The Fourth Limb of Patanjali’s Eight Fold Path: Pranayama (Breath Control)

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In 2013 I covered the first three limbs of Ashtanga yoga – yama, niyama and asana.  Now we are going to explore the fourth limb: pranayama (breath control).

Just a reminder that the eight limbs of Patanjali’s Eight Fold Path are:

  1. Yama (restraint)
  2. Niyama (observances)
  3. Asana (posture)
  4. Pranayama (breath control)
  5. Pratyahara (controlling the senses)
  6. Dharana (concentration)
  7. Dhyana (meditation)
  8. Samadhi (absolute consciousness)

This month’s focus: PRANAYAMA

Pranayama lies in the heart of yoga.  Prana means ‘life force or energy’ and yama as you know means to control.  So pranayama is described as breath control. Prana means vital energy by which we live and because this energy is often renewed by breathing, prana is often translated as “breath.”  The aim of pranayama is therefore to control the prana, the vital energy and this manifests itself mainly through the function of breathing exercises.  It is often said that the yogi should never do asana (posture) without pranayama.  Why? Well just as asana is seen as food for the body, pranayama is seen as food for the mind.  Pranayama and asana together make up what we call Vinyasa yoga – which is breath synchronised with movement.  Pranayama is absolutely essential to the practice of yoga.  Guruji (the late Patthabi Jois) has often been quoted as saying that yoga without the breath is simply gymnastics.  In other words, asana without breath is just stretching; it is not yoga.  The breath heightens the practice of yoga by connecting the mind and drawing the attention of the yogi inwardly.

There are many techniques of pranayama and there are many that are centred on stopping the breath through inhalation and exhalation.  The many different traditions of yoga focus on various pranayama techniques and in YWG classes some techniques you will have come across are:  sama vritti pranayama (equal breathing), nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing), ujjayi pranayama (victorious breath), bhramari pranayama (humming bee breath), kapalabhati pranayama (pumping breath), kumbhaka (breath retention), lions breath and golden thread breath.  All these techniques work on calming the mind and improving concentration.

 The ultimate goal of pranayama, is to calm the mind and prepare it for spiritual concentration.  Pranayama, if practiced regularly, can bring a striking feeling of plenitude, reducing anxieties, excitement and restlessness.  Pranayama can help improve concentration and focused prayer/reflection/contemplation which leads to a more positive and healthier life style.

 Some things to think about:

  • If you are new to the practice of yoga, pranayama can be overwhelming.  Once you have established a more regular and steady asana practice, the pranayama will come more easily.
  •  Do you practice any form of pranayama in your daily life? Did you know that an adult averages between 21,600- 24,000 breaths each day? How many of those breaths are conscious breaths with complete mindfulness and awareness? A regular yoga practice can assist you to be more aware of your breath each day.
  •  ‘Just breathe’…. Best advice to reduce stress and anxiety.  If you are in a challenging situation or generally feeling that you need to reduce your stress levels… stop, sit, close your eyes and take a few calm breaths.  Focus on breathing in for a count of 4 and breathing out for a count of 4.  Do this as little as 3-6 rounds and you will start to calm your nervous system.  As the nervous system relaxes, the body and the mind will relax…. So in times of stress….bring your attention back to your breath!

 “Breath is the bridge that connects life to consciousness,
which unites your body to your thoughts. ”
 -Thich Nhat Hanh