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

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

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The Third Limb of Patanjali’s Eight Fold Path: Asana (Posture)

The last few months we have covered the first two limbs of Ashtanga yoga – yama and niyama.  Now we are going to explore the third limb: asana (posture) which is the most popular in the Western world.

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: ASANA

Asana, the third limb, is often referred to as posture and is the aspect of yoga practice that is often misunderstood and taken for the sum of all yoga practice, rather than an isolated practice of yoga.  Asana literally means “seat” and is the seated position or posture where one’s body is firm but relaxed.  The yoga sutras describe asana to be ‘stirum sukham asanam’ which means ‘steady and comfortable meditation posture’.   Asana is not about performing fancy moves with the body, but rather about certain ways of holding the body along with certain attitudes.

One must be in a meditative state when practicing asana and these certain movements promote concentration of the spirit and inner connectedness, thus assisting one to pray in a purer fashion.  The aim of asana is to achieve an effortless alertness where one’s body is focused on the infinite.  Through the practice of asana, a daily communion with God (the divine, the source, the universe…) is promoted, thus making it easier to receive graces.

One may ask the question: is it possible for one to isolate the physical aspects of yoga as simply a method of exercise without incorporating the spirituality behind it? This is an important reflection as we can see that yoga practices open one’s mind and body to grow in consciousness and awareness.  Through yoga, physical and psychological healing can aid one to experience divinity through the transformation of the whole person.

Ultimately, asana is a means to prepare the body for spiritual exercises, with less obstacles, in order to find union with God (the divine, Allah, universe…or whoever that source is for you).

I often say in class that the entry and exit of a posture is just as important as the posture itself.  Do we enter and exit with mindfulness? Are we only concerned about the posture, or is how we approach it and leave it equally as important? We could certainly translate these thoughts into ordinary life – how do we approach situations in life that may be challenging? How do we leave them? Do we rush in and out of situations or do we mindfully address them? With complete awareness?

 “Before you’ve practiced, the theory is useless.
After you’ve practice, the theory is obvious”
 -David Williams

 

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Ujjayi breath

Ujjayi breath is often known as Victorious breath.  It is most often used with the practice of vinyasa (breath-synchronised movement).  Ujjayi means “to conquer” or “to be victorious”. 

Ujjayi breath is highly beneficial as it concentrates and directs the breath, giving asana practice extra power and focus.  It also helps quiet the mind and slows and smooths the flow of breath.  The breath slightly constricts the back of the throat, the glottis.  You can imagine fogging up a pair of glasses, where the breath is like a sigh – that is the type of breath Ujjayi is.  This constriction of the glottis is done on the inhale and exhale and it creates an ocean like sound (some also describe it as a Darth Vadar sound).  It takes some practice to control the throat on both the inhale and exhale and once this is achieved, you can gently close the lips and breath through the nose.  This is Ujjayi breath.  Although the nose does the breathing, the Ujjayi breath is often called the ocean breath because as the air is inhaled, it passes through the throat. 

 Try to even out the inhale and exhale in Ujjayi breath to help focus on awareness and prevent the mind from wandering.  Ujjayi also assists in creating heat in the body which is said to release toxins from the body and mind.  It also provides more resistance during your asana practice. 

 The breath should be louder than your internal dialogue and loud enough for your neighbour to hear.  This helps keep the mind aware of the present moment and also allows the yogi to change from one asana to the next with ease and grace.  

 This video can be useful to help develop this practice of Ujjayi. 

 Yoga is the practice of quieting the mind.  ~Patanjali (translated from Sanskrit)