Does Pranayama Breathing reduce stress?

Pedro Gracia

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January is one of the most depressing months of the year and this one will be no exception! It’s cold, dark, and rainy, perhaps some struggle financially, others are forced to diet after the Christmas feast or begin their “Dry January “ challenge and many more are back to the reality of work (or not). To top it off, most of us will be confined at home for the next few months. So this is the perfect time to focus on taking care of yourself and to regain control of your thoughts amongst all this negativity. To achieve this I have begun with one of the most basic and essential tools we have always at hand, for free, 24/7 … our breath, and in particular the practice of Pranayama breathing. So,” Does Pranayama Breathing reduce stress?”

Does Pranayama breathing reduce stress?
Does Pranayama Breathing reduce stress?

 The answer to this very important question lies in this blog, where you will discover what pranayama breathing is, how it can decrease the effects of stress on the body, and increase overall physical and mental health. Finally, we will explain 5 of the most popular pranayama breathing techniques so you can practise them all by yourself.

What is pranayama breathing?

Pranayama breathing techniques are thought to have come into existence around the same time as yoga and meditation – in India, around 5000 BC.

In Sanskrit (the classical language of India), the word “ prana “ means life force and “Ayama means extending. Thus, the word “pranayama” translates to the control of life force, or more loosely, control of breath. 

Breathing is something we do on a daily basis. Strangely or not, life starts as a newborn baby by taking a huge inhale (along with copious amounts of crying) and ends in a deep and long exhale. Breathing is living, it is a vital function of life as every cell in our body needs oxygen to function properly.

The way we breathe controls everything, our nervous system via the vagus nerve, our cardiovascular, respiratory and digestive system. Pranayama refers to a variety of breathing exercises that are known to reduce stress, improve sleep, help digestion, cool you down, as well as clear the physical and emotional obstacles in our body to free the flow of “prana” or life force.

The benefits of pranayama

There is no doubt that Pranayama breathing has a vast array of benefits, and during these pandemic times, the most useful ones are stress relief and immunity boost. Here below is the full list of the pranayama benefits.

Boosts your Immune system:

 First, belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing (this is when your lower belly expands outwardly as you inhale and contracts inwardly when you exhale) offers a light massage to your internal organs and glands. Since about 70 to 80% of your immune tissue is situated in your digestive tract, breathwork can improve the body’s immune response.  This light internal massage, in turn, helps move lymph (fluid containing white blood cells) throughout the body. Second, breath retention significantly increases our count of white blood cells, which are the first line of defence for infections and viruses. 

White cells help your immune system
White cells help your immune system fight viruses!

Does Pranayama breathing reduce stress?

Our typical response to stress is shallow and rapid breathing and an increased heart rate. On the other hand, Pranayama breathing tends to engage our parasympathetic nervous system in order to make our body more relaxed, slow down our breathing and reduce our heart rate.

When breathing deep and slow in a controlled manner, we activate our vagus nerve and consequently increases our GABA  production, the neurotransmitter that helps us unwind.

Increases lung function and capacity

A 2019 study determined that 6 weeks of practising pranayama for 1 hour a day could have a significant effect on lung function. Breath control improves lung function and capacity for healthy individuals and can also be used as a lung strengthening tool for those with asthma, chronic bronchitis or recovering from pneumonia.

Improves Digestive function:

Our head-brain (100 billion neurons) and our gut-brain (200 to 600 billion neurons) are in constant communication with each other via the nervous system. When something’s going wrong in our gut, like IBS, diarrhoea or hyperacidity there seems to be a  breakdown in communication between the 2 brains. Studies show that regular pranayama breathing has a calming and soothing effect on the entire digestive system and helps re-establish harmony and communication with the brain.

Improves Cardiovascular health:

Stress is a major risk factor for high blood pressure. It increases the risk for some potentially serious health conditions like heart disease and stroke.

Pranayama can help minimize this risk by promoting relaxation.

When you concentrate on deep, slow breathing, it can help calm your nervous system. This, in turn, may help reduce your stress response and risk of hypertension and has some immediate and positive effects on your heart rate and blood pressure.

Improves Sleep quality:

Being stressed before bedtime is a recipe for disaster when it comes to sleeping. As we have seen before when we’re stressed, we take short, shallow breaths and our heart rate increases rapidly.  On the other hand, deep slow and controlled breathing slows our heart rate and relaxes our mind. This improves sleep quality, decreases snoring, sleep apnea and combats insomnia.

