Five years ago, a friend taught me pranayama breathing and it changed my life. Prior to that, I had never heard of this powerful relaxation technique. So, just what is pranayama? Hillary Clinton swears by this breathing practice in her new book, What Happened. When I first tried pranayama breathing, I was on a work retreat in Austin, Texas, and one of my friends offered an optional early morning class. According to Yoga Journal, pranayama is the formal practice of controlling the breath, which is the source of our prana, or vital life force.
There are a few different ways to engage in this practice. The version I do involves lying down on a yoga mat and doing a three part breath that involves deep breathing that begins in the belly, moves up to the chest, and finally the nose and mouth. The form of pranayama Clinton practices involves "sitting in a comfortable position on the ground and using your right thumb and index finger to close one nostril at a time while you inhale and exhale," Business Insider reported.
"The way it's been explained to me, this practice allows oxygen to activate both the right side of the brain, which is the source of creativity and imagination, and the left side, which controls reason and logic," Clinton wrote in What Happened. "Breathe in and out, completing the cycle a few times. You will feel calmer and more focused."
How Does Pranayama Breathing Work?
You probably know that getting oxygen to your brain is pretty important, but in today's always-on-the-go world most of us aren't taking enough deep breaths. Pranayama breathing can help stimulate the brain. And, while pranayama is an ancient practice, the myriad wellness benefits are just starting to be explored by researchers. The International Journal of Yoga published a study that found that regular practice of pranayama breathing has vast stress-reduction benefits, and it actually improved physiological functions of police trainees.
I found pranayama so beneficial in reducing my stress and anxiety that I took a training course to become a pranayama practitioner. My teacher, David Elliott, explained to me that the reason pranayama works so well — especially for people who have a hard time meditating — is because it's an active breathing exercise versus a passive meditation. When you have to focus on the pattern of your breath, it's harder to get distracted because breathing in a way you're not used to is actually pretty hard work.
"It’s a tool to help people to get out of their heads… to help people to open up," Elliott told LA Yoga magazine. "Open their heart up and stop thinking or being focused outside themselves. So with the breathing meditation we’re teaching people to focus inside. To still themselves and ultimately to open up and let the universe come through as love…as self-love.”
My friend Nathaniel Hodder-Shipp, a Los Angeles-based pranayama breathwork practitioner who founded Breathwork for Recovery, tells me that breathing can help people recover from everything from stress to addiction. "Breathwork is definitely a powerful tool. It lets people quiet the incessant chatter that is in their minds and allows them to start to renegotiate with shame, process suppressed emotions, and heal trauma that has occurred in their lives," Hodder-Shipp explains.
The reason pranayama breathing is so effective is because it brings more oxygen directly to your brain, particularly the hypothalamus, which is the part of your brain that keeps your body in balance.
"The hypothalamus is tied right into the limbic system in the brain which is the emotional and feeling brain and which also controls our olfactory and sensory input," Trinity Healing Arts explained on its website. "It has been referred to as the second brain since it is so important in the proper functioning of our body."
When your hypothalamus is out of balance — perhaps from the stress of a dumpster fire presidential election — your nervous system might experience distress that can manifest as physical symptoms. "If the hypothalamus is out of balance, every function of the body will be affected to one degree or another," Trinity Healing Arts noted.
Clinton explained in What Happened that she turned to pranayama breathwork as an alternative to anti-anxiety medication after she lost the 2016 U.S. presidential election. "If you've never done alternative nostril breathing, it's worth a try," she wrote. "It may sound silly, but it works for me."
Who knew a little thing like a breathing technique could be so helpful? If you want to try pranayama breathing yourself, this beginners guide from Yoga Journal can guide you through it step by step.