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3 Pranayama Practices for Energy, Calm and Balance
Over the years, I’ve had a few yoga practitioners complain to me that the pranayama practice they’ve been doing is not at all relaxing, even though they thought that it should be. What’s going on, they want to know. Fortunately, I have a good explanation for them: While all forms of pranayama hone your ability to focus and provide a gateway to meditation, not all forms of pranayama are relaxing, despite what you may have been told. In fact, some forms are quite stimulating, and others should be considered more “balancing” than quieting.
Understanding how pranayama interacts with your nervous system will help you select the breath practices that are right for you and to avoid the practices that aren’t. And it will also help you understand why pranayama is a very powerful way to help you self-regulate or balance yourself, enabling you to directly affect your moods and energy levels.
Your Autonomic Nervous System
The part of your nervous system that controls your body’s involuntary functions (the functions you don’t need to think about) is called the autonomic nervous system. Your autonomic nervous system regulates your essential life functions, including your heartbeat, blood pressure, digestion, and breathing.
This same part of your nervous system controls whether you are stressed or relaxed. In emergencies, it triggers a full fight-flight-or-freeze response. In very safe situations, it triggers a full rest-and-digest response. If you’re involved in an engaging activity, your nervous system may be relatively calm and mildly stimulated.
Of course, you cannot instruct your nervous system to lower your blood pressure, speed up your digestion, calm you down, or shake you out of a state of lethargy or sleepiness. But even though you normally breathe without thinking about it, you can consciously change how you breathe.
Your Breath and Your Nervous System
For example, you can intentionally hold your breath, speed up your breath, slow down your breath, make your exhalation longer than your inhalation and vice versa, breathe through one nostril instead of the other, and so on. This is exactly what pranayama consists of: changing the way you breathe! And it is this ability to alter your breathing that gives you the key to your nervous system, providing you with some control over functions that are normally “involuntary.”
Here’s how it works. With every breath you take, when you inhale, your nervous system stimulates your stress response (fight-flight-or freeze) to some degree. Then, when you exhale, your nervous system triggers the relaxation response (rest-and-digest) to some degree. When you’re breathing naturally, this doesn’t change your overall state. However, if you intentionally make your inhalation longer than your exhalation or vice versa for several minutes, this will actually stimulate you or calm you.
How Pranayama Influences Your Autonomic Nervous System
When your inhalation is longer than your exhalation, this stimulates your nervous system, triggering a message to your brain that you are in a situation where you need to take action. To ready you for physical and mental action, your brain tells your nervous system to switch you into a modified fight-flight-or-freeze state. So with this breath practice, you’re indirectly instructing your nervous system to stimulate you and wake you up.
When your exhalation is longer than your inhalation, this quiets your nervous system, increasing the rest-and-digest state while decreasing the fight-flight-or-freeze state. Your brain interprets this to mean you are now safe and don’t need to take immediate action. To take advantage of this opportunity, your brain tells your nervous system to switch you into the rest-and-digest state to enable you to rest, recover, and heal. So with this breath practice, you calm your nervous system and your mind and lower your stress levels, which will improve your ability to rest, recover and heal. When you’re feeling “stressed,” you may notice an improvement after your first few breaths. You’re indirectly instructing your nervous system to calm you down and lower your stress levels.
When you make your exhalation and inhalation the same length, this has only a very subtle effect on your nervous system. Depending on your current circumstances, this may be slightly stimulating or slightly calming.
Simple Pranayama Practices to Energize, Calm and Balance
Really—how cool is that? Now let’s look at some of the pranayama practices and how you might choose which ones to practice when.
Pranayama with Longer Inhalations
All pranayama practices that make your inhalations longer than your exhalations are stimulating. These include breath practices where you are actually timing your inhalation, such as when you make your inhalation twice as long as your exhalation or when you do a three-part inhalation (Viloma 2 Pranayama) followed by a natural exhalation. In addition, the pause after your inhalation counts is part of your inhalation, so pausing after the inhalation is also stimulating.
