It’s all about the breath

Cartoon whale spouting water
Luckily for class participants, humans don’t spout water when they exhale, unlike whales. Image CC0 from Pixabay

Continuing the monthly look at the eight limbs of yoga as outlined in Patanjali’s yoga sutras, we come to the fourth limb: pranayama, or to over-simplify, breathing.

One person asked me why people have to be taught how to breathe. That’s not necessarily what pranayama is. Pranayama is composed of two words: prana (breath, life force or vital energy) and ayama (control, stretch, extend, expand or pause). So pranayama is the extension or control of the breath. Patanjali introduces it thus:

“Pranayama is the regulation of the incoming and outgoing flow of breath with retention. It is to be practised only after perfection in asana is attained.” (Sutra 2:49). (Iyengar’s translation).

Patanjali discusses it further in the next 4 sutra and concludes that regular practice reduces the obstacles (in the mind) that cloud clear perception, and prepares the mind for concentration (the next limb).

So, that’s the theory, what’s involved? There are three parts to the breath: the inhalation (puraka), exhalation (rechaka) and retention (kumbakya). The retention can occur after the inhalation, or after the exhalation. The different pranayama practices are all variations of these three elements.

Pranayama is important because it enables the practitioner to control not only their breath but also their emotions and mind. When we are excited, agitated or stressed our rate of breathing becomes faster and shallower. When we are composed, our breathing is slow, calm and rhythmical. By deliberately controlling the breath, it is possible to influence the mind. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika notes that:

“When the breath is unsteady, the mind is unsteady. When the breath is steady the mind is steady, and the yogi becomes steady. Therefore one should restrain the breath.” (HYP, section 2.2) (Akers, 2002, p. 33)

Patanjali doesn’t describe any actual pranayama practices, but they are discussed in other texts or commentaries on the sutras. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika describes eight varieties of pranayama practices. These are:

  • Surya bheda – sun piercing
  • Ujjayi – victorious
  • Sitkari – cooling hissing (through teeth)
  • Sitali – cooling (through curled tongue)
  • Bhastrika – bellows
  • Bhramari – bee breath
  • Murcha – swooning
  • Plavini – floating

In Light on Yoga Iyengar describes over 10 techniques including some but not all of the above, and includes others such as nadi sodhana (alternate nostril breathing), kapalabhati, sama vrtti (equal breath), visama vrtti (ratio breath), and viloma and anuloma variations (staggered or smooth breaths).

It is best to start learning pranayama from a teacher, especially as some of the practices may have precautions associated with them, and each of them bring different physical and mental benefits.

Pranayama should be practised in a comfortable seated position e.g. lotus, easy cross legged, hero’s pose, or in a chair. The spine should be lengthening upright, the chest lifting with the maximum space available for the lungs to expand. Generally, pranayama is practised at the end of a class and leads naturally into meditation.

Of course, breathing doesn’t just happen at the end of the class – yoga is about combining the movement with the breath and the mind, being aware of what the breathing is doing during different asana, and listening and adapting the movement as necessary.

A simple practice

If you are new to pranayama, a very accessible beginning practice is to become aware of your own natural breathing rhythm by placing your hands on your belly and rib cage to find where the movement is. Spend some time just being aware of the movement: where it’s happening, the speed and quality of the breath, any natural pauses etc. Then you can add in a count, so as you inhale count to yourself “1, 2, 3..” etc, until your inhale finishes. Allow any natural pause to happen, then exhale and count again “1, 2, 3…” etc until your exhale finishes. Count roughly one number per second. This is a simple practice to become aware of any difference in length between your natural inhale and exhale, and can then lead onto full equal breathing and ratio breathing with controlled retentions (pauses) of the breath.

Other breathing practices I have covered:

Further reading:

Akers, B. D. (2002) The Hatha Yoga Pradipika
Iyengar, B. K. S. Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
Iyengar, B.K.S. Light on Pranayama: The Yogic Art of Breathing

Online text of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra (chapter 2 – scroll down to verse 49)

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