Pranayama is an ancient practice of yoga that enables you to control and regulate the breath. Pranayama has been practiced by yogis for centuries (over 5000 years) and in the recent past modern science has also thrown immense light on its health benefits. Pranayama is given importance in Hatha Yoga as well as Ashtanga Yoga. It is said Pranayama is the beginning of the withdrawal of the sense where one begins to draw their attention inward and prepare for meditation.
‘Prana’ is the vital life force within us and ‘Yama’ means control. The translation is control or extension of the breath. By doing so, practitioners get immense health benefits that improve overall quality of life, health and well-being. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Pranayama gained popularity for its significant impact on improving lung health. The lungs are critical to the supply of oxygen throughout the body and the removal of carbon dioxide. Maintaining strong lung health has a positive impact on oxygenated blood reaching various organs and systems in the body.
What are the benefits of Pranayama for strong lungs
Strengthens respiratory muscles
Pranayama breathing techniques tone the respiratory muscles, improving overall strength. The Diaphragm, the largest muscle involved in respiration, gets stronger and functions better. The lungs are better supported, boosting the process of breathing.
Better lung capacity
As the muscles get stronger, one is able to breath better. As one progresses in their practices, when retention (Khumbaka) and locks (Bandhas) are applied, lung capacity also improves. Breath control gets better allowing you to use the oxygen available to you and release carbon dioxide. Levels of oxygenated blood in the body increases, which is vital for brain function, immunity, energy and the release of stress and anxiety.
Removal of toxins and dust particles
We are inhaling every minute of the day. While the air flows in, it is getting purified before reaching the lungs. However, along the way dust particles get stuck to the linings of the airways and lungs. This leads to the build-up of toxins over time. Through Pranayama, one can effectively remove these toxins and cleanse the respiratory system, leading to better functioning and stronger lungs.
Correcting the breathing pattern
Due to external stressors and the tensions we carry, we forget to breathe properly. The tendency is to breathe fast or shallow. This weakens the lungs and respiratory system over time due to the lack of proper oxygen reaching the system. Pranayama will improve the breath pattern, correcting shallow breathing and enabling mindful breathing. For example, through deep breathing, the lower lobes of the lungs are used which helps in the absorption of oxygen.
Better use of the muscles
By correcting the breath pattern and breathing in the right way, the lung and respiratory muscles are also used correctly. With proper functioning, the muscles stay healthier and stronger.
Apart from this, Pranayama is extremely beneficial in removing blockages (emotional, physical and mental) from the entire system, influencing the flow of Prana. Energy levels increase, stress and anxiety reduces and blood circulation also improves. Pranayama also lowers blood pressure levels. Mindfulness and self-awareness also improves, leading you to make better decisions, stay more focused and productive. By controlling and regulating the breath, one can improve cardiovascular functioning, blood circulation to the brain, and metabolic and endocrine activities too. Pranayama is also an effective practice to stimulate and balance the Chakras.
Top five breathing exercises for lung health
Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhana)
Nadi refers to energy channels and Shodhana means purification. So, Nadi Shodhana literally means purification of the energy channels. It is one of the most effective practices to cleanse the system, remove toxins, increase resistance of the respiratory tract and prevent allergies. With retention and locks, the muscles also get stronger and lung capacity increases. Apart from this, it balances the brain hemispheres, improves awareness, provides relief from headaches and reduces stress and anxiety. Nadi Shodhana can be practiced at the beginning or end of the day.
Bellows Breathing (Bhastrika)
A dynamic and invigorating Pranayama, Bhastrika involves active inhalations and exhalations at a fast-pace. It engages the middle and lower lobes as well as the diaphragm, having a strong impact on lung health. Bhastrika immediately energizes the body, infuses oxygen and releases carbon dioxide. It is purifying and helps remove lethargy and tiredness.
Oceans Breathing (Ujjayi)
Also known as Victories Breath, Ujjayi has a calm and tranquilizing effect on the mind and body. When practiced with retention and locks it has an even more strengthening effect on the lungs (improving lung capacity) and diaphragm. Ujjayi is also effective in removing toxins and improving oxygen supply. Ujjayi can also be practiced during asanas and meditation due to its calming effect on the system. Practicing Ujjayi before bedtime also helps induce restful sleep.
Humming Bee Breath (Brahmari)
Brahmari Pranayama is most effective in reducing stress and anxiety, and for relief from migraines and headaches. It reduces tension and heaviness. For strong lungs, its effectiveness in improving the intake of oxygen and improving lung capacity is remarkable.
Frontal Lobe Cleansing (Kapal Bhati)
Originally a cleansing technique, Kapal Bhati involves passive inhalations and active exhalations. It helps remove blockages from the sinuses, heart and lungs, improving breathing capacity. It also strengthens the middle and lower lobes, as well as the diaphragm. As the muscles get stronger, lung health improves. Over time, advanced practitioners can apply retention and locks too.
Advanced practitioners can do all the Pranayama techniques with retention and locks under the guidance of a teacher. This will further purify the energy channels and improve one’s capacity to retain Prana, control the breath, strengthen the lungs and respiratory system.
Pranayama also has a phenomenal impact on soothing the nervous system and stimulating the vagus nerve, the longest cranial nerve in the body. Regular practice allows more oxygen to be released for repair and better energy. The increased blood flow and improved oxygenation in the system, improves overall health and well-being.