Pranayama is one of the Eight Limbs of Yoga and is the practice of clearing energy channels within the body through breath.
There are several different types that you can do as a way to connect your body, mind and spirit…and can help to create clarity, calm and focus within the mind.
They can be used anywhere and allow your focus to return to your breath, which is very calming for anxiety symptoms as well as nervousness and fog in the head.
Though you do not need to be a yogi to practise mindful and therapeutic Pranayama, I mention this because there must be some truth to the relaxation and mindfulness that it brings, if yogis and monks utilise this strategy alike.
In regards to anxiety and depression, how can Pranayama be helpful?
Deep and slow breathing can reduce our stress and anxiety by expanding our diaphragm and chests. This activates our parasympathetic nervous system instead of our active and stimulated sympathetic nervous system, which is our survival system.
If you think of symptoms of anxiety and insomnia, which is often coupled with shallow breaths in the chest, incessantly racing thoughts and mind, being able to activate our parasympathetic nervous system can be so calming and grounding.
From an Ayurvedic yoga perspective, understanding the concepts of the elements can help see why it can be so helpful!
Ayurveda’s fundamental principle is that everything in life is made up of the 5 basic elements;
air, space, fire, water and earth
In a stressful and ‘hustle-bustle’ life that we live in, or after we give birth, our vata dosha or energy system becomes imbalanced, and there is an excess of air and space elements within our system. This presents with symptoms of too much movement; enter insomnia, anxiety and restlessness.
Therefore, the principle of like increases like in Ayurveda, would mean that adding the opposite elements of fire and earth will help to bring about balance within this disrupted system.
Different Pranayamas exert different effects within the system, so choosing ones that bring in heat and grounding will calm our aggravated nervous systems and help restore balance into our system! (I hope that made sense!)
Some examples of vata dosha pacifying or calming Pranayamas include;
NADI SHODHANA OR ALTERNATE NOSTRIL BREATHING
+ Place your right thumb on your right nostril, your index and middle finger on your third eye point in between your eyebrows and your ring finger on your left nostril.
+ Close your eyes and keep your thumb closing your right nostril as you breathe in through your left nostril, then exhale by closing your left nostril with your ring finger and breathing out through your right nostril.
+ Then keeping your left nostril closed, breathe in through the right nostril and keep alternating breath like this as many times that feel good for you.
It will bring clarity, oxygen into the mind and body as well as grounding and a heating aspect.
I enjoy doing this if I feel very overwhelmed, stressed, in my anger or ‘fight-or-flight’ mode and need to calm down to be more centred and present. I could do it at home or in the car or before a big meeting.
It does not need to be a ‘big’ event or planned session, it is quiet and quick and no fan-fare needs to surround its practice!
BHASTRIKA OR BELLOWS BREATH
– (Not to be used if pregnant or on a full stomach. Sit with straight spine and stabilised core)
+ This is very uplifting and can enhance energy and improve focus if feeling sluggish. It requires a forceful inhalation and forceful exhalation from deep within the diaphragm and the nose.
+ Forceful inhalation in with diaphragm pushing out and then forceful exhalation through the nose with the diaphragm pulling in towards the spine.
+ Repeat as many times that feel good while creating an uplifting feeling within you.
I enjoy this one in the morning to fill my body with Prana or life-force energy and makes me feel more alert and awake!
If doing Pranayamas feels foreign or overwhelming, then I would be a huge advocate for being the observer of your breath;
Be observant of your breath and whether it is shallow, constricted within the chest and if you are ‘holding it’ to some extent; usually if you are feeling stressed and busy.
Then, stop and pause.
Re-set, by taking deep…big…belly centred breaths…as many as you need to feel more calm and at peace.
You could check in with your breathing at set-times throughout the day, or you can be mindful of how you are breathing throughout the day and when you catch yourself with constricted breath, then make conscious and mindful shifts in how you are breathing.
It tells us a lot about how you are feeling; our body and mind are so deeply intertwined.
I remember in the depths of my post-natal depression, with my anxiety, insomnia through-the-roof; I would describe myself as feeling like I could not breathe, like I was being suffocated, drowning in thick quick-sand and an ocean all at the same time…Suffice to say, it was awful!
Panic attacks quite often bring on hyperventilation, through the activation of this sympathetic nervous system and feeling ‘in danger’ and under ‘threat’. It is just doing its job.
Focusing on breathing with counting to 5, holding for 5 and breathing out for 5, is one of the strategies during a panic attack; to help restore our ‘normalised’ breathing and also to distract our incessantly racing mind.
Without sufficient oxygen to our brain and organs, we will feel spaced out, mentally un-clear, dizzy and it can be very scary and sometimes dangerous depending on where you are when it happens.
There is so much power in our breath and whilst it is a simple strategy to observe and be conscious of how we are breathing, the benefits that it brings to our nervous system and body is necessary during pregnancy, post-partum and in our daily lives that have become so ‘busy’ where we have become human ‘do-ings’ and less human ‘be-ings’.
Coming back to our subsconcious messages that our body is showing us, will allow us to live with more with observation and making subtle shifts like how we breathe in order to make a cumulative difference in how we feel.