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  • Writer's pictureDipti Bendigeri

Why pranayama is integral and fundamental to yoga practice and how it influences our energetics!!

Breath awareness yields rich information about the conditions of the body and the mind, and has long been a mainstay in various philosophical traditions, especially in India. Pranayamas, breath regulation techniques, are primarily concerned with the process of breathing; they allow us to regulate and control the movement of respiratory musculature to be able to access more from each of our breaths. With consistent practice, we develop the ability to utilize these techniques effectively, helping us efficiently improve our respiratory fitness.

For instance, if you were to take a moment to focus on how you feel and the quality of your breath, you will see close connections between the two -- if you are anxious, you will find your breaths rapid, short and shallow; if you are feeling sad or low, you would sigh using longer exhalations; whereas if you are excited, you inhale deeply. Developing this awareness is the key -- our breath is intimately connected to our state of mind and by learning to skillfully manipulate and regulate our breathing, we can change the state of our mind, how we feel in the moment, and effectively change our lives by allowing us to better manage the external stressors.

It is said that the main goal of an integrated Hatha Yoga practice, which includes Pranayama, Asanas, and Meditation,is to make our body a fit vehicle, allowing continuous movement and flow of breath carrying life force energy (prana), and directing it and our attention to different parts of the body. Breathing is the main form of pranic activity in the body; this inner, innate energy powers our body and mind. At the same time, breathing is one of the physiological functions that is under our conscious control, and so it serves as a doorway into our physiology. Breathing is, basically, a rhythmic act produced by networks of neurons in the brainstem (medulla and pons); recent scientific advances have led to identification of the specific brain areas that are responsible for this, primarily the pre-Botzinger complex. This neuronal network is critical to generate and coordinate multiple respiratory rhythmic patterns as well as breathing cessation, ultimately governing the respiratory musculature to regulate the breathing. This same network of neurons also helps with cardiovascular and temperature regulation allowing the activity of these physiological systems to be coordinated by respiration.

Breath regulation techniques like pranayama influence our energetics, i.e., our autonomic nervous system (ANS), which controls physiological processes of our body. With appropriate breath adaptation (both through asanas and formal pranayama), we can achieve a balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions of the ANS. Similarly, it further helps set and influence Vagal tone, which is correlated with the capacity to regulate stress responses. Higher vagal tone reflects our body’s resilience, and helps our body better regulate several physiological processes and mitigation of mood and anxiety symptoms.

Pranayamas are profound practices and have a vast scope, and by mastering the different types of pranayamas, we can steadily improve our respiratory fitness. Each pranayama technique has its characteristic energetic effect; however, it is not just about which practices we choose, but also how we do them (by varying certain characteristics or through breath adaptations), that leads to slightly different outcomes. For example, using pranayama, we can arouse or calm energy to produce inner heat or cooling, or we can direct it for the restoration of health (psycho-physiological balance) and for longevity. With consistent breath-centric comprehensive yoga practice, we can reprogram our body at neuromuscular level by transforming stress-induced postural changes and dysfunctional movement patterns, giving us the opportunity to willfully restore our internal equilibrium, better manage our emotions, and boost our overall resilience and well-being.

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