A blog series on the 8 Limbs of Yoga…

As a review the eight limbs of yoga, as outlined in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are as follows:

  1. Yamas (external/social ethics)
  2. Niyamas (internal ethics)
  3. Pranayama (breath work)
  4. Asana (physical postures)
  5. Pratyahara (turning inward/withdrawl of senses)
  6. Dharana (concentration)
  7. Dhyana (meditation)
  8. Samadhi (connection/blissful union to source)

No one limb is any more important than the rest.  Picture it like a tall tree, with its many limbs.  Samadhi would be the top limb, pointing high up to the sky, but it cannot exist with all the other limbs that get you there. 

Pranayama is the limb associated with your breath.  Prana in sanskrti means your life force energy.  That which sustains life.  You can go months without food, days without water, but only minutes without breath.  Both voluntary and involuntary, you can breathe whenever you want, and your breath keeps going even when you aren’t thinking about it.  Bringing in oxygen, refreshing and cleaning your blood cells, and then releasing toxins in the form of carbon dioxide.  But how often do you consciously think about your breath and the energy transfer it brings to your body?  In a yoga class, in meditation, but not often in daily life do we consider this life sustaining quality.

Pranayama is control of the breath by definition – Prana = breath or vital energy of the body, and ayama – Control.  Pranayama as a limb is practiced in conjunction with yoga postures and meditation; how many times have you been queued in yoga to “inhale and reach” or “exhale and forward fold”.  Vinyasa is the practice of yoga that matches one breath with one movement and requires greater breathing control.  This is how it ties to the limb of Asanas and Dyana, but WHY is it considered important enough to be one of the 8 limbs?

Have you ever let out a deep sigh? Of course you have, we all have.  How did it feel?  What did it do for your physically, mentally, and emotionally?  It helps you just let go.  Every cell in our body requires oxygen, oxygen is carried in the breath, this is a no brainer, and not really worth having to state, except to get you to think about it on a smaller level.  A conscious breath brings immediate oxygen into the system. 

Quickening your breath can quicken your physical functions by more rapidly increasing the oxygen exchange, the same can be said for consciously slowing down your breath.  Our bodies physical response to stress is to increase our heart rate, which increases blood flow, when requires more frequent oxygen exchange.  By learning to control our breath, we can learn to decrease the effects of stress on the body, and thereby increase overall physical and mental health.  Breathing techniques can be used to relieve anxiety, aid in digestion through the stimulation of internal organs, increase lung capacity, and cleanse the body.  There are four main breathing techniques associated with Pranayama practice in yoga and meditation; however many more exist in the world developed by spiritual leaders who find what works best for them.  The four common and beneficial types are:

  1. Nadhi Sodhana – more commonly known as alternate nostril breathing.  This is best for calming the nervous system, helping in sleep, and promoting concentration.  Start by using your thumb to block your right nostril and inhale through the left.  Inhale into your belly, not your chest.  Then seal your left nostril with your ring finger and exhale through your right nostril.  Exhale completely, pause and inhale through your right nostril.  Full breath, seal your right nostril, release your left nostril and exhale through the left.  One full cycle includes an inhalation on one side followed by an exhalation on the other side.  Try to make the length of your inhale match the length of your exhale (a silent count to 4 is a good starting point).
  2. Kapalabhati Pranayama– literally Skull Shining breath.  It is a cleansing technique that was developed to help clear mucus in the air passages, reduce bloating and build heat in the body.  This is not to be done by those with high blood pressure, heart conditions or are pregnant.  To start sit up nice a tall, elongate your spine and exhale completely to empty your lungs.  Completely through your nose, inhale slightly through both nostrils.  The breaths will be short and sharp, and quick.  After your inhale, exhale sharply while pulling your navel in towards your spine.  Short and quick, but active, while the inhalation is short and passive.  With a little sound on every exhale, think of it like blowing out forcefully and sharply with a SHOO, brief inhale, SHOO, inhale, almost like a forced hyperventilating.  Do this for 30 rounds and rest for a minute with nice deep long recovery breaths and then repeat for 30 rounds.
  3. Ujjayi Pranayama – translate to victorious breath, but often referred to as ocean breath in yoga class.  This is probably the one most have had exposure to in western yoga classes and is a fairly common breathing technique as it teaches focus and expansion.  This is an easy practice to return to when you feel like you need a quick break from the stresses of life.  Begin by sitting up tall and straight, but comfortable.  Inhale deeply through both nostrils, expanding your lungs until they reach capacity.  Hold for a moment, then on your exhale constrict your throat muscles and exhale slowly through your nostrils.  Think of it as how your throat feels when you are about to whisper, I have also heard it described as imagining you are breathing through a straw in your throat.  It should be audible, like the waves of an ocean or a calm breeze through the trees.  You should feel the air on the roof of your mouth as you exhale. Repeat up to 20 times.  This breath can be practiced at any time you feel you need focus or calm, and can be practiced for up to 10 minutes at a time.
  4. Sitali Pranayama – cooling breath.  Probably the least know or used of the three, but beneficial when you need a moment to just cool down, if you are overheated or irritable.  Simply roll your tongue into a U shaped tube and inhale through your mouth.  Take in all the air you can, it should sound like a hissing, then bring the tongue to the roof of your mouth and seal your lips.  Feel how cool that breath is and exhale out your nose observing the warmth you are releasing.  Repeat up to 10 times as needed.

Whichever technique works for you, there is power in becoming aware of your breath and in harnessing its energy to better your life.  Breathwork can improve your emotional state, provide physical benefits, and help improve mental alertness and clarify.