Sleep like an Angel
Sleep like an Angel and feel like one too!!!

Pranayama breathing Helps with Skincare:

When we hold our breath, some oxygen supplies are forced into our skin cells. This increases blood supply and improves skin appearance and prevents premature ageing like wrinkles and sunspots. 

Find here a few studies on the benefits of Pranayama!

The effect of pranayama on test anxiety and test performance

Exploring the Therapeutic Benefits of Pranayama (Yogic Breathing): A Systematic Review

Effects of Yoga Respiratory Practice (Bhastrika pranayama) on Anxiety, Affect, and Brain Functional Connectivity and Activity: A Randomized Controlled Trial

Does Pranayama breathing reduce stress? Find out here!

There are many Pranayama breathing exercises, and they all have their own unique benefits. I have chosen to explain 5 of the most widely used, so you too can practise them on your own, and possibly try to incorporate them in your daily routine. 

1. Kumbhaka or “Full Breath Retention”

This is my number one as it is an immune system booster.

“Full breath retention” presents a multitude of benefits, like increased lung capacity, brain tissue regeneration and reduced inflammation. Most importantly, though, it increases oxygen and CO2 levels in our bodies, nourishing our white blood cells to fight off infection and virus. I personally do this before going to sleep, as I find it does relax me as well.

How to do it:

Sit or lie down comfortably for 10 to 15 mins per day.

Begin following a 1-1-2 pattern. For example, inhale for 5, hold for 5, exhale for 10

With practice, begin to increase the retention for a ratio of 1-2-2 or 1-3-2. It will become easier to inhale for 5, hold for 10, exhale for 10. Increase to inhaling for 5, holding for 15, exhaling for 10, and so on

2. Kapalabhati Pranayama

Kapalabhati means skull shining breath. Kapalabhati is believed to help clear mucus in the air passages, relieve congestion, reduce bloating, and improve lung capacity. Kapalabhati is an invigorating breath that can build heat in the body. It is best done in the morning if you are feeling cold, sluggish, congested or bloated.

How to do it: 

Sit (cross-legged or on your knees), resting your hands on your thighs

To begin, inhale and exhale fully

Then, inhale halfway and begin forcefully exhaling in short bursts

Place a hand on your belly to feel contraction and expansion

Continue for 20-30 intervals before breathing in fully, retaining the breath for as long as you can, and finally, exhaling

Repeat cycles for 10 to 15 minutes (daily!), finishing with an exhalation through the left nostril

Pranayama breathing
Feel that connection with nature and your life force!

3. Nadhi Sodhana aka Anuloma Viloma

Widely known as ‘alternate nostril breathing’, this pranayama helps to bring balance to the three doshas of the human experience: the mind, body and soul. This is a very relaxed, balancing breath that is used to help calm the nervous system and aid in a restful night’s sleep. By increasing the amount of oxygen taken into the body,  Nadhi sodhana, is believed to purify the blood, calm the mind, reduce stress, and promote concentration. Ideal before bed or when trying to calm down.

 How to do it:

Sit, with crossed legs or on your knees, or lie comfortably

Bring your right thumb to your right nostril and your ring and pinky fingers to your left. Your index and middle fingers can rest on the bridge of your nose or fold down toward your thumb.

Exhale completely

Using your fingers, press on the right nostril and inhale through the left.

Exhale through the left, close the nostril, and inhale through the right

Exhale through the right to complete one cycle.

Repeat for 10-12 cycles

4. Ujjayi Pranayama

Ujjayi means victorious breath; it’s also referred to as ocean breath due to the sound it creates. Ujjayi encourages the full expansion of the lungs, and, by focusing your attention on your breath, it can assist in calming the mind. This is the most common breath used during yoga sessions. Research has shown that Ujjayi Pranayamas can help to reduce anxiety and maybe a potential alternative treatment for both stress and PTSD. This breath can be practised for up to 10 minutes at any time of day. 

How to do it:

 Find a place where you can sit comfortably with a straight spine. 

Take a steady breath in through both nostrils. Inhale until you reach your lung capacity; maintain a tall spine.

 Hold your breath for a second, then constrict some of the breath at the back of your throat, as if you were about to whisper a secret, and exhale slowly through both nostrils. 

This exhalation will sound like an ocean wave or a gentle rush of air. You should feel the air on the roof of your mouth as you exhale. Repeat up to 20 times.

