The last couple of weeks have been a bit of a struggle for me. I’ve battled insomnia, conflicting emotions, and hormones. One thing I’ve always found beneficial in times of stress or anxiety is pranayama. Breath work. Seriously, it’s so good for us. In this post I want to share 5 benefits of pranayama plus the breathing exercises I personally do combining pranayama and restorative yoga.
Story time. I wasn’t an regular practitioner of breathing exercises until a year ago. I should mention that I have Polycystic Kidney Disease. While 95% of my life I’m fine, that 5% can be intensely painful! Last year was particularly bad and I was lying in bed one night and realized my breathing was labored. Why? Because the pain was so intense, I was guarding my right side. By using the breathing exercises and techniques I’d learned in Yoga Teacher Training I allowed my body to relax. Immediately after doing this the pain goes from an 8 to a 3 for me. So this isn’t ‘woo-woo”, it’s real folks!
What is Pranayama?
Before we talk about the 5 benefits of pranayama let me catch you up to speed on what pranayama is. There are many facets of yoga beyond the asana/poses. The yoga poses are just one aspect of an 8 part practice. Another aspect is pranayama.
- Prana means life force (for humans that’s our breath).
- Ayama means regulation, or control.
So pranayama means breath control. This ability to control the breath can bring many benefits. Breathing is a marvelous thing as it is both a voluntary and involuntary action. We can feel when we are in control of the breath, but we can also experience when the body breaths us. If you’ve ever had a panic attack, asthma, or anxiety you know just how important a single breath can be.
5 Benefits of Pranayama
When we practice breathing exercises, or meditation or other mindful movement practices we step into our parasympathetic state. Sympathetic is the anxious stressed “fight or flight” state. Parasympathetic is the one that relaxes us. It’s the reason that we yawn or drool during meditation. And, the reason our belly starts to gurgle during savasana. We are awake, but so relaxed our body enters a kind of physical sleep state. This can give us many, many benefits. Here are my five personal favorites.
If you’ve experienced stress or anxiety you’ll know your breath changes. Typically it’s quick and shallow. Meaning it ends up all in your upper chest and throat. This can cause tension in the muscles of the neck, chest and shoulders and add to the feeling of unease and discomfort. Then it becomes a viscous cycle.
When we learn to embrace the experience our breath. And perhaps, even understand and control it as a practice. Then, we can begin to apply it in stressful situations. How many times are people told to “just breathe”. To a person in anxiety that’s like saying “just go run a marathon”. You need to practice in a stress free setting first in order to apply it to stressful times.
Improve sleep quality & reduce insomnia
This is one of the reasons I’ve written this post. During the last couple of weeks I’ve suffered with insomnia. I’m on creative mode overdrive. While this is great for ideas for creative content, videos, classes, courses etc, it’s not so great getting those ideas at 2am.
If you’ve ever suffering with sleep disruption you know that the worst thing is that you really do “just want to go to sleep”! But your brain, it’s just too busy withe monkey mind. I know myself, I sometimes just need to get up and write it all down. By practicing pranayama I am able to breathe, focus, and turn off the chatter, focusing on one thing. It’s like counting sheep, but you’re just noticing the breath.
Skeletal/muscular pain relief
As I mentioned above I use pranayama for pain relief. This isn’t something many people do, but it works for me and may help you too. When I find myself in pain from PKD I contract through my side. Everytime last year it was my right side. And then my muscles spasm. My ribcage gets constricted and I’m not able to breathe effectively into my lung. When I realized this I immediately tried side lying breathing exercises, like the ones below.
The pain makes it painful to move, so exercise is limited. But, I can move from the inside-out. This means I can allow the movement of my lungs and diaphragm to massage my internal organs, to release the muscles between my ribs, and relax my muscles and reduce the spasms. This one thing alone was the game changer in my pranayama practice. Now it’s something I do almost daily.
Reduces digestive issues
What a convoluted term “digestive issues” is. Basically in a nutshell: no more constipation. We’ve all over-eaten at the holidays. Do you remember how that felt? I’m betting you just want to sit! This is why we often sleep after a heavy meal. Our body wants to enter the parasympathetic state to digest the food. If we constantly run around stressed that’s when things start to go awry!
Grounding – Somatic experiencing
If you haven’t done somatic work I highly recommend it. This is the work of simple experiencing in how a movement feels. Being in the experience, not the expectation. In the practice below I include some somatic experiencing questions. For example:
- Is your breath deep, or shallow?
- Is your breath quick or slow?
- Where is the movement of your breath?
- Where do you feel most of the movement?
- Is there more movement in the right side of the ribcage or the left?
When we notice these things we can begin to seek answers for the questions. Why is my breath shallow/quick? Is something giving me stress that I need to work through? Is there some physical injury or body trauma that’s causing uneven movement awareness. What work are you doing to address that ailment?
15 minute yoga breathing exercises for beginners
We can only control what we already notice. This is why I always take a baseline scan at the beginning of a class. How does my body feel? What shape does it make? Where does it it connect to the floor? What’s the quality of my breath? When we notice the beginning, we can then notice any difference after. Try it with my 15 minute yoga breathing exercises below. Suitable for all levels. It’s laying down on the floor, and seated. Plus it could be done in bed too!
Try it and see how you feel before, and after. Pranayama is a great yoga practice. It calms the mind, soothes the body and nurtures the soul.
- Did you know breathing could be controlled?
- Which benefit of pranayama seems relevant to you?
- Do you do any breathing exercises?