Pranayama is all about the breath. More specifically, it’s the practice of breath control. If you’ve tried it during Yoga before, you’ll know that it involves synchronising your breathing with movements between asanas.
More recently, Pranayama has become popular as a distinct meditation exercise and breathing practice. It’s been shown to have all sorts of health benefits, including reducing stress and supporting the immune system.
If you’re new to Pranayama, take a look through our guide below. Use it to explore how you can boost your immunity with simple breathing techniques.
The Theory and Science of Pranayama
They are 8 stages (limbs) of Yoga: yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi.
Pranayama is the 4th limb of Yoga. The sanskrit word is composed of two other words: Prana and Ayama.
- Prana means the breath, the air, and life itself. It’s said to be the energy permeating the universe at all levels: physical, mental, intellectual, sexual, spiritual and cosmic. This is the energy that creates, protects and destroys. Vigour, power, vitality, life and spirit are all forms of Prana. - Ayama means to stretch, regulate, and control.
Pranayama therefore means the prolongation of breath and its control. The aim of the discipline isn’t just to support health and wellbeing. It’s about finding equilibrium between the physical and the vital energies, and a form of purification for the whole nervous system. Pranayama practice provides more oxygen to the blood, reduces stress levels and fights anxiety - all of which boost the immune system.
Regularly practicing pranayama can have an even more profound impact on your health and wellbeing when considered alongside the way our lives have changed. For most people, modern life is endlessly competitive, imbalanced, and dominated by our relationship with technology. It’s a strain for both men and women.
So what can we do? How can we move past the sense of chronic stress, sleep deprivation and the resulting poor immune system function? Well, you can boost your immune system with Pranayama. Here’s the how and why of it...
Belly breaths improve the immune response
When we take deep, intentional breaths from our bellies (as opposed to our chests), we activate the diaphragm - the thin skeletal muscle underneath the heart and lungs that separates them from the abdominal cavity. That’s why belly breathing is often called diaphragmatic breathing. It’s when your lower belly expands outwardly as you inhale and contracts inwardly when you exhale. This process helps to strengthen your entire digestive system. Since about 70 to 80% of your immune tissue is situated in your digestive tract, breathwork can improve the body immune response. You can think of Diaphragmatic breathing as offering a massage to your internal organs and glands. This in turn helps move lymph (fluid containing white blood cells) throughout the body. (2) A yogic breathwork-based study published in the Public Library of Science also found that controlled deep belly breathing may also strengthen the body’s defences by changing the gene expression of certain immune cells.
Breath-holding strengthens your immune system
According to a study by the Norwegian University of Science & Technology, breath-holding doesn’t only change the genetic activity of white blood cells. It also significantly increases the amount of white blood cells in the body available to help fight illnesses. For the purpose of the study, the researchers obtained blood samples from world-class divers at an international competition before and after the athletes completed a series of dives. The results were striking: the activity of more than 5,000 genes (almost 1/4 of all genes found in human cells) changed in response to the simple effort of breath-holding. The most striking finding was a significant increase in the number of a specific white blood cell type: neutrophil granulocytes. These blood cells are programmed for rapid response when the body is under attack from infections and viruses. The immune-boosting benefits of deep belly breaths and breath-holding are clear. This is the essence of Pranayama.
“When you practice pranayama, you are absorbing litres and litres of vital energy and immunity. On each inspiration, you supercharge the bloodstream with oxygen and when you hold your breath, you send even more oxygen towards it. With Pranayama you are literally enriching your blood with oxygen and life”.
The Pranayama Practice: Sitting postures
In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna explains to Arjuna how a yogi should practice to purify himself: “A yogi should practice with his body, neck and head erect, immovable and still, with his vision indrawn.” In Pranayama, the aim is to sit straight, with the spine upright, back ribs and muscles firm and alert. In short, your position should be: - upper body straight and erect - head, neck and back in alignment - shoulder and abdominal muscles relaxed - hands rest on the knees - eyes are closed - body remains motionless during the practice
Here are 4 sitting postures that can be adopted during your Pranayama practice:
1) Sukhasana: Comfortable Pose (cross-legged) Sit with the legs straight. Bend both legs and place the right foot under the left thigh and the left foot under, or in front of, the right calf on the floor. If it is more comfortable cross the legs in the opposite way. If it is difficult to keep the body upright then sit on a zen cushion at an appropriate height to make the posture comfortable.
