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The Fourth Limb of Yoga: Pranayama
The eight-limbed path of yoga was delineated by the Indian sage Patanjali approximately 2,000 years ago in the Yoga Sutras. Many see this as the definitive work of classical yoga philosophy.
In Light On Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar explains how each limb on the eightfold path prepares us for the next. He describes the first three steps (the yamas, niyamas, and asana) as the outward practices, or bahiranga sadhana, enabling the practitioner to control his/her passions and emotions and rendering the body a healthy and fit vehicle for spiritual development.
The following two steps are the inner practices (antaranga sadhana). They teach the practitioner to regulate the breath and thereby tame the mind. The senses can then be freed from the objects of desire.
The first of these inner practices, and the fourth step on the eight-step path of yoga, is pranayama. The Sanskrit word “pranayama” is composed of two smaller words: prana and ayama.
Prana has several definitions, including breath, respiration, breath of life, vital air, vigor, vitality, energy and spirit. Essentially prana is the vital life force that animates and enlivens everything in the universe, including you, your pet, the food you eat, the ground you walk on and the air you breathe. This subtle energy can’t be seen nor touched, but it can be accessed indirectly through its physical manifestation, the breath.
Ayama can be translated as expansion, extension, or stretching. So literally, pranayama translates as “the expansion of the vital life force.” However, in the context of pranayama, ayama can also be interpreted as control or restraint. So commonly we refer to pranayama in English as “breath control.”
The phrase “expansion of the vital life force” has a much more poetic and sublime quality than “breath control,” but both are useful definitions and interpretations. When we practice pranayama, on a nuts and bolts practical level we work with the breath; we breathe in a specific way, controlling and manipulating the breath.
But there’s so much going on beyond just breathing. By working with the breath we’re accessing and observing prana, that essential energy without which we wouldn’t exist. There are many layers to the practice of pranayama, from the simplest breath observation to a much deeper experience of subtle energy in the body, mind and spirit.
Depending on the type of yoga you practice, pranayama may be incorporated during the practice of asana (as in the Ashtanga and Vinyasa styles) or may be taught only as a separate practice (as in the Iyengar and Integral traditions).
Regardless of how pranayama is taught or practiced, its benefits are many. The Tantric texts from thousands of years ago claim that pranayama is a means to awaken kundalini, which is the spiritual energy within each of us lying dormant at the base of the spine like a coiled serpent. The practice of pranayama supposedly awakens this sleeping snake of divine energy and forces it to ascend up the central pranic channel (the sushumna). As it rises, it penetrates each of the chakras (energy centers). Eventually it pierces the topmost chakra, the sahasrara, and unites with the Supreme Soul.
Prana, kundalini, the sushumna and the chakras are all part of the subtle, energetic body. As such they cannot be seen and, as yet, their existence has not been proven by science. The evidence of their existence lies in the teachings of the ancient yogis and the personal experience of yoga practitioners through the years.
However, pranayama has been the subject of much scientific research in recent years. Various studies have proven its many positive effects on the body and mind, such as enhancing the action of the parasympathetic nervous system (a.k.a. the “relaxation response”), easing chronic pain, reduced stress, improved sleep, and the alleviation of anxiety.
Whether one believes the yogis of ancient times or looks to modern science for proof, it’s undeniable that the effects of pranayama are profound. Breath by breath, the yoga of breathing can lead you to a better understanding of yourself and your yoga practice.
Christine Malossi, RYT 200 is based in New York City, where she offers a mindful, alignment-focused Vinyasa practice that cultivates balance, awareness and equanimity. In addition to teaching private clients and group classes at studios throughout Manhattan, she also teaches at the Spencer Cox Center for Health at Mount Sinai Hospital’s Institute for Advanced Medicine where she designs a practice specifically tailored to patients diagnosed with HIV and other chronic illnesses. Christine is honored to be teaching yoga and to have the opportunity to pass on to others the joy and freedom that she has found in her own practice. Find her at www.christinemalossi.com