Many of us know from personal experience the calming and balancing effect a yoga class can have on us. I know that many times I might have entered a class feeling out of balance, upset or angry about something that had happened earlier that day, worried about work or something that was going to happen later, or just generally out of sorts. Yet, after a 60- or 90- minute practice I can leave the class feeling more balance and centred. The same can be said about meditation, so I became curious about what it was that was affecting me, and helping to change my state for the better.
Yoga combines a number of elements – in the western practice we mainly include two or three: pranayama (breathwork), asana (physical postures) and maybe meditation. Traditional yoga has eight “limbs”, of which pranayama is one. They are: yama (ethical behaviour), niyama (personal behaviour), asana (physical posture), pranayama (breath regulation), pratyahara (sensory inhibition), dharana (concentration), samadhi (intergration), dhyana (meditation).
In Hatha yoga, as well as my yin and restorative classes, I like to link the breath to moving into, holding and moving out from the postures, as well as starting the class with pranayama. (Breath (and physiology) is one of the eight elements that form the pillars of our holistic programme here at La Crisalida Retreats).
As a yoga teacher and also as a scientist – with a background in epidemiology and health research – I thought I would take a look at the scientific evidence to see what is said about one element, pranayama in yoga and explore its effects on the body. This article briefly covers some of this research.
Pranayama – what is it?
In Sanskrit, the word pranayama can be split into two parts: (1) “prana”, which means “vital life force”, and (2) “yama” which means to control or expand. So, essentially, pranayama means using the breath, in a controlled and specific way, to work with our vital life force.
When you think of breathing, we are encouraged to think about the three elements: inhalation (purak), exhalation (rechak) and the pause in between the inhale and the exhale, or retention (kumbhak). All three parts of the breath can be controlled.
When practicing pranayama in yoga, we can use specific breath techniques (more on this below) to either:
- Calm or
- Harmonise (bring balance)
There are a number of different pranayama techniques that can be included in a yoga class, depending upon the focus of that class. For example:
- Yogic breath – belly breathing. We learn this first and then build upon it with other pranayama.
- Dirga – three-part breathing. Focus on the abdomen, diaphragm and chest. You can read an earlier article here: three part breath, dirga pranayama. It really helps to learn to use the whole of the lungs.
- Ujjayi – sometimes called victorious breath, other times referred to as ocean breath. This is one of the most common breathing techniques practiced, particularly in vinyasa or moving practices.
- Sama Vritti Pranayama – equal breath. The inhalation and exhalation are the same length.
- Bhramari pranayama – buzzing bee breath. We control the breath and make the sound of a buzzing bee. When first learning, focus on making the sound on your exhale only at a low to medium level.
- Kapalabhati – breath of fire. The inhale is natural, the exhale is controlled, including activation and use of the abdomen muscles.
- Bhastrika – bellows breath. This is more intense than kapalabhati.
- Nadhi shodana – alternative nostril breathing. The inhale and exhale are switched between left nostril (with the right nostril blocked) and right nostril for each exhale-inhale round.
- Sheetali (shitali) – cooling breath. The inhale is through a folded tongue and the exhale through the nose.
There are others not listed above.
I like to include pranayama at the start of my class (as I use it as a technique to bring people into the present moment). Many teachers include it at the end, or at the start and finish, depending upon what the practice involves and the outcome the teacher wishes the class to reach. I personally also like to include a focus on breathing during my class, in particular yogic breathing or ujjayi.
Health benefits of pranayama
To explore the scientific evidence for health benefits of pranayama, I used PubMed – this is a search engine that accesses MEDLINE, which is a database of articles published in scientific publications from across the globe. As an epidemiological scientist, I have used this resource a great deal, when writing research papers, and it also includes references to studies on early release, so you can keep up-to-date with the scientific literature.
I searched for systematic review articles that included the word “pranayama” in the title or content. Systematic review articles are scientifically peer-reviewed articles that summarise all of the previous published scientific studies, identified using key words. They use special statistical techniques to combine the results from the studies, so they are more easily able to identify effects of interventions (like pranayama).
In 1965 there were no published studies of any type exploring the health effects of pranayama, two appeared in 1973, then in 2021 there were 48 articles. This shows that the interest in exploring what is often referred to as “alternative health” of pranayama has been low for many years, but in recently years has increased. Although many studies have been quite focused into some areas, for example amongst patients with asthma or other pulmonary (lung) problems, science does seem to be exploring the health benefits of this free and readily available technique for other health conditions.
Some of the key findings that have been shown to be statistically significant (i.e. the results that were found are highly unlikely to have been found by chance alone) are that pranayama:
- reduces hypertension – high blood pressure
- increases parasympathetic activity. The parasympathetic system is the part of us that activates relaxation, which is the time when healing can take place.
- improved psychological and behavioural effects – increased comfort, relaxation, vigour, alertness, reduction in symptoms of anxiety, depression, anger and confusion
- enhanced cognitive control and brain activity
- improved cardio-respiratory functions. For example, in patients with bronchial asthma, pranayama practice led to improved pulse rate and a reduction in asthma attacks
- increased levels of oxygenated haemoglobin
- reduced anxiety and depression levels
- improved sleep patterns
Some studies do indicate that the length of time that pranayama is practiced influence the results for the better.
Contraindications for pranayama
Whilst some pranayama practices are suitable for everyone, some should be practiced carefully. For example, when breath retention or strong breathing into the tummy (like breath of fire – kapalabhati) are included, these should not be practiced by pregnant women. We recommend first attending a yoga class to learn pranayama techniques from an experienced teacher, so that you can practice them safely at home.
Other articles on pranayama and breath techniques on our blog
We have published other articles about pranayama and breathing on our health and wellbeing blog, including:
- Golden thread breath – a breathing technique to help to manage pain
- Yoga breathing – how to breathe in yoga and the benefits of yoga breathing
- What is restorative yoga and how to use the breath
Conclusion: Health benefits of pranayama
My review of the published studies into the health benefits of pranayama indicate that scientists are only recently catching up, and proving through dedicated scientific study, something that yoga has been teaching for centuries. Breathing techniques can be used to bring about demonstrable health benefits.
Yoga retreats, breath and physiology at La Crisalida Retreats
Breath and physiology is an important part of La Crisalida’s holistic programme for health and wellbeing. Come and learn for yourself. Experience the feeling of relaxation, calmness and balance, and learn how to practice for yourself so you can maintain this at home.
Some of the references that I accessed for this article include:
- Zaccaro A et al. (2018). How breath control can change your life: a systematic review on psycho-physiological correlates of slow breathing. Frontiers in Neuorscience, 12: 353. Doi 10.3389/fnhum.2018.00353
- Kuppusamy M, et al. (2018). Effects of bhramari pranayama on health – a systematic review.Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine. 8: 11-16.
- Jayawardena R, et al. (2020). Exploring the therapeutic benefits of pranayama (yogic breathing): a systematic review. International Journal of Yoga. 13:99-110.
- Saoji AA, et al. (2019) Effects of yogic breath regulation: a narrative review of scientific evidence. Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine. 10: 50-58.
- Ansari RM. (2016) Kapalabhati pranayama – An answer to modern day polycystic ovarian syndrome and coexisting metabolic syndrome? International Journal of Yoga, 9: 163-7.
About the author
- Lisa is one of the founders of La Crisalida Retreats. She is an Epidemiologist, therapeutic hatha and yin yoga teacher and also teaches mindfulness meditation. Lisa has studied NLP and hypnosis, as well as nutrition (she designs the menus).