Pranayama, Breathing for Performance
Instructor course handout
Table of contents
Pranayama, Breathing for Performance
Benefits of Pranayama
Pranayama for Freediving
The aim of this paper is to introduce different pranayama techniques that are practiced by world- class freedivers such as Sara Campbell, William Trubridge, Umberto Pelizzari, and more.
To start with, we will define pranayama and look briefly into its history to get a clear understanding of what it stands for and how it originated. After that we will start to understand the different benefits of pranayama and how it can positively impact our performance as freedivers. Later on, we will start looking into different pranayama exercises such as Breath of Fire, Alternate Nostril Breathing, Spinal Flexes, and Sufi grinding. We will also learn how to perform each one of them and to get to understand their benefits.
Pranayama comes from the Sanskrit words Prana, meaning “life force” and ayama, meaning “extension”. In other words, Pranayama is the practice of extending our life force, meaning breath. It involves a combination of inhaling, exhaling, and retaining the breath for the purpose of relaxing our mind and body. Pranayama plays a very important role in Yoga as it calms down the mind for meditation and prepares the body for performing different poses.
Pranayama depends on breathing to regulate and expand the flow of prana through our energy channels – called the nadis. The nadis consist of three main energy channels that run through our spinal column and the purpose of those breathing exercises is to let our energy flow through the nadis in a proper and efficient way. This will ultimately benefit both our mental and physical health.
Pranayama’s earliest revelation dates back to 3,000 BCE when the Sanskrit book “Chandogya Upanishad” was written. This book is one of the oldest in Hinduism and it is believed that it is one of the first texts to link breathing practices to the vital energy and life force. The book states: “One should indeed breath in (arise) but one should also breathe out (without setting) while saying, “Let not the misery that is dying reach me.” When one would practice that (breathing), one should rather desire to thoroughly realize that (immortality). It is rather through that (realization) that he wins a union with this divinity (breath), that is a sharing of worlds.”
Pranayama is known to have many health benefits when practiced regularly. The first health benefit and the one most related to Freediving is; lung functionality improvement. With all the breathing techniques practiced in Pranayama, it is evident that those breathing techniques result in better functioning lungs, and it is known that people with asthma have benefited greatly from Pranayama.
The second benefit would be fighting sinusitis. Sinusitis is a major concern for freedivers. As an inflated sinus would result in improper equalization. This is a problem that many freedivers face and it results in them having bad dives and eventually getting out of the water. Luckily, there’s a certain breathing technique that is known to treat sinusitis or blocked sinuses in general. This technique is called the breath of fire and it will be explained thoroughly in the next chapter.
The third benefit is clearing nasal passages. This is also a bit similar to sinusitis but it’s less harmful. However, many freedivers have this issue and it could also lead to difficulty in equalization. Pranayama is known to clear nasal passages and there is one exercise that specifically focus on that issue. That exercise is called Alternate Nostril Breathing and it will be explained in the next chapter.
Another important benefit, and is considered the main reason why people perform Pranayama, is the improvement of mental concentration. We live in a digital world where concentration becomes really hard as we’re exposed to too much information everyday and we find it difficult to pause for a moment and relax our mind. This issue has in fact created new diseases such as ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder) and ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). Those diseases weren’t known 50 years ago, they are new and created by the digital age.
So with the help of pranayama, one can learn to center himself, focus, and eventually improve mental concentration. This could be great for Freediving as our mind often wanders away or sometimes produces bad thoughts that we might have trouble letting go and therefore, it will be hard for us to relax mentally.
Other benefits of Pranayama include weight loss, curing digestive problems, treating depression, reducing risk of hypertension, improving cardiovascular health, detoxification, better skin health, and finally, strengthening the immune system.
In this part, we will introduce different breathing techniques that are performed in Pranayama and that can help freedivers improve many things such as; breath-hold capability, body relaxation, mouth-fill technique, and focus. The following exercises will be performed sitting down in a cross legged position with the spine straight and eyes closed.
To start with, let’s look at the first technique known as “Alternate nostril breathing”. To perform this technique, we place our thumb on our left nostril, inhale and then exhale from the right nostril, and then switch the thumb on our left nostril with the little finger and place it on the right nostril, inhaling and then exhaling from the right nostril. We keep alternating between the two nostrils for a few minutes and then we finally breath from both nostrils. By focusing on the rhythm and the flow of our breath we will be able to induce a state of mental relaxation.
The second exercise we will practice is called “The Breath of Fire”. This exercise is similar to what we in Freediving know as “Hyperventilation”. In this exercise we use muscles in the lower abdomen to stimulate the naval point, which is one of our chakras and this is where the energy sits. So we are going to pump the muscles in our naval and wake up the energy inside.
We begin to contract our abdomen in and exhale actively then quickly relaxing our abdomen and inhaling in. We keep performing this breathing pattern continuously for a couple of minutes focusing mainly on contracting and relaxing in equal measure, and then we finally inhale in completely and hold our breath for a couple of seconds.
The third exercise is called “Sufi Grinding”. This exercise is a great warm up for the whole body and it improves mobility of the hips and spine. To perform this exercise, we rest our hands on our knees and draw attention to the spine. The goal is to make circles with the whole of the spine to loosen it up. We work with the breath, and come forward as we breathe in and go back as we breathe out. Focusing on the spine rotation as we circle the whole of the spine.
The fourth exercise is called “Jalandarabhanda” and it is perfect for freedivers that are practicing Mouth-fill because it strengthens the muscle in the throat and allows them to keep the air in instead of swallowing it. We perform this exercise by restricting the flow of the inhalation and exhalation by partially closing the throat and leaving just a bit of space to breathe and feel the slowing down of breath. We begin to separate our inhalations by closing and opening the throat 4 times each inhalation, meaning that each full breath we take is separated into 4 by closing the throat during inhaling. That is great for understanding our lung size and the distribution of breath. We do the exact same for the exhalation.