According to its Sanskrit origins, where the life force is breath, the practice of ‘Pranayama’ is to expand/prolong (‘ayama’) the life-force (‘prana’).
Yoga and pranayama have been shown to reduce stress and anxiety by ‘down-regulating the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis that triggers as a response to a physical or psychological demand’ (1). It can have both short-term and long-term benefits physiologically.
If you’re new to meditation, or the thought of having to sit there ’emptying your mind’ fills you with dread, it may benefit you to know that there are many different types of Pranayama, some with more structure than others.
It can be helpful to have a guided way into a meditation, to give you a base from which to work so you can then relax into your own experience. I find ‘Sama Vritti’ one of the easiest forms of meditation as it is accessible to almost everyone, and helps me to focus and turn inwards if my mind is too busy. ‘Sama’ means ‘equal/same’ in Sanskrit, and ‘Vritti’ means ‘fluctuations’, so this breathing technique is about making your inhalations and exhalations equal. For instance, smoothly inhaling for a duration of 4 seconds, and then exhaling for a duration of 4 seconds.
This has a soothing effect on the mind and body by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, and invoking a state of ‘rest and digest’. It allows us to have some space from our thoughts and tune into the breath.
Feeling stressed, anxious, or out of sorts? Find a few minutes and try it for yourself:
- Find a comfortable seat, maybe in Sukhasana or on a chair. You can try it lying down too, but take care not to fall asleep whilst doing the practice (unless you need help to get to sleep, in which case by all means give this a try!)
- Take a few cleansing breaths in through the nose and release through the mouth. Find length in the spine and soften any areas of tension in the body.
- Begin by steadily inhaling and count internally for 4 seconds*. Feel the expansion in the chest.
- Smoothly exhale also for 4 seconds*
- Repeat for a few rounds or minutes until you feel calm and relaxed, or however long you would like to continue.
- When you are ready to finish, allow the breath to return to its natural state. Take a few moments to notice how you feel at the end of the practice, and reflect on anything which may have come up during your session.
- Energetically release the practice by bringing movement into the body.
- *The timing varies from person to person, some people prefer to inhale/exhale for 3 seconds each, some for 5 seconds, etc. Do what feels right to you, as long as the inhalation and exhalation are EQUAL, it doesn’t matter.
- You may find that your preferred duration for the breaths increases or changes over time, or depending on the day and how you feel when you first start.
- You may like to include a pause at the ‘top’ of the inhalation or ‘bottom’ of the exhalation. You can work towards this as part of your breath progression.
- Sama Vritti can be incorporated into your yoga practice! For instance, you can hold a stretch for an equal number of inhalations/exhalations, or use it to help you flow in a balanced way.