Stress is the trademark of our times. Indeed, the amount of stress and the pace of life we are experiencing today is unprecedented. Stress, depending on longevity and level, can have a significant impact on quality of life, attributable to an array of problems; insomnia, anxiety, over-eating, under-eating, impulsiveness, depression, tension, nervousness, addictions, headaches, anger, emotional instability, irratibility… the list is long. Stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it can push us to achieve more, be stronger and increase our ability to cope. However, what is clear is that we can no longer have the same attitude to stress that our parents and our grandparents had, because we no longer live in the same world. We are living in a world that moves fast, bombards us with information and places an enormous amount of pressure on us to keep up. So we need to be actively doing more to take care of ourselves, otherwise our mental and emotional balance will not cope.
Yoga is now widely accepted in the west as being good for our health physically and mentally. Many people who regularly attend yoga classes report physical and emotional benefits to attending, a main point being, they feel more relaxed and rested afterwards. Any given yoga class can be comprised of any combination of asanas (yogic movements and poses), pranayama (yogic breathing) and meditation. Whilst classes in the west typically focus on the practice of asanas, with perhaps some meditation thrown in for good measure, pranayama is often mysteriously absent. This is very unfortunate because pranayama practices are more quickly effective than the asanas, easier for a person to take home, they can be more readily integrated into a busy daily routine, they don’t require a change of clothes or a mat and, unlike meditation which can be difficult for beginners who feel that they are in a constant struggle with their thoughts, pranayama practices require us to focus on our breath, so they give a sense of calm like meditation but without the feeling of a mental battle having to be fought first.
Growing Evidence to Support Pranayama Benefits
There’s a growing body of evidence to support the value of practising yogic breathing regularly throughout a week for the mind and body. A study in Sweden compared the effects of yogic breathing practices to the effects of reading, to determine which activity induced more relaxation. It was found that the yogic breathing group were more relaxed and that there was a reduction in chemicals in the saliva associated with stress, inflammation, pain perception, depression and anxiety, (Twal, et al. 2016).
Yogic breathing has also been found to be effective in highly stressful calamities. In a study by Telles, et al. (2010) in Bihar, India, a group of men were given one hour of yoga classes one month after a flood. The men were given one hour of yoga everyday for one week, fifty percent of this hour was devoted to yogic breathing. At the end of that one week, the yoga group reported a significant decrease in feelings of sadness.
A shortcoming to the studies was that the participant sizes were very small, for Telles et al. (2010) the participant size was twenty-two and for Twal, et al. (2016) it was just twenty. A limitation to both was that they only analysed the benefits of yogic breathing in the short term.
However, there was a study done in Japan (Yoshihara, et al. 2011), where long-term yoga practitioners (long-term defined as two years or more and yoga practice including a significant component of yogic breathing) were rated against people who didn’t do yoga in terms of their stress levels. This study had seventy-three participants. This study had strong results to show that long-term yoga practices lowered mood disturbance, tension-anxiety, anger-hostility and fatigue.
In terms of depression though, a fairly important desirable benefit to yogic breathing, it seems difficult to say at this point whether yogic breathing when done alone or combined with other yogic practices actually helps. Some studies have found an improvement in levels of depression, Telles, et al. (2010) and Kjellgren, et al. (2007), while other studies have found no significant difference, Yoshihara, et al. (2011) and Druha, et al. (2012). It’s worth noting that depression is rated by a self-assessment and so is quite subjective. What does seem to be clear though is that yogic breathing practices help us to deal with immediate stress and anxiety as well, give benefits very quickly and can be used as a way to be more balanced emotionally and mentally, both in the short and long term.
Specific Practices You Can Do
Hopefully this has convinced you to incorporate yogic breathing practices into your weekly or (maybe even) daily routine. If it’s something that you would like to try, then another good thing about pranayama is that it’s easy to do, because it’s done just in a seated position, either on a chair or on the floor, somewhere where it’s quite and you won’t be disturbed.
If you can’t fit it in every single day, you don’t necessarily need to either. Based on studies, benefits were seen from just three times a week (Dhruva, et al., 2012). Also, not a lot of time is required either, just fifteen minutes can be enough.
Four yogic breaths which were common in the studies were natural breath awareness, kapalbhati, brahmeri and ujjayi.
Natural breath awareness is just as the name says, you become aware of your natural breath. In spite of this, I always get the question when I explain this to people, What do I do with my breath? Nothing. You do nothing with your breath! In this one there is no breath manipulation we are observing the natural breath. Each breath we take is unique, in natural breath awareness we are observing every individual breath for itself.
Kapalbhati is known for cleansing the mind. Kapalbhati a pushed exhalation. The inhalation is normal, but the exhalation is pushed, but don’t use force or strain, it should be just like blowing away some dust, but through the nose. Practice with ten breaths in succession, then take a break for several breaths, then do ten kapalbhati breaths again. Practice up to five rounds of ten breaths.
Brahmeri is known as the humming bee breath and is incredibly comforting for the mind and body. In this practice we put our index fingers into our ears then inhale and as you exhale, hum softly. Practice this on seven breaths in succession.
The last practice is ujjayi, which is the most relaxing of the three. Ujjayi is a slow, steady breath, but done with a soft snoring sound created by gently contracting the throat. This can be a little difficult at first but once you have it you will know, because you should sound like somebody who is in a deep sleep.
So now you have some yogic breathing practices that you can try for yourself. As it won’t cost you any money and only a bit of time, perhaps just try it out and see whether pranayama is a yoga practice that you can realistically maintain and that works for you. Or if you go to yoga classes already and have a teacher who isn’t incorporating any yogic breathing techniques into their class, well, yogic breathing is a fundamental practice of yoga so don’t be afraid to ask them: Why aren’t you doing pranayama?
Dhruva, A., Miaskowski, C., Abrams, D., Acree, M., Cooper, B., Goodman, S., & Hecht, F. M. (2012). Yoga Breathing for Cancer Chemotherapy–Associated Symptoms and Quality of Life: Results of a Pilot Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 18(5), 473–479.
Kjellgren, A., Bood, S., Axelsson, K., Norlander, T. & Saatcioglu, F. (2007). ‘Wellness through a comprehensive Yogic breathing program – A controlled pilot trial,’ BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine. (7), 43-51.
Satyananda, S. (2013). Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha, Bihar India: Yoga Publications Trust.
Telles, S., Nilkamal, S., Meesha, J. & Balkrishna, A. (2010). ‘Post traumatic stress symptons and heart rate variability in Bihar flood survivors following yoga: a randomized controlled study,’ BMC Psychiatry, 10(18).
Twal, W., Wahlquist, A. & Balasubramanian, S. (2016). ‘Yogic breathing when compared to attention control reduces the levels of pro-inflammatory biomarkers in saliva: a pilot randomized controlled trial,’ BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine. (16), 294-304.
Yoshihara, K., Hiramoto, T., Sudo, N. & Kubo, C. (2011). ‘Profile of mood states and stress-related biochemical indices in long-term yoga practitioners,’ The Official Journal of the Japanese Society of Psychosomatic Medicine, 5(6).