The power of pranayama: 7 reasons to integrate breathwork into your yoga classes (for teachers who want to take their classes and their students to the next level)
NOTE: This is a LONG post. If you’d like to download a summary PDF, click HERE.
As one of the eight limbs of yoga, pranayama is an integral part of a yoga practice. In Sanskrit, “prana” means energy and “yama” means control. Pranayama is regulation of the breath.
Your breath has incredible power and influence on your overall well-being. Because it’s a free resource, it doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Nevertheless, there are plenty of scientific studies which prove extensive benefits.
If you’re a yoga teacher and you aren’t currently incorporating pranayama into your teaching or private yoga sessions, consider these benefits to your students. And if you yourself have strayed away from a regular breathwork practice, here’s some motivation to get back to it.
Benefits of breathwork:
Enhanced physical performance
Before we dive in to each one of these seven areas, a basic physiological understanding will be helpful.
The autonomic nervous system controls and regulates regulates involuntary physiologic processes including heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and digestion. This system includes two antagonistic components of nerves: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
Sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight):
The sympathetic nervous system connects the internal organs to the brain by spinal nerves. When the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated , these nerves prepare you for stress by increasing your heart rate, increasing blood flow to the muscles, and decreasing blood flow to the skin.
Triggers: public speaking, missing a meeting, being late. Worry and stress cause the body act as if it’s in danger.
Parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest):
The nerve fibers of the parasympathetic nervous system are the cranial nerves, primarily the vagus nerve, and the lumbar spinal nerves. When the parasympathetic nervous system is stimulated, these nerves increase digestive secretions and reduce the heartbeat. The parasympathetic nervous system can serve as a “downregulator”. The vagus nerve sends impulses from the brain to the body, but also back from the body to the brain. Essentially, your parasympathetic nervous system has the ability to tell your brain what’s happening, instead of your brain telling the body what to do.
How to tap in: deep breathing from your diaphragm, yoga, meditation, nature walks.
A deep dive into each of the seven benefits:
1. Stress Relief
- Stress revs up the sympathetic nervous system. Cortisol (the primary stress hormone) surges when we perceive danger, and triggers the “fight or flight” response: increased blood pressure and heart rate, muscle tension, and the digestive system turning off (which can lead to nausea, and other not-so-fun digestive symptoms). People who engage in regular breathwork experience lower levels of cortisol.
- Breathwork puts the brakes on the acute stress response and diverts health problems associated with chronic stress. Chronic stress occurs when people experience ongoing situations that cause frustration or anxiety. For example, having a difficult or frustrating job or having a long-term illness can cause chronic stress. Symptoms of high cortisol levels: weight gain, headaches and irritability.
- Signals coming from the brain tell the adrenal cortex to release cortisol in times of stress. Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands. When you’re in a state of sustained stress, the body is constantly getting those signals to produce more of the stress hormone, and it adapts a higher threshold of cortisol, leading to an imbalance in hormones.
- There is a direct correlation between stress and blood pressure. Medical studies demonstrate that 5 minutes of breathing exercises for 6 days a week for 6 weeks will improve above-normal blood pressure, endothelial function, and arterial stiffness, which could ultimately decrease the risk of a cardiovascular event.
- If you find the above interesting, the reduction in blood pressure found through breathing is comparable to the effects of blood pressure medication and exceeds the effects of walking 30 minutes per day, 5 days a week!
- Slow, deep breathing is the oldest and best-known technique to decrease stress.
2. Regulates Mood
- Would you like to be more resilient? Breathwork has been shown to shrink the amygdala, the part of the brain that detects fear and triggers the fight or flight response.
- Taking control of your breath helps you to interrupt and redirect the flow of your emotions. It serves as a “reset”.
- Practice improves emotional regulation and reduces the likelihood of emotional outbursts.
- Emotional benefits can include fewer feelings of depression and anxiety and a decrease in addictive behaviors.
- The inhale serves to energize, open, expand and uplift. The exhale provides grounding, release, and a letting go. Together, the focused inhale and exhale work to create balance in the body, mind, and nervous system.
3. Increase Focus
- Can boost attention span
- Diaphragmatic breathing can improve sustained attention. How? Studies show that it balances the amount of norepinephrine, enhancing focus. Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter in your brain and spinal cord. It increases alertness, arousal and attention.
- “Energy in the brain is generated almost exclusively from a form of metabolism that requires oxygen. However, neurons only maintain a small reserve of energy and these cells require a continuous supply of oxygen, especially when the cells are firing and communicating with their neighbors. In fact, the brain’s oxygen demands are enormous; despite comprising only 2 percent of the body, our brains consume 20 percent of the body’s oxygen supply.” -University of Rochester Medical Center research report – “Study Reveals Brain’s Finely Tuned System of Energy Supply” – Aug. 7, 2016
- When approaching a task that requires a high level of thinking, take a few deep breaths before you begin. Deep breathing—inhaling for about 4 seconds and slowly exhaling for about 8 seconds—increases oxygen to the brain and helps to eliminate carbon dioxide. It not only calms but restores clarity in the mind.
