Think that yoga is all about downward dog and vinyasa flows? Think again. Asana (the physical flow) is just one of eight practices that go into yoga. When Strong Women editor Miranda Larbi ended up at a pranayama class by mistake, she realised how much she’d been missing by ignoring the other arms of yoga all this time…
The week before running the London Marathon, I booked myself into a new yoga class at YogaHome. It sounded from its description on ClassPass like it’d be slow and stretchy – ideal for working out tight hamstrings and tendonitis-ridden calves.
On rocking up, I was surprised to see how warmly dressed the instructor was but just assumed that maybe this was an ultra-slow yin session. An hour later, I was more or less in the same position I’d started in: sitting cross-legged. I’d got the class wrong – it wasn’t yin but pranayama.
What most of us know about yoga is only the very tip of what yogic philosophy is all about. When we go to vinyasa, hot, yin, or hatha sessions, we’re practising asana yoga, which is just one of the eight paths of yoga.
Yoga in its purest form is something that we could and should be trying to practise every day, and through concentrating on doing no harm, meditation, fighting against distractions, practising austerity and moving with mindfulness, we can stay mentally and physically healthy.
Why pranayama is great for people who are ‘bad’ at meditation
Pranayama is the fourth path, and focuses on breathwork. The class I attended started by getting us to breath colours up and down the spine to ground us in the moment before concentrating on moving breath around the head via different nostrils.
I’m rubbish at meditation; the only time that I’ve seriously meditated for a long time was in the immediate aftermath of taking San Pedro, a powerful cactus-based hallucinogenic which left me with a two-week afterglow. Without mind-blowing plant-spirit intervention, I can barely focus on being still for two minutes without getting lost in a trail of thought. But in the pranayama class, somehow, I became fully immersed in the breathwork. Breathing into the right nostril for power and breathing out the left for peace, we held breath, slowed it down, gave it colour.
A big theme of the class was breathing in different energies according to the nostril. That might sound a bit Goop, but it’s got grounding in ancient yogic philosophy. Yoga teacher Sarah Malcolm tells Stylist that in yoga, we’re said to have three energy channels: one feminine, one masculine and one central.
“The exchange of energy within those does different things in the body; if you’re working further into the feminine channel, you’ll give the body more rest and move into the parasynthetic nervous system more,” she explains. “Those channels are accessed through the left nostril, with breath moving into the right side of the brain that controls your rest and digest functions. When we breathe into the right nostril, we tap into the masculine, big energy channel. The breath moves to the left ‘doing’ side of the brain.”
Harnessing breath for energy and relaxation
We practised perhaps the most simple and common pranayama technique: alternate nostril breathing. You breathe in through the right nostril, hold the breath and breathe it back out through the left. That’s what is known as ‘sun piercing breath’, which works by moving more breath into the right nostril and breathing out through the left. Swap over, and you have the moon piercing breath which does the opposite (breathing in through the left and out through the right).
Malcolm explains that there are lots of other variations to expand breath in the body and tap into diaphragmatic breathing which allows us to access our parasynthetic nervous system and gut/brain axis.
If you don’t believe in energies and aren’t bothered about tapping into your feminine or masculine sides, then there are still tons of benefits to practising pranayama. From a yogic philosophy rather than scientific perspective, Malcolm says, “Practicing pranayama can bring an inward awareness into your body; it’s a great tool for meditation, for slowing everything down, for becoming aware of how you’re breathing.” It’s only in those sorts of classes or moments that you tend to realise how long you’ve been holding onto your breath or that you tend to breath short, sharp breaths rather than long and luxurious inhales.
Scientific health benefits of pranayama
Fellow yogi Donna Noble, founder of Curvesome Yoga, agrees that pranayama can help strengthen the connection between mind and body. “ By connecting to the breath, it can help to avoid the body going into flight or fight mode,” she explains. “It also allows us to see if we are stressed and help to eliminate it. Short, shallow breaths indicate that we are stressed while deep abdominal breaths show the body that we are more relaxed.”
Pranayama, she says, is “considered to be our life force and energy.” Again, that might sound super wellness but Noble points to research that has found that pranayama breathing can improve lung capacity, blood pressure and brain function. “Regular practice of pranayama can actually energise the whole body.”
Why isn’t pranayama a more common yoga class in the UK?
So why then isn’t pranayama as readily available as hatha when it comes to yoga classes? For me, accidentally booking a breathing class offered more benefits than an asana session. By the end of the hour, I felt… different. It was a struggle to cycle back home, such was the sense of relaxation and inner peace, and later that evening, I found it quite difficult to be sociable and chat with my housemates; I just wanted to relax on my bed with Beautiful Chorus on my Spotify and palo santo burning. And weirdly enough, I had a brilliant night’s sleep and ran my fastest 15k the following morning.
“Unfortunately, the face of yoga that is often promoted in mainstream yoga is the asana. This could be because the importance of breathing is not often understood,” Noble explains.
“You will find that in order to make yoga more palatable for clients, important aspects of the practice are removed and this includes the breath. With the length of yoga classes being shortened from 90 to 60 or 45 mins, this may be another reason for the scrapping breathwork.” Noble goes onto suggest that perhaps this repackaging and rejection of parts of yoga is part and parcel of yoga becoming co-opted by big business.
It’s sad that many classes don’t offer pranayama; nail the breathwork, and we can move through asanas more easily and mindfully. Practise pranayama and you may just find other areas of your every day regime become more manageable, whether that’s finally managing to relax your tight shoulders or feel more energised from getting more oxygen into your lungs.
How to get started with pranayama
Your best bet is to find a pranayama class or a yoga session that offers pranayama as part of the class. If you’d like to try a five minute session from the comfort of your own desk, however, give this sequence a go:
- Come to sit in a cross-legged position on the floor
- Taking your left hand, extend thumb and little finger while curling your middle three fingers (like you’re doing the ‘whatsapppp!’ sign)
- Place your thumb over your left nostril, hovering your little finger over your right
- Breathe deeply through the right nostril for four seconds
- Hold for two seconds
- Remove your thumb and using the little finger, close off the right nostril so you can slowly breathe out of the left
- Repeat five times, then repeat using the right hand and opposite nostrils.
“Remember,” Malcolm warns, “it takes us around 20 minutes to shift from sympathetic to parasympathetic nervous system so any pranayama practice is going to be beneficial but won’t shift that energy straight away. You’ve got to settle and wait to see how you feel.”
Want to stretch a bit before settling down to breathwork? Check out our 15-minute mobility classes over on the Strong Women Training Club.
Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.