Behind the Breath - Why we practice pranayama
Updated: Sep 7, 2019
By: Sarah Smith
I remember being introduced to a special type of breathing in one of my first yoga classes. “Engage your ujjayi breathing,” my instructor said, “inhaling and exhaling through your nostrils, with a slight constriction at the back of your throat”. You’ve probably heard something similar in a Highland Yoga class before. And regardless of the time of day you’re on your mat, those breath cues tune you in to one of the most life-sustaining functions of your body. Isn't it interesting, how something that is so vital to life is something that is so easily taken for granted?
There are a lot of different patterns of breathing with different benefits to each, and the connection lies in the way breath can stimulate the nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is the pathway of signals that regulates largely unconscious functions of the body - like breathing, digestion, and heart rate. Two branches of the autonomic nervous system are the sympathetic nervous system, most commonly referred to as the “fight or flight” response, and the parasympathetic nervous system, or “rest and digest” response. At a basic physiological level, when we inhale we stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, while exhaling engages the parasympathetic nervous system. Engaging these branches of the nervous system equally are crucial for maintaining a healthy stress response.
But what is it about breathing that's so connected to practice? And what about the intentionality of breathwork connects us to our body and spirit in a deeper way?
Breath - in Sanskrit, Pranayama - is the fourth of the eight limbs of yoga, the path towards enlightenment. Most scholars of the practice recommend developing an asana (pose) practice prior to diving deeper into intensive breathing practices because, as you can imagine, engaging in a breathwork that fires up the fight-or-flight response could be distressing to a person’s body. However, the benefits of actively pursuing breathwork that can engage the parasympathetic nervous system - that rest and digest function - can be very beneficial to the body, especially when that body is under any type of emotional or physical stress.
Let’s deep dive into a couple of types of breathing you may hear the most in a yoga class at Highland Yoga.
Ujjayi Pranayama, as mentioned briefly above, is the breath through the nose with a slight constriction in the throat. This causes increased vibrations in the throat, creating a soft sound. Creating this sound brings awareness to the breath, and the rhythm of the sound calms the nerves, engaging the parasympathetic response.
Vritti Pranayama means fluctuating breath. Sama-Vritti Pranayama, or balanced breathing, requires a yogi to inhale and exhale for equal amounts of time. Vishama-Vritti Pranayama is an unequal fluctuation. Inhaling for a longer count than your exhale will engage the fight or flight response and elevate the heart rate. Exhaling for a longer count will engage the rest and digest response, lower the heart rate, and bring more of a sense of calm.
With the overworked culture that we live in, yoga practice provides the benefit of intentionally connecting back to the breath. We have the chance on our mat to slow back down, and engage the parasympathetic response with the way that we breathe during our practice. Over time, this can start to create some resilience to stress, which is so important in our modern, fast-paced world. Part of the benefit of balancing physical practice with breathwork is that while the physical practice can bring tension and discomfort, the breathwork communicates safety to the body. I like to imagine our breathing sending out little messages of love to cells all over, saying “Hey! You’re okay! You’re safe, even though this feels tense and uncomfortable.”
So the next time you’re on your mat at Highland Yoga, and asked to draw attention to your breath, try doing so with the awareness that you’re communicating safety to your body and your practice. Take a deep breath in the knowledge that this practice provides so much benefit to your whole body, and take a very long exhale of gratitude for all that your body - and breath - does daily for you.