more oxygen into our bodies.
Here’s how it works:
- Oxygen moves from the lungs to the blood via the process known as diffusion.
- In the lungs, oxygen enters tiny air sacs called alveoli.
- Oxygen moves from the alveoli to the blood through tiny blood vessels called capillaries.
- Once in the bloodstream, oxygen attaches to a protein called hemoglobin in red blood cells.
- The oxygenated blood then flows back to the heart.
- The heart pumps this oxygen-rich blood through the arteries to deliver it to every cell in the body and brain.
Through pranayama, we are able to increase lung capacity and the levels of oxygenated blood in the body, which is vital for brain function, immunity and energy release.
As a result, pranayama breathing is one of many yogic practices that alleviate stress and anxiety, helping you better manage daily triggers and improve your mental health.
Research shows that breathwork techniques that focus on longer exhalations than inhalations, or a breathing exercise that brings down your breath count per minute, can calm the nervous system and relieve stress.
Pranayama Benefits Backed By Science
The ancient practice of pranayama breathing has gained widespread attention in recent years, and for good reason. Scientific research is increasingly validating the benefits of pranayama, with studies showcasing its profound impact on both the mind and body. Here are some of the top pranayama benefits according to science:
Improves Bodily Functions
Maintaining the proper balance of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the body is essential for several bodily processes. Imbalances can impact blood pressure, heart rate, airway passages, energy levels, the nervous system, as well as our ability to relax or focus.
During pranayama we focus on:
- using breathing exercises to slow down breathing;
- applying nasal breathwork techniques rather than mouth breathing;
- breathing abdominally rather than thoracically; and
- increasing exhalation in comparison to the inhalation.
This conditions the body to absorb and process higher levels of CO2 in the blood. The higher the CO2 tolerance of the body, the more oxygen can be released for repair and energy. The result is increased blood flow and improved oxygenation of the heart and the brain.
This process is called the Bohr effect. It encourages oxygen transportation via haemoglobin. The Bohr effect is very important for optimal bodily functions. It causes the muscles and tissues to release more oxygen when CO2 levels increase. This helps deliver oxygen to tissue such as skeletal muscle, where it is needed most during metabolic processes.
Promotes Intermittent Hypoxia
When the body doesn't get enough fresh air, it can enter a state of respiratory depression called hypoventilation. This means there is an unhealthy imbalance of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the body. If not addressed, hypoventilation can lead to a condition called hypoxia, where certain parts of the body don't receive enough oxygen.
However, specific breath retention techniques in pranayama like Bahaya Pranayama, also known as Nisshesha Rechaka Kumbhaka, hold the breath temporarily. This creates a state called "intermittent hypoxia", where there are short periods of lower-than-normal oxygen levels and slightly higher-than-normal carbon dioxide levels in the blood.
Using pranayama to initiate intermittent hypoxia can offer numerous benefits, including:
- Hypoxia has been shown to increase haemoglobin levels
- It can induce the enzyme nitric oxide which has various roles in tissues. It is a defence mechanism against oxidative damage. The more nitric oxide we have, the more protection our tissues have
- Hypoxia has been shown to increase the resistance of tissues to various injuries, including radiation injuries and aging
- It can induce what is referred to as the “Guardian of the genome”, which has a protective role in DNA damage
This state has been shown to improve memory, reduce inflammation, lower cholesterol and blood pressure, and strengthen the immune system.
As a caution, it is important that if you suffer from any respiratory issues please consult your doctor before practicing any pranayama breathwork techniques.
Receive guided pranayama practices for more clarity & energy with master teacher Ram Jain for free
Pranayama benefits your mental well-being, too. Recent studies show that both slow and fast pranayama breathing techniques can reduce perceived stress.
By focusing on controlled breathing patterns, pranayama techniques like Nadishodhana and Kapalabhati stimulate the vagus nerve, an important nerve involved in regulating the parasympathetic nervous system. When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, it triggers the body's rest and digestion response, resulting in a slower heart rate, relaxed muscles, and a sense of calm.
Additionally, the rhythmic nature of pranayama breathing induces a sense of mindfulness and present-moment awareness, diverting attention away from stressors and promoting a sense of inner calm and tranquillity. Bhramari Pranayama has also been shown to have a positive impact on people suffering from anxiety, depression, and insomnia.
Try it for yourself with these 3 yogic breathing exercises for calm and relaxation.
Slows Down Aging
According to the ancient Tantric scriptures of Shiva Swarodaya and Gyan Swarodaya, the longevity of a human being is by the number of breaths, not years. By slowing down our breathing rate we can conserve our energy, increase our vitality and longevity.
Scientists somewhat agree, with research showing that yoga, meditation, and pranayama can positively impact cellular aging. One of the markers analysed is the reactive oxygen species (ROS): natural substances that play important roles in cell survival, cell death, and cell differentiation. The study shows that certain yoga poses and pranayama exercises can reduce the harmful build-up of ROS and prevent damage caused by oxidative stress.
Another study considered the role of telomeres in aging, which are compound structures at the end of a chromosome. The findings suggest that adopting a yoga and meditation practice, including pranayama, may lengthen these structures, helping maintain genomic integrity and improve our overall health and well-being.
Boosts Respiratory Functions
When performed consistently and correctly, pranayama benefits respiratory functions and can even alleviate asthma symptoms.
In one study, researchers conducted an 8-week yoga program for middle-aged individuals who were previously inactive but healthy. The results showed improvements in both respiratory and physical functions. Pranayama also helped enhance the strength and flexibility of the muscles involved in inhaling.
Furthermore, breathwork exercises for asthma that focus on exhalation activate the parasympathetic nervous system and strengthen vagal tone, promoting calm and helping practitioners better manage asthma attacks.
Daily Pranayama Breathing Techniques for a Longer & Healthier Life
It’s clear that pranayama breathing offers benefits beyond just relaxation and spiritual awareness. Through daily practice of breathing techniques, we can boost bodily functions and even increase our number of days on this earth.
If you’d like to experience the incredible benefits of pranayama, join me and Kalyani Hauswirth Jain in this guided pranayama practice. Find a comfortable and quiet place to sit and follow along as we walk you through daily breathing exercises for a healthier and longer life. These techniques include:
1. Abdominal Breathing
2. Full (Deep) Yogic Breathing
4. Anuloma Viloma
5. Bahaya Pranayama
7. Bhramari Pranayama
These simple exercises can be incorporated into your daily routine and are suitable for anyone, from complete beginners to advanced practitioners. However, practitioners who are pregnant or have hypertension should take care when practicing Kapalbhati and Bahaya Pranayama or avoid completely.
Science is catching up to an ancient truth. There is ample evidence that yoga and pranayama benefits our physical health and mental well-being, and even slows down the process of aging on a cellular level.
Now more than ever, the research on the holistic benefits of pranayama and yoga are coming to the fore in a significant way. By practicing these ancient techniques, we can enhance the functioning of the brain and body and bring balance to our well-being.
Receive guided pranayama practices for more clarity & energy with master teacher Ram Jain for free