2) Vajrasana: Sitting on the Heels
Come up onto the knees (knee stand). The legs are together. The big toes touch each other, the heels point slightly outwards. Tilt the upper body forward and then sit back between the heels. The trunk is upright. Place your hands on the thighs.
3) Ardha Padmasana: Half-Lotus Sit with the legs straight. Bend the right leg and place the foot very close to the body on the floor. Now bend the left leg and bring the foot very close to the body on top of the right thigh. The upper body is straight. Both knees should rest on the floor. If unable to keep the body upright, or bring the knees to the floor, sit on a zen cushion of an appropriate height.
4) Padmasana: Lotus Sit with legs straight on the floor. Bend the right leg and place the foot very close to the body on top of the left thigh. Now bend the left leg and bring the foot very close to the body on top of the right thigh. The upper body should be completely straight and knees should touch the floor. To keep the trunk upright more easily and help the knees to rest on the floor, sit on a zen cushion of an appropriate height.
Preparing the Mind for Pranayama
When the breath is steady or unsteady, so is the mind, and with it the yogi. This is why the breath should be controlled.
Ashvattha - or the Tree of Life - in yoga has its roots above and its branches below. You can think of your own body in the same way: the nervous system has its roots in the brain. The spinal cord is the trunk descending through the spinal column, while the nerves run down from the brain into the spinal cord and branch off throughout the body.
The arteries, veins and nerves are channels (nadis in sanskrit) for circulating and distributing energy through the body. The practice of asanas (yoga poses) strengthens the nervous system while the practice of savasana soothes ruffled nerves. If the nerves are tense, so is the mind. Unless the mind is relaxed, silent and receptive, Pranayama cannot be practiced.
For the practice of Pranayama, there are two essentials, a stable spine and a still but alert mind. The practice of Pranayama shouldn’t be mechanical. The brain and the mind should be kept alert, to correct and adjust the body position and the flow of breath from moment to moment.
I like the analogy of comparing the breath to a turbulent river. When harnessed by dams and canals, it can provide abundant energy. Pranayama teaches you to harness the energy of breath to provide vitality and vigour. But just as a trainer tames a lion - slowly and carefully! - a practitioner should acquire control over their breath progressively. Otherwise it will do more harm than good.
Pranayama should be done with great care and awareness. Try to stay focused on the journey, not the destination! Over time, you will start to notice the benefits of the practice.
While the eyes play a predominant part in the practice of asanas, the ears play a predominant part in Pranayama. By being fully attentive and using your eyes, you’ll learn asanas and proper balance in the poses. Pranayama can’t be performed in this way. During its practice, the eyes are kept closed and the mind concentrated on the sound of breathing, while the ears listen to the rhythm of the breath which becomes regulated, slowed and relaxed.
An easy, science-based Pranayama exercise to boost your immune system
Here’s a proven and easy Pranayama exercise you can practice to boost your immune defenses anytime. Though you’ll definitely want to practice this exercise when you start feeling run down, it’s even more effective if you practice just a few minutes regularly and consistently. This is especially true if you’re dealing with a chronic immune response or inflammation.
Sit comfortably, either on a chair or on the floor. If you’re on the floor, adopt one of the 4 sitting postures detailed above.
Stretch a little bit if need be.
Keep your back and neck straight so you are completely upright.
Relax your face, jaw, and tongue.
Inhale for 4 counts (belly expands while your chest and upper body stay still)
Hold your breath for 10 counts.
Then exhale for 8 counts (belly contracts while your chest and upper body stay still)
Hold your breath for 4 counts.
Repeat this “inhale, hold, exhale, hold” pattern for six rounds and do this daily.
Tips for Practicing Pranayama
- Do not practice Pranayama in haste or when the lungs are congested. - Do not talk or walk directly after Pranayama, but relax in savasana (relaxation - see below) for some time before moving on to the rest of your day.
If you’re interested in trying out Pranayama for the first time. Head to my current meditation courses to find out what’s coming up.