Today, we’ll continue our look at the eight limb path of yoga, as outlined in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, with the third and fourth limbs: asana and pranayama. If you missed the review of the yamas and niyamas, you can read it on Firefly’s blog here.
Most people in the United States associate the term yoga with the physical practice, the asanas. However, the postures were originally created as a means to prepare the body for sitting in meditation. In the West, the asanas have become the primary focus, but the postures, such as the Warrior poses, represent only the third step along the path to enlightenment. Through asana we can develop the habit of discipline, and the ability to concentrate, which will support us in meditation.
The fourth limb, pranayama, involves performing breathing exercises to get more attuned to the vital life force, prana, circulating in and around the body. In Sanskrit, prāṇa means "vital life force", and yāma means to gain control. In yoga, pranayama is a means to elevate the life energies to prolong life.
Some teachers incorporate pranayama into their asana classes, but it can also be a stand-alone practice. In vinyasa-style yoga classes, we encourage students to link their breath to each movement, and often talk about ujjayi breath (victorious breath), which is practiced by breathing in and out through the nose while gently constricting the opening of the throat to create some resistance to the passage of air. During asana practice, this breath helps to generate heat in the body.
Some other pranayama practices include:
Nadi Shodana, or alternate nostril breathing, is practiced to synchronize the two hemispheres of the brain, and purify the subtle energy channels (nadis) of the body so the prana flows more easily. Using your right hand, with the index and middle finger folded in (or resting on the bridge of your nose), gently close your right nostril with your thumb. Inhale through your left nostril, then close it with your ring finger. After a very brief pause, open and exhale slowly through the right nostril. Keep the right nostril open, inhale, then close it, and open and exhale slowly through the left. This is one cycle. Repeat five times, then release your hand to return to normal breathing.
Sama Vritti Pranayama, or box breathing, is a tool to help clear your mind, relax your body, and allow you to focus. It’s practiced by inhaling, holding, exhaling, and pausing before the next inhale, each for a count of four.
Dirgha pranayama, or three-part breath, involves briefly interrupting your inhalations and/or exhalations with pauses. I’ve personally used this practice when I’m having trouble falling asleep. Inhale to a third of the lungs' capacity, then pause for two to three seconds. Inhale another third, pause again, and inhale until the lungs are filled. Pause, and then take a full exhale breath. Do this a few times, and then switch so that you are taking a full inhale breath, and exhaling in thirds.
Pranayama has been shown to help reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, because controlled breathing impacts the parasympathetic nervous system. You may have noticed that you instinctively take slow, deep breaths to calm yourself when in a stressful situation.
These first four stages that we explored this month prepare us for the second half of the journey, which deals with the senses, the mind, and attaining a higher state of consciousness. In August, watch for the details about the last four steps.