Reducing Stress with Pranayama - a.k.a. Breathwork!

ayurveda brain health healthy living meditation morning practice resilience stress-free Dec 04, 2022

Continuing the Ayurveda series, for the next couple of weeks I’m going to share with you ayurvedic practices that will help you reduce the stress of modern life, and especially the holiday season upon us.  These likely won’t be completely new to you, you may already be a practitioner, but it never hurts to take a closer look and ensure that you incorporate them into your daily routine (see more on Dinacharya HERE!).

What is Pranayama?  It’s the Sanskrit name for Breathwork

Pranayama is the ancient practice of conscious breathing, including what it is, the scientific benefits, how it reverses the stress response, and three different breathing practices you can incorporate into your daily life.

We all recognize that Breath is essential to life – it’s the first thing we do when we’re born, and the last thing when we leave this life.  In between we take about a billion and a half breaths.

What we may not realize is that the mind, body, and breath are intimately connected and can influence each other. 

Learning to breathe consciously and with awareness can be a valuable tool in helping to restore balance in the mind and body. 

Pranayama is foundational to an Ayurvedic lifestyle.

Some pranayama practices are relaxing and calming, while others are invigorating and cleansing.

When you use these pranayama techniques before you meditate, they will help you have a deeper experience. You can also use them any time you want to invite in a sense of peace and relaxation.

Pranayama then is the practice of consciously using the breath to enhance our physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.  It comes from two Sanskrit terms: prana and ayama.  Prana is the vital life force that flows through our body and animates all living beings.  Ayama means “to extend” or “draw out.”

In pranayama, we use our breath to extend or expand our life-force energy and improve the communication between all parts of our mind/body system.

As the Vedic sages discovered thousands of years ago, the mind, body, and breath are inextricably connected. Our breathing is affected by our thoughts, and our thoughts and physiology are influenced by our breath. 

Benefits of pranayama

  • Improved cognitive functions
  • Increased mindful awareness
  • Reduced anxiety and depression
  • Lower/stabilized blood pressure
  • Increased energy levels
  • Muscle relaxation
  • Decreased feelings of stress and overwhelm

In the western medical community, there is a growing appreciation for the positive impact that breathing fully can have on the physiology, both in the mind and the body. According to the research, many of these deep-breathing benefits can be attributed to reducing the stress response in the body and activating the parasympathetic (or relaxation) response. 

In addition, breathing fully can also help calm and slow down the emotional turbulence in your mind. In fact, there are studies that show breathwork can help treat depression, anxiety, and PTSD by reducing activity in stress parts of the brain and increasing activity in parts of the brain that regulate emotions. 

If you practice every day for just a few minutes, you will reprogram your nervous system and experience both immediate and long-term benefits. 

Pranayama works as a tool to reverse the stress response. 

When you experience stressful thoughts, your body triggers the fight-flight-freeze response, giving you a burst of energy to respond to the perceived danger.  This is the sympathetic branch of the nervous system, which is what moves the body towards action. Your breathing becomes shallow and rapid, and you primarily breathe from the chest and not the lower lungs. This can make you feel short of breath, which is a common symptom when you feel anxious or frustrated. At the same time, your body produces a surge of hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, which increase your blood pressure and pulse rate and put you in a revved-up state of high alert. This can be helpful during times of actual threat but may be harmful if left chronically in this state. 

To counteract this stress response, pranayama is a practice that activates the parasympathetic nervous system. When you breathe deeply and slowly, it enables you to downshift from the dominant sympathetic system to the parasympathetic system, which is the body's rest and digest system. The parasympathetic branch helps you feel calm, centered, and grounded. It reverses the stress response. 

Pranayama also helps to strengthen our digestive power, which is known in Sanskrit as Agni. It does this through activation of the parasympathetic nervous system which optimizes the digestive process. A strong Agni allows us to assimilate the value from our food and experiences, while eliminating that which doesn’t serve us. 

Now let’s look at how to practice some common forms of pranayama.

Coherence Breathing

Coherence Breathing is a very simple breathing technique in which the length of your inhalations and exhalations will follow a set ratio, and there are many options to choose from, such as inhaling and exhaling to a count of 6 (or whatever number you choose).

As you do this, focus your awareness on the rise and fall of your belly.  This encourages diaphragmatic breathing, which allows the lungs to expand deeply by contracting the diaphragm. The belly will rise and fall. Ideally, the chest should hardly move. Diaphragmatic movement provides healthy movement to the abdominal organs and pelvic floor.

Another option is this:  Whatever the length of your inhale, your exhale is just a little bit longer, as this will help engage the parasympathetic nervous system.

Coherence breathing has been shown to offer a variety of healing benefits, including:

  • Reduced inflammation
  • Strengthened immune system
  • Decreased anxiety and depression
  • Improved sleep
  • Increased resilience

Ujjayi pranayama

Ujjayi means “to be victorious” or “to gain mastery.”  This gentle, rhythmic breath produces a pleasant, soothing sound—similar to the sound of the ocean waves rolling in and out It is a breathing technique that can both focus and soothe the mind and energize the body and nervous system.   Gently constrict the muscles at the back of your throat, slightly tuck in your chin and inhale, then exhale through your nose. This should produce a sound similar to the waves of the ocean.

The benefits of Ujjayi include:

  • Calming and relaxing the mind
  • Heating the core of the body
  • Helping release feelings of irritation or frustration
  • Stabilizing the cardiorespiratory system
  • Balancing the nervous system by toning the vagus nerve

And you may be familiar with Ujjayi from yoga class as it is often taught there to help coordinate breath with movement during asana practice.

Nadi Shodhana

A relaxing breath, known as Nadi Shodhana in Sanskrit, is an alternate nostril breathing technique that helps balance both sides of the brain and body, and removes emotional blockages in the body, which in return, creates a calm and peaceful mind.

Nadi means "channel of circulation" and shodhana means "cleansing". It is a technique to purify the channels through which energy and information flow, ensuring the free circulation of prana throughout the body.

Some of the other benefits of Nadi Shodhana include:

  • Reduces risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease
  • Infuses the mind-body system with steady energy and oxygen
  • Calms the nervous system and fosters a restful, alert mind, making it a very beneficial technique to use before meditation
  • Helps to harmonize the left and right hemispheres of the brain
  • Promotes overall well-being


When you feel angry, irritated, or frustrated, try ujjayi. This will immediately soothe and settle your mind.

When you are feeling anxious or ungrounded, practice nadi shodhana. This will immediately help you feel calmer.

Feeling stressed?  Try coherence breathing.  When you experience stressful thoughts, use coherence breathing to reverse the fight-flight-freeze stress response. You will calm the mind and body immediately and also receive long-term benefits.  In fact, often as few as three deep inhales, followed by slow exhalations, can be enough to calm your mind and body, clear your head and allow you to address whatever has you stressed in the first place.

Try this Home Practice this week!  

  • For the next few days, notice whenever you feel a little “stressed” – notice whenever your nervous system becomes ready to “fight or flee” rather than allowing you to “rest and digest”.
  • Practice one of the breathing exercises, such as taking as few as three deep inhales, followed by slow exhalations.
  • Notice how you feel after this simple practice!

For more info on this and other natural health topics:

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