5. Sitali Pranayama

Sitali also means cooling, which explains the effect it can have on your mind and body. This breath encourages clearing heat with coolness. It’s especially helpful during summer and in hot climates. I use this pranayama breathing a lot during our summer as temperatures in Mallorca are usually high. But not now, believe it or not, we have some snow in the mountains, so I don’t need cooling down.

How to do it: 

  • Sit in a comfortable, cross-legged position
  • Take a few deep inhales and exhales to prepare
  • Roll your tongue in an O shape, sticking it out through your pursed lips
  • Slowly inhale through the mouth
  • Hold your breath 
  • Exhale through your nostrils after some time
  • Repeat until you have reached between 8 and 15 cycles

Helpful Tips for Getting Started

  • You be the judge. If you feel any discomfort or light-headedness, stop immediately and return to normal breathing. Consult an instructor for guidance and supervision.
  • Never force or restrict your breath. Don’t compromise the quality of the breath. Do the best that you can. The more you practice, the longer you’ll be able to perform the exercises, and eventually, you’ll be able to use more of your lung capacity.
  • Patience and practice. Pranayama should be done with great care and awareness. Try to stay focused on the journey, not the destination! Over time, you will start to notice the benefits of the practice.
  • Precautions. If you are pregnant or suffer from diabetes, high or low blood pressure, heart conditions, epilepsy, or vertigo, please consult your health care provider before performing any of these breathing exercises. Practise them in a safe environment, where you can sit comfortably.

Is pranayama breathing your solution to stress_
Pranayama breathing!

What are the different types of pranayama?

Types Of Pranayama breathing

  • Quiet Breathing.
  • Deep Breathing.
  • Fast Breathing.
  • Tribandha and Pranayama.
  • Nadi Shuddhi Pranayama or Anuloma – Viloma (Alternate nostril breathing – I)
  • Anuloma – Viloma (Alternate Nostril Breathing – II)
  • Suryan Bhedan Pranayama (Right Nostril Breathing)
  • Ujjayi Pranayama.

How does pranayama breathing work in the body?

The goal of pranayama is to strengthen the connection between your body and mind. According to research, pranayama can promote relaxation and mindfulness. It’s also proven to support multiple aspects of physical health, including lung function, blood pressure, and brain function.

Can I do pranayama before sleeping?

Pranayamas help in activating the parasympathetic nervous system & have a relaxing effect on the body. Before going to bed try out these pranayamas, ensure you have a light dinner and a gap of at least two hours before you perform them.

Does Pranayama breathing reduce stress!

Breathing exercises that help alleviate stress

Explains Mansi, “Pranayama is effective in alleviating stress by having our body breathe in more oxygen. There are multiple variations and each one helps cool the mind and alleviate stress. Both anxiety and depression can be cured doing pranayama regularly.

Can pranayama be done lying down?

No. There are some strict rules about Pranayama and not following them cause more harm than any benefits. … When you lay down, all the muscle mass on the front surface your body will bring pressure on all the organs used in Pranayama process which will not allow the proper movement of lungs, abdomen etc.

Which pranayama is good for anxiety?

Ujjayi Pranayama – It is a recommended Pranayama for depression, anxiety and stress. Ujjayi Pranayama is also beneficial for calming and soothing the nervous system.

My conclusion

Does Pranayama breathing reduce stress? My answer is definitely YES.So many people think that “ Breathing is just breathing”….right! Well, they are wrong! Breathing is a lot more than that! And that’s what I discovered after my first pranayama breathing sessions 15 years ago. Since then I believe that the practice of various breathing exercises is essential to our health, vitality and longevity. Now I see it as a gift and a very powerful tool that can enable us to create more ease and balance in our lives. So now more than ever and especially if you are on lockdown, I invite you to take some time to focus on your breath. Because when we focus on the breath we can return to a neutral state of being, gain clarity, feel rejuvenated, and enhance an overall sense of well-being. 

Take care my friends, and see you next week.

Smart Living To 100

DISCLAIMER; The material on this post is for informational purposes only. As each individual situation is unique, you should use proper discretion, in consultation with a health care practitioner, before undertaking the protocols, diet, exercises, techniques, training methods, or otherwise described herein. The author and publisher expressly disclaim responsibility for any adverse effects that may result from the use or application of the information contained herein.  No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinicians.

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2 Replies to “Does Pranayama Breathing reduce stress?”

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