We’re hesitant to ask how many meditation apps, virtual HIIT classes, sleep trackers, fad diets, online support groups (should we keep going?) you’ve tried recently. We’re all desperate to take care of ourselves a little extra this year. If you’re anything like us, your list is long and, let’s face it, growing. And like us, maybe, you’re falling somewhere between totally exhausted by all these options and scrolling your phone for the next big thing.
Enter: pranayama, the practice of breathing exercises or breath control. Yep, breathing. It’s simple enough for beginners and scientifically compelling enough for the skeptics among us.
What is pranayama?
From the Sanskrit words prana (“life force” or “vital energy”) and yama (“control”), the practice dates back to ancient India—like, 700 BCE, ancient. It includes a variety of breathing patterns and techniques that are scientifically proven to boost both our physical—think respiratory, cardiovascular, metabolic—and our emotional—stress, anxiety, concentration—health.
Here’s a quick biology refresh. Our breathing directly affects our nervous system via the vagus nerve, which governs our fight or flight and rest and relaxation responses as well as our cardiovascular, respiratory and digestive systems. In other words, the way we breathe controls just about everything. And with no cost, side effects, equipment or major time commitment required, there’s no real argument against giving pranayama a try.
The benefits of pranayama
Before you pass this off to your token hippie aunt, hear us out. Countless studies (from the NIH and the International Journal of Biomedical Research, to name a few) document the wide-ranging benefits of practicing pranayama.
There’s no doubt stress relief and immunity are key this year, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg. Read on for more wide-ranging and surprising benefits.
- Immune system: First, certain techniques are proven to boost our immune systems. Hello, 2020 buzzwords. Deep breathing activates our digestive tracts, where as much as 80 percent of our immune tissue lives. Breath retention significantly increases our count of white blood cells, which are the first to attack infections and viruses. (Intrigued?)
- Reduce anxiety and depression: Remember that vagus nerve we mentioned? When activated, it increases levels of GABA in our bodies, the neurotransmitter that helps us unwind. Remember all those times your mom—or, heaven forbid, your spouse—implored you to “just breathe?” (The worst, right?) We’re sorry to say they’ve got actual science on their side.
- Respiratory: This one’s obvious. Breath control improves lung function and capacity for healthy individuals and those with asthma and chronic bronchitis.
- Digestive: IBS, diarrhea and hyperacidity are disorders closely linked to brain activity. Studies prove these symptoms subside with consistent breathing practice, thanks to its calming effects.
- Cardiovascular: Research has proven pranayama has an immediate and positive effect on circulation, heart rate and blood pressure. It’s often used to treat patients with arrhythmia.
- Sinuses: Certain techniques help clear our nasal cavity and create ventilation, improving allergies, sinus infections, congestion and sinus headaches.
- Sleep: Back to our anxiety, that old friend. When we’re stressed, we take short, shallow breaths. Deep breathing, on the other hand, slows our heart rate and relaxes our mind. This improves sleep quality and combats insomnia.
- Weight loss: Deep and forceful breathing quickens our metabolism and activates abdominal muscles in ways those pesky crunches can’t, thanks to an increased oxygen supply.
- Skincare: When we hold an inhale, retained breath supplies oxygen to our skin cells. This increases the blood thrush and detoxifies our blood, improving skin appearance and preventing premature aging like wrinkles and sunspots. (Should we have led with this one?)
OK, how do I practice pranayama?
The practice of pranayama includes a host of techniques and breathing patterns, each with their own unique benefits. Here, three essentials to tackle whatever 2020 has left in store for us.
1. Kumbhaka or “Full Breath Retention”
Best for: An immune boost
“Full breath retention” presents dozens of benefits, like increased lung capacity, brain tissue regeneration and reduced inflammation. Most importantly, though, it increases oxygen and CO2 levels in our bodies, nourishing our white blood cells to fight off infection and virus. So, get going on this one.
- Commit to 10 or 15 minutes a day—feel free to set a timer so you know how much time you’ve spent
- Sit or lie down comfortably
- Begin following a 1-1-2 pattern. For example, inhale for 5, hold for 5, exhale for 10
- With practice, begin to increase the retention for a ratio of 1-2-2 or 1-3-2. It will become easier to inhale for 5, hold for 10, exhale for 10. Increase to inhaling for 5, holding for 15, exhaling for 10, and so on
- Continue until your timer goes off
2. Kapalabhati or “Skull-Shining Breath”
Best for: Reviving energy and giving you a little glow
Also known as “breath of fire,” this model improves concentration, aids in digestive functioning, quickens our metabolism (quarantine weight loss, anyone?) and, yes, gives us that glowy complexion. It also warms the body as we head into the chilliest months. Practice this one when you need a little energy reboot.
- Sit comfortably (cross-legged or on your knees), resting your hands on your thighs
- To begin, inhale and exhale fully
- Then, inhale halfway and begin forcefully exhaling in short bursts
- Place a hand on your belly to feel contraction and expansion
- Continue for 20-30 intervals before breathing in fully, retaining the breath for as long as you can, and finally, exhaling
- Repeat cycles for 10 to 15 minutes (daily!), finishing with an exhalation through the left nostril
3. Nadi Shodhana or “Alternate Nostril Breathing”
Best for: Unwinding before bed or trying to calm down
To relax, try “alternate nostril breathing” (cute, right?). It balances hormones, soothes nerves, and stills our minds. Studies have proven it can lower our heart rates and blood pressure, too. Try it during a work crisis (we feel you) or just before bed.
- Sit, with crossed legs or on your knees, or lie comfortably
- Bring your right thumb to your right nostril and your ring and pinky fingers to your left. Your index and middle fingers can rest on the bridge of your nose or folded down toward your thumb.
- Exhale completely
- Using your fingers, press on the right nostril and inhale through the left.
- Exhale through the left, close the nostril, and inhale through the right
- Exhale through the right to complete one cycle.
- Repeat for 10-12 cycles and sleep tight
No, really. Try it.
Nine months into quarantine, we know your suggestion boxes are overflowing with self-care tips. But trust us. Introducing pranayama into your daily routine is as low risk as it gets: It’s portable, it’s simple, it’s free (!) and it’s proven to boost both your immunity and your emotional wellbeing. Set a timer for 2 or 3 times a day. Try it at the stoplight, in the shower, while the coffee is brewing, or in place of your bedtime Instagram scroll. We’ll be breathing right alongside you.