Finally, there are certain breath practices, such as Skull Shining Breath (Kapalabhati Pranayama), that emphasize the inhalation over the exhalation, which naturally makes the inhalation longer. You might want to choose this type of practice if you need energizing or are feeling depressed or lethargic. I suggest that you avoid stimulating breath practices when you are feeling hyper, stressed out, anxious, have insomnia, or if they just don’t make you feel good.
Pranayama with Longer Exhalations
All pranayama practices that make your exhalations longer than your inhalations are calming. These include breath practices where you are actually timing your exhalation, such as when you make your exhalation twice as long as your inhalation or when you do a three-part exhalation (Viloma 1 Pranayama) followed by a natural inhalation. In addition, the pause after your exhalation counts is part of your exhalation, so pausing after the exhalation is also calming.
Finally, there are certain breath practices, such as Bhramari Pranayama, that emphasize the exhalation over the inhalation, which naturally lengthens your exhalations. You might want to choose this type of practice when you are feeling hyper, stressed out, anxious, or have insomnia. I suggest that you avoid calming breath practices only when you’re feeling sleepy or lethargic and want to feel more alert or if they just don’t make you feel good.
Pranayama for Balanced Breathing
All pranayama practices that make your inhalations and exhalations the same length are considered “balancing” in the yoga tradition. That’s because, depending on your current state, they will likely be only a bit stimulating or a bit calming. These include breath practices where you are actually timing your inhalations and exhalations to make them the same length, such as Equal Ratio Breath (Sama Vritti). There are also certain breath practices, such as Alternate Nostril Breath (Nadi Shodhana), that gives equal attention to the inhalations and exhalations, and they naturally tend to make your inhalations and exhalations even.
Because these practices don’t change your mood and energy levels much, they are good breath practices to choose when you want to settle down and focus, wake yourself up a bit after sleeping, or to simply yoke yourself to the present moment without having a strong effect on your nervous system. I suggest that you avoid balancing practices if they make you feel stressed out or if they just don’t make you feel good.
By the way, if you include pausing in your breath practice for a balanced breath, remember to have equal pausing for both the inhalation and exhalation.
What to Do if Pranayama Practice Makes You Anxious
Some people find that focusing on their breathing makes them anxious. So if you find that any pranayama practices are causing you to stress out, even those that are classified as calming, it’s best to stop practice and find a different form of relaxation, such as supported inverted poses, restorative yoga, or meditating with a mantra, that does work for you.
In addition, in this post, I’ve mentioned some forms of pranayama that are not recommended for beginners, especially in the Iyengar tradition. This is because they can indeed have a very powerful effect on your nervous system. Generally, lengthening your inhalation, lengthening your exhalation, and Bhramari breath are considered fairly safe practices, although you should never let yourself get short of breath, and you should never do a breath practice that stresses you out or makes you feel bad. If you are interested in experimenting with pranayama and haven’t had any formal instruction, I suggest you study with a trained teacher.
Nina Zolotow, RYT500, MFA, is Editor-in-Chief and a contributing writer for the Yoga for Healthy Aging blog and is the author of the recently published book Yoga for Times of Change by Shambhala Publications. She is a long-time yoga writer, long-time yoga practitioner, and certified yoga teacher. Her special areas of expertise are yoga for emotional well-being (including yoga for stress, insomnia, depression, and anxiety) and yoga for healthy aging. She completed the three-year teacher training program at The Yoga Room in Berkeley, California, has studied yoga therapy with Shari Ser and Bonnie Maeda, and is significantly influenced by the teachings of Donald Moyer. She has studied extensively with Rodney Yee and is inspired by the teachings of Patricia Walden on yoga for emotional healing. She has taught workshops and a series of classes on yoga for emotional well-being, yoga for stress, yoga for better sleep, home practice, cultivating equanimity, and yoga for healthy aging.
Nina is also the co-author with Baxter Bell of Yoga for Healthy Aging: A Guide to Lifelong Well-Being and co-author with Rodney Yee of Yoga: The Poetry of the Body and Moving Toward Balance.