And it works, every time, doesn’t it? Controlling our breath balances our autonomic nervous system and removes toxins from our bodies. This is why a few deep breaths can drastically change how we feel.
The fourth limb (discipline) of yoga, known as pranayama, teaches us to cultivate awareness of our breathing as much as possible, to improve our concentration, and nourish our bodies with healing energy.
The Yoga Sutras tells us that:
“The fourth of the eight rungs of Yoga is Pranayama, which is regulating the breath so as to make it slow and subtle, leading to the experience of the steady flow of energy (prana), which is beyond or underneath exhalation, inhalation, and the transitions between them.”
The original intent of the discipline of pranayama was to encourage yogis to breathe on purpose.
Breathing is an automatic bodily function, so it’s easy to take it for granted. We forget that the breath can be controlled in ways that greatly improve our quality of life, and make us more available to God. When we breath deeply, our mind clears, and we release energy that is not essential, so our true nature can be revealed.
Like most ancient beliefs, the interpretation of pranayama has evolved over time. Ptanajali’s original idea of controlling the breath has inspired yogis to create dozens of specific, controlled, breathing practices that now also fall under the umbrella of “pranayama”. You have probably heard of some of them, such as ujayi, bhakti, and alternate nostril breathing.
While I love to get my bhakti breath on, when it comes to The Eight Limbs, I define pranayama as it was originally intended: observation of the breath.
When we pay attention to our breathing, we notice things about ourselves that we would otherwise miss. We become aware that we hold our breath when we are stressed, that our inhales are shorter than our exhales, or that we clench our stomachs and block the breath, when we are mad. Awareness is the first step in fixing unhealthy breathing habits that inhibit our health, our mind, and our spirit.
Paying attention to my breath has made a huge difference in my daily stress levels. It’s empowering to know that, no matter how chaotic my day might get, I can keep calm and carry on, by drawing awareness to my breath. A few deep inhales and exhales helps me think more clearly and put things in perspective.
What I love most about the lessons of The Eight Limbs, and especially pranayama, is that the disciplines described are universal. No one is excluded, and everyone benefits. And we can practice them anywhere, and everywhere we go.
We’re halfway through this series of posts about The Eight Limbs of Yoga. I hope you have found these discussions helpful. Have you practiced one or more of the first Four Limbs this week? What have you noticed?