4. Create Presence.
- The mind has a tendency to get caught up in rehashing the past and worrying about the future. Oftentimes, these patterns of the mind aren’t beneficial or productive. To disconnect from these patterns:
- Breathwork allows us to disconnect from the mind and reconnect with the body. Brings you into the present moment by clearing the mind of daily distractions. You let go of rehashing the past or worrying about the future, and allow yourself to be in the “here and now”.
- When the mind gets quiet, space is created for imagination, creativity and problem solving.
- Most of the time, you are breathing unconsciously. You’re breathing, of course, but your consciousness is somewhere else. Just bringing consciousness to your breathing creates possibilities and new experiences. This is the practice. If you can bring together powerful breathing and complete relaxation, you’ll begin to discover the power of breathwork. It’s a unique state that most people rarely experience.
5. Regulate energy
- Feeling tired but have tasks to complete? OR . . .It’s time for bed, but your mind won’t quit? Breathwork to the rescue!
- Breathwork for energy:
Instead of reaching for another cup of coffee, try “Breath of Fire”:
1. Find a seated position
2. Inhale through your nose
3. Exhale forcefully through your nose while contracting the abdominal muscles.
4. Continue with forceful exhales and passive inhales for 30 seconds.
- Breath of Fire (known as Kapalabhati in Yoga) is a great way to start the day and is a very effective tool for the mid-afternoon lull. As a yoga teacher, you might use it with your students at the beginning of an energetic vinyasa flow class.
- Breathwork for relaxation:
Does sleep elude you?
Try 4-7-8 breath:
Through the nose –
1. Inhale for 4 seconds
2. Hold for 7 seconds
3. Exhale for 8 seconds
Repeat until the body relaxes and the mind settles.
- Breathwork is one of the most effective sleep hygiene techniques.
6. Pain Management
- Consider Lamaze breathing. The Lamaze method includes conscious relaxation and controlled breathing as an alternative to drugs for pain management during childbirth. Pioneered in the 1950’s, it is still used today.
- Breathwork is known to provide cortisol balance, which can reduce the perception of chronic pain and help patients cope with physical discomfort.
- Consider back pain – the 3rd most common reason people visit their healthcare provider. Research from 2017 recommends that physical therapists caring for patients with chronic, nonspecific low back pain consider the inclusion of breathing exercises for the treatment of back pain.
- Also of note – the diaphragm is attached to the lumbar vertebrae. Are you using your diaphragm to breathe? A 2016 research study noted improvements in pain levels after adding breathing exercises 2-3 times/week for 4 weeks.
7. Enhanced physical performance
- Breathwork improves oxygen uptake and utilization. It increases lung capacity. As a result, it is often used by athletes to enhance physical endurance, strength, and overall performance.
- Breathwork is also used by asthma patients to increase respiratory function.
- Breathwork lowers cortisol and increases melatonin. This combination results in lower levels of oxidative stress.
- When there is an imbalance of reactive oxygen species, also known as free radicals, and antioxidant defenses, your body experiences oxidative stress. Oxidative stress can break down cell tissue and cause DNA damage. This damage can also result in inflammation. These factors can lead to lifelong diseases such as diabetes or cancer.
- A specific study was conducted on athletes and exercise-induced oxidative stress. The study concluded that diaphragmatic breathing after exhaustive exercise could protect athletes from long-term adverse effects of free radicals. From this study, you could conclude that breathwork has great potential to reduce oxidative stress – period (not just in athletes).
This is not intended to be an exhaustive list of breathwork benefits. Instead, it’s a starting point.
A couple additional reasons I find breathwork to be extremely valuable:
Breathwork will transform your meditation practice.
I haven’t not found a better way to tune in to mindfulness than to begin breathwork. Preceed your meditation practice with a few minutes of breathwork. The breath will calm the body and settle the mind, easing you in to meditation. If you stuggle with monkey mind when you sit down to meditate (and all of us do), ease the transition by tuning in to the breath to begin your practice.
Once you learn breathwork, it’s yours for life.
You don’t have to pay to use it. You don’t need a prescription. There are many different techniques and approaches. As you experiment, you’ll be drawn to certain types of breathwork. Find the ones that suit you.
This is a LONG post. If you’d like to download a summary PDF, click HERE.
Time‐Efficient Inspiratory Muscle Strength Training Lowers Blood Pressure and Improves Endothelial Function, NO Bioavailability, and Oxidative Stress in Midlife/Older Adults With Above‐Normal Blood Pressure