This series will build on our introduction to Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga and dive deep into each limb or step on the yogic path to liberation. This article will focus on the fourth limb – Pranayama. Let’s review the Eight Limbs of Yoga first.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga
The Eight Limbs of Yoga is a system of ethics and practices that helps us gain control over the mind and body. Mastery of the mind is the way we dissolve the ego and attain Moksha (liberation).
The Eight Limbs of Yoga are:
Pranayama is the concluding step in the first half of The Eight Limbs of Yoga system. The first half of Patanjali’s journey to enlightenment deals with our sense of ethics and our behavior, and gaining control over our body and prana. These are crucial steps to prepare us for the remaining four steps on the path to liberation, which concern mastery over our senses and mind so that we can attain a higher state of consciousness. Pranayama is the step that forms the bridge between the first four outward limbs and the remaining four inward-focused limbs.
What is Pranayama?
Pranayama is a set of breathing exercises that control the prana or life force energy within the body. The translation of pranayama is ‘life force extension,’ which demonstrates the fourth limb’s potential benefit for our health and wellbeing.
Pranayama can improve our physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Through these breathing practices, we can move, stretch, control, and hold the prana within the body.
Humans are energy conductors, like batteries. In order for the battery to function correctly, there has to be a perfect balance of polarities. It is the same for humans. Pranayama creates this balance. There are pranayama techniques that balance the left and right hemispheres of the brain, the conscious and unconscious mind, and the subtle energies of the being.
Prana is the energetic life force within all living things. We are born with a certain amount of prana deposited within us, and we need to maintain it like we do our financial bank account. We can refer to this as our energetic bank account.
The foods we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, our thoughts, the exercise we do (or don’t do) all have an effect on our energetic bank account. They either maintain, increase, or decrease our prana levels. Once the prana is gone, the life cannot be sustained.
Behaviors such as drinking alcohol, eating processed foods, not sleeping properly, not exercising, thinking negative thoughts, and consuming toxins will inevitably shorten a person’s life span because they are withdrawing from their energy bank account without depositing.
Patanjali designed his Eight Limbs of Yoga system to increase prana through meditation, personality and behavior refinement, cleansing techniques, mindfulness, and energy practices such as pranayama.
Pranayama, Stress, and Anxiety
Pranayama exercises can switch us from the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) to the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). They help to reduce the levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline in the body. These hormones are scientifically linked to elevated inflammation, which is the precursor to a whole host of chronic diseases.
When you feel anxious, your heart rate increases and your breath becomes shallow and rapid. These things lead to more anxiety, which starts a vicious cycle that is hard to break. Choosing a pranayama practice that slows and deepens the breath breaks this cycle and helps you regain control over your physiological anxiety symptoms, calming your psychological and emotional reactions.
Physiological Benefits of Pranayama
Practicing pranayama not only decreases inflammation in the body but also supports the entire respiratory system. This is particularly important as we age so that we can keep our respiratory system functioning correctly. It increases lung capacity and helps to oxygenate the blood and nourish the body on a cellular level.
Pranayama assists the cardiovascular system by helping to regulate the heart. Regular practice can help to decrease heart rate – another factor in pranayama’s potential for life span extension since a lower resting heart rate usually means a longer life.
Pranayama and Kundalini
Pranayama is one of the primary ways to activate the Kundalini energy that resides in the Muladhara chakra at the base of the spine. Coiled like a snake, the Kundalini lays dormant until it is awoken from its slumber. Once we have awakened Kundalini, we can use other practices to sublimate it up towards the higher chakras. This elevation helps us reach higher states of consciousness and connect with Divine cosmic energy.
Practicing Pranayama Correctly
There are practices for beginning, intermediate, and advanced practitioners of pranayama. Whichever stage you’re at, it’s crucial to practice with compassion, patience, and an open mind. If you try to do a practice that is too advanced for the stage you’re at, or you are practicing incorrectly, you can inadvertently trigger a drain on your energy bank account, rather than an increase.
If you find that you become breathless, anxious, or tense during the practice, you should stop immediately and review the reasons this has happened. Is the practice too advanced? Is your posture supportive enough? Are you following the instructions correctly? It is vital to ensure that the person you are learning from has had proper training so that you learn the correct methods.
The Four-Part Breath
The breath consists of four parts:
Depending on which technique you are using, you will focus on or emphasize one or more of these different stages of the breath. The exhalation is of particular interest in pranayama because most of the time, we do not exhale fully and so do not use the full capacity of the lungs.
If we don’t empty the lungs completely, we can’t fully refill them with fresh air. This means that we are not fully oxygenating the blood or exercising the lungs properly. Through regular pranayama practice, we become better at using our lungs and naturally breathe in a more effective way even when we are not practicing.
Different Types of Pranayama
There are practices for calming and releasing tension, and for stimulating and uplifting. When choosing your method, ensure that you know what it is you want to achieve first. Some pranayama practices are great to do first thing in the morning because they increase energy; therefore, you wouldn’t want to do them at night when you want to fall asleep. Similarly, you wouldn’t want to do a calming, sleep-inducing practice when you have to be alert and awake.
