Pranayama lies at the heart of yoga’s transformative journey. It guides us beyond the physical asana, nurturing a profound connection between body, mind, and spirit. Through deliberate inhalations and exhalations, Pranayama begets a plethora of benefits including balancing and calming the mind, and also energizing the body.
Pranayama is a compound Sanskrit word. “Prana” means “life force energy” and “Yama” means “gain control over”. So, the practice of Pranayama is the practice of gaining control over your energy through controlled breathing practices.
Pranayama practices are separated into three main categories: balancing, cooling, and heating. These adjectives refer to both the body and the mind. Balancing pranayama includes Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhana). Heating Pranayama includes Bellows Breath (Bhastrika Pranayama) as well as Skull Shining Breath (Kapalabhati Pranayama).
This article focuses on cooling pranayama practices, as this is somewhat synonymous (not always, but often) with grounding. Cooling, grounding practices include Adham Pranayama (Belly Breath), Dirga Pranayama (three-part Breath), Humming Bee Breath (Bhramari Pranayama), Sama Vritti (Box Breathing), and Ujjayi Pranayama among others.
So, how does it actually work? Is it really all that good for my overall health? Our breath has a bidirectional relationship with our autonomic nervous system. This is the system that comprises our fight-or-flight response (the sympathetic nervous system), and our rest-and-digest response (the parasympathetic nervous system).
Sometimes in life, we experience something that causes shock or leads us to feel worried, nervous, anxious, frustrated, and even experience panic attacks. It’s our parasympathetic nervous system’s job to get us out of that state as quickly as possible.
However, sometimes we are exposed to stressors for prolonged periods of time, meaning our body can get stuck in fight-or-flight. Over time, this can have hazardous effects on our health.
The body might switch the parasympathetic nervous system on into overdrive in a desperate attempt to regain equilibrium. This can lead us to experience lethargy, disconnection, chronic fatigue, and even depression and dissociation.
What we want is to be in what modern science calls our “Window of Tolerance“. This is where we feel most like ourselves, calm, grounded, and responding appropriately to the ups and downs of daily life.
Pranayama can help us get there, more frequently, and for longer periods of time. If you’re experiencing bouts of stress and anxiety, or have fraught moments in your day that could benefit from a few moments of calm, or even have something big coming up that is causing you to lose sleep (like a promotion-worthy presentation), then grounding pranayama can help alleviate those unwanted symptoms.