The benefits of pranayama have been known for thousands of years, but is the practice still relevant today? Journalist and yoga practitioner Alison Batley investigates.
The oldest known text on yoga, Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, divides yoga into eight components or limbs.
Asana, or physical postures, form just one limb. Of equal importance is pranayama or the practice of controlling the breath.
So with our modern love of working our bodies, why practice pranayama?
Despite the way yoga is often interpreted in the West, the purpose of the practice is always to calm the fluctuations of the mind.
What the ancient yogis instinctively knew - and modern science has since proven - was that regular practice of controlling the breath develops concentration and clarity of thought.
It also increases the intake of oxygen into the body, properly nourishing the organs of the body. A steady breath leads to a steady mind, so it's excellent preparation to deep relaxation or meditation.
Pranayama is a practice you can take with you anywhere, slotting easily into your day. It can calm, cleanse or energise, depending on the practise you choose.
You can incorporate breathing techniques into your regular asana practice or take five minutes out of your day to sit with your breath.
Try these techniques
Sit in a comfortable seated position. If you cannot sit without support, sit against a wall or on a chair. It's important that you keep your spine straight to aid the passage of the breath through the body.
You should be comfortable so that you don't fidget and can focus your mind completely on the breath.
Known as the ‘victorious breath', ujjayi is the simplest of pranayama practises.
It has a calming effect, renewing energy and concentration. Many yoga practices encourage ujjayi breathing throughout asana practice, particularly during ashtanga.
To practice, make a gentle, continuous hissing sound on both the inhale and exhale gently contracting the throat. With a little practice this breathing will become second nature and enhance your postures.
Often called ‘shining skull', this technique is a great cleanser for physical complaints, such as cleaning mucus from the body's air passages, and for clearing tensions from the mind. It's a great practice to wake and cleanse before breakfast.
Breathe in through your nose using ujjayi. Exhale in a series of short sharp breaths through the nose, where the air is forced out by quick contractions of the abdomen.
Start with a small number of parts to the outbreath and build up as you get used to the technique. Make sure you are not taking active in-breaths; hyperventilation is not the aim!
Not that it's not advisable to practice Kapalabhati at any stage of pregnancy.
This vibration breath is more commonly called ‘humming bee' breath because of the soothing sound it makes. It's great for decluttering a busy mind. Try it at the end of the day.
Breathe in slowly using ujjayi breath, then breath out with a hum. Experiment with where you feel the exhale vibrating moving it down the chest to the abdomen, which will create a deeper tone. Have fun with it!
Literally translated as ‘alternate nostril' breathing, this technique brings balance to the body and mind.
As you control the breath's passage in and out of the body you'll find it hard to think of anything except your breath, so it's a nice practice to do when you return home from a day at work.
First take your right hand and curl the middle and index fingers into your palm. Use your right thumb to close your right nostril and inhale gently through your left nostril.
Keeping your thumb where it is use your ring and little fingers to close your left nostril, then release your thumb and exhale through your right nostril.
Then breathe in through your right nostril. After this, close your right nostril with your thumb and release your left nostril. Breath out through your left nostril. This is one round.
Start with four rounds and increase as you become more experienced with the technique. Try to keep the inhale and exhale the same length.
Aim to start with a few rounds, gradually increasing the length you spend on the practice.
Taking a few minutes out of your day - preferably at the same time each day -
for pranayama can make a real difference to your stress levels and focus. Also try to integrate it into your asana practice. Five minutes of pranayama before you begin the postures can help your concentration on the mat.
Alison Batley is a freelance journalist based in London. She has practiced yoga for nine years, and has studied with both the British Wheel of Yoga and Association of Yoga Studies. She can be contacted at email@example.com