Let’s look at some examples of the two main types of pranayama, calming and stimulating.
Calming or relaxing pranayamas are great to do before bed, or after your yoga practice. They can help to reduce anxiety, relax the body, reduce tension, and balance the emotions.
Nadi Shodhana is also known as ‘alternate nostril breathing.’ It involves breathing in and out through one side of the nose at a time. It balances the left and right hemispheres of the brain, calms the nervous system, and equalizes the prana in Ida and Pingala nadis. Ida and Pingala are the energy pathways surrounding Sushumna nadi that runs up your spine to your brain, connecting all of your main chakras.
Nadi Shodhana is such a powerful practice that if you only do one pranayama, this should be the one. Not only does it balance the brain and energy pathways, but it also helps with focus and mental clarity, and increases intuition. It helps to calm an anxious mind, reducing stress hormones and enables clear and unobstructed breathing.
To practice Nadi Shodhana:
- Ensure that you are sitting comfortably and in an upright position. Close your eyes and relax your shoulders.
- Place the thumb of your right hand on your right nostril, your index and middle fingers on your Ajna (third eye) chakra between your eyebrows, and your ring and pinky fingers on your left nostril.
- Take a deep breath in and exhale fully.
- Close the left nostril and inhale slowly through the right, filling your lungs completely.
- Hold the breath for a second or two while you close the right nostril and open the left.
- Exhale slowly through the left nostril, emptying the lungs completely.
- Inhale through the left nostril, filling the lungs to full capacity.
- Pause and hold the breath while you close the left nostril and open the right to continue the pattern.
- Breathe like this for a few minutes if you are a beginner. When you have finished, release your hands and return to normal breathing for a little while before opening your eyes.
Sama Vritti is also called ‘same side’ or square’ breath because the four parts of the breath are the same length. Sama Vritti is exceptionally calming and balancing. It helps reduce anxiety – I used it when going up in an airplane to do a parachute jump! Sama Vritti is an excellent pre-meditation practice because it reduces mental chatter and disorganized thoughts, preparing the mind for deeper meditative states. It is also helpful for sleep and is a beautiful practice to add to your bedtime ritual.
How to practice Sama Vritti:
- You can either sit in an upright position or lie down. Close your eyes and relax your shoulders.
- Take a deep inhalation, hold for a moment, and then exhale fully.
- Inhale for a count of four.
- Hold the breath on the inhale for a count of four.
- Exhale for four.
- Hold on the exhale for four.
- Repeat the pattern for a few minutes, or as long as you feel comfortable. When you have built up some experience of the practice, you can increase the holds to a count of six, eight, or ten.
These practices help to increase energy, create heat within the body, and facilitate cleansing. They are great to use in the morning to help wake you up, or during the afternoon if you experience that mid-afternoon energy crash. They are also effective before you begin your yoga practice to get your energy moving.
Kapalabhati is also known as ‘shining skull breath’ or ‘breath of fire.’ Shining skull breath because that is its literal translation: kapala means skull, and bhati means light. This reflects the way that this pranayama energizes the brain and improves circulation to the head area. It is sometimes called breath of fire because it generates heat within the body, which has an energizing, cleansing, and detoxifying effect. Kapalabhati is also beneficial for the digestive system and toning the abs.
How to practice Kapalabhati:
- Begin by sitting upright so that your spine is straight and your shoulders relaxed. Close your eyes.
- Close your mouth; this practice is done entirely through the nose.
- Inhale fully and empty the lungs on the exhale.
- Inhale fully and pull in your abdominal muscles quickly and forcefully so that the air is forced out of your nose. It is a fast and sudden movement; you snap your abdomen in and release, snap in and release.
- The emphasis is on the forceful exhale; the breath naturally flows back in on the rebound when you release the abs.
- You don’t have to go too quickly when you are just starting with the practice. Go at a pace that allows you to practice correctly. If you become out of breath, it means you are going too fast before you are ready. Stop the practice, take a few breaths to recover, and start again at a slower pace.
- This practice is much easier to learn through watching, so check out this video for a visual demonstration.
Simhasana pranayama, or ‘Lion’s pose breath’ is energizing and stimulating, and it tones the facial muscles. This practice is also great for improving circulation and releasing tension.
How to practice Simhasana pranayama:
- Sit upright with your spine straight. Relax your shoulders and close your eyes.
- Inhale, filling your lungs, and then open your mouth and stick out your tongue as far as you can toward your chin.
- Exhale forcefully, making an audible ‘ha’ sound.
- Close your mouth to inhale through your nose and repeat the process for as long as you wish.
We hope you have enjoyed our guide to the fourth limb of Patanjali’s yoga system, and you bring some of these practices into your routine. You can catch up on the previous articles in this series on the Eight Limbs of Yoga here:
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