7 Science-Backed Benefits of Pranayama
Pranayama is the practice of breath regulation. It’s a main component of yoga, an exercise for physical and mental wellness. In Sanskrit, “prana” means life energy and “yama” means control.
The practice of pranayama involves breathing exercises and patterns. You purposely inhale, exhale, and hold your breath in a specific sequence.
But pranayama has benefits of its own. These advantages are due to the therapeutic effects of breathing exercises and mindfulness.
What exactly is pranayama?
Pranayama is the ancient practice of controlling your breath. You control the timing, duration, and frequency of every breath and hold.
The goal of pranayama is to connect your body and mind. It also supplies your body with oxygen while removing toxins. This is meant to provide healing physiological benefits.
Pranayama involves different breathing techniques. Examples include:
- alternate nostril breathing (nadishodhana)
- victorious breath (ujjayi)
- female honeybee humming breath (bhramari)
- bellows breath (bastrika)
These breathing exercises can be practiced in many ways. For instance, you can do them while performing yoga poses. You can also practice them while meditating or on their own.
What are the benefits according to science?
The benefits of pranayama have been extensively researched.
According to scientific studies, pranayama may benefit your health in a variety of different ways. Let’s look at seven of these benefits in more detail.
1. Decreases stress
In a 2013 study, pranayama reduced perceived stress levels in healthy young adults. The researchers speculated that pranayama calms the nervous system, which improves your stress response.
Another 2013 study found similar benefits. Individuals who practiced pranayama experienced less anxiety before taking a test.
The authors of the study linked this effect to the increased oxygen uptake during pranayama. Oxygen is energy for your vital organs, including your brain and nerves.
2. Improves sleep quality
The stress-relieving effects of pranayama may also help you sleep.
In clinical studies, a technique known as Bhramari pranayama was shown to slow down breathing and heart rate when practiced for 5 minutes. This may help calm your body for sleep.
According to a 2019 study, pranayama also improves sleep quality in people with obstructive sleep apnea. Additionally, the study found that practicing pranayama decreased snoring and daytime sleepiness, suggesting benefits for better quality rest.
3. Increases mindfulness
For many of us, breathing is automatic. We do it without giving it much thought at all.
But during pranayama, you need to be aware of your breathing and how it feels. You also practice focusing on the present moment, instead of the past or future. This is known as mindfulness.
In a 2017 study, students who practiced pranayama displayed higher levels of mindfulness than those who didn’t. The same students also showed better levels of emotional regulation. This was associated with the calming effect of pranayama, which supports your ability to be more mindful.
The researchers also mentioned that pranayama helps remove carbon dioxide and raises oxygen concentration, which fuels brain cells. This may contribute to mindfulness by improving focus and concentration.
4. Reduces high blood pressure
High blood pressure, or hypertension, is when your blood pressure reaches an unhealthy level. It increases the risk of some potentially serious health conditions like heart disease and stroke.
Stress is a major risk factor for high blood pressure. Pranayama can help minimize this risk by promoting relaxation.
In a 2014 study, participants with mild hypertension received antihypertensive drugs for 6 weeks. Half the participants also received pranayama training for 6 weeks. By the end of the study, the latter group experienced a greater reduction in blood pressure.
This effect, according to the study authors, is likely due to the mindful breathing of pranayama.
When you concentrate on your breathing, it can help calm your nervous system. This, in turn, may help reduce your stress response and risk of hypertension.
5. Improves lung function
As a type of breathing exercise, the slow, forceful breathing of pranayama may strengthen your lungs.
One 2019 study determined that 6 weeks of practicing pranayama for 1 hour a day could have a significant effect on lung function. The practice improved multiple parameters of lung function, according to pulmonary test results.
According to the authors of the study, pranayama may be a useful lung strengthening tool for many lung conditions, including:
- allergic bronchitis
- for recovery from pneumonia and tuberculosis
6. Enhances cognitive performance
In addition to benefiting your lungs, pranayama may also enhance your brain function.
A 2013 study found that 12 weeks of slow or fast pranayama improved executive function — which includes your working memory, cognitive flexibility, and reasoning skills.
The study also found that pranayama has the ability to improve your perceived level of stress and your reaction time.
Additionally, the study found that fast pranayama was associated with better auditory memory and sensory-motor performance.
According to the researchers, these benefits are due to the stress-lowering effects of pranayama. The increased oxygen uptake, which energizes brain cells, likely plays a role as well.
7. Reduces cigarette cravings
There’s evidence that yogic breathing, or pranayama, could decrease cravings in people who are trying to quit smoking.
In a 2012 study, just 10 minutes of yogic breathing caused a short-term reduction in cigarette cravings.
A recent study found that mindfulness-based yoga breathing decreased the negative effects associated with smoking withdrawal.
The bottom line
Pranayama, or breath control, is a main component of yoga. It’s frequently practiced with yoga postures and meditation.
The goal of pranayama is to strengthen the connection between your body and mind.
According to research, pranayama can promote relaxation and mindfulness. It’s also proven to support multiple aspects of physical health, including lung function, blood pressure, and brain function.
If you haven’t practiced pranayama before, you may want to join a yoga class or find a teacher who can teach the proper technique for these breathing exercises.