The 8 Limbs of Yoga (Part 4: Pranayama)

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Pranayama: The Fourth Limb

Pranayama is the fourth limb of yoga and means life-force control, but is better known as the science of breathing. Prana is the vital energy that provides life through the breath and resides in the blood; it is most concentrated in the semen and vaginal discharge. Yama means self-restraint, control, or discipline. In Pranayama, the yogi learns to control the flow of life-force through the body by regulation of the breathing apparatus.

Yogi’s are renowned for having control over the breath and this can involve holding the breath for long periods of time. Kumbhaka is holding the breath between inhale and exhale
(antara kumbaka) or between exhale and inhale (bahya kumbhaka). Puraka means inhaling, rechaka means exhaling, and kumbhaka means retention.  In gaining control of the breath and in the science of pranayama all of these techniques are useful.

Two of the Bandhas (interlocking mechanisms in the body) are intrinsic for control over the breath and can help to refine technique. The primary lock is the Uddiyana Bandha, which is similar to the caving technique of Arnold. At the end of an exhale, suck the stomach up into your chest and notice how you can naturally hold it there. This is useful for increased abdominal and spinal control and can help in sun salutations as you jump forward and back. The second bandha is the Mula Bandha, which is interlock between the rectum/anus and the naval. This bandha is useful in all types of breathing exercises, and between both inhales and exhales and is often used in conjunction with the Uddiyana Bandha. Mula Bandha is also known as the perineum and is often referred to as the primary lock in yoga.

There are some techniques that are useful for deepening the relationship to the breath and the practitioner’s control over it. Bhastrika, or bellows breathing, is the forceful exhales and inhales of the breath to heat the internal system, kind of firing things up. It uses 3-4 second cycling and is really effective at the beginning of a practice. Kapalabhati, or fire-breathing, is forceful exhales that snap the naval to the spine and increase in speed as you do them. This also creates heat, but can simultaneously release tension of the abdominal muscles. Anulom Vilom, alternate nostril breathing, is a great way to equilibriate the brain and entire central nervous system. Exhale then inhale in one nostril, then switch sides and repeat 5 to 6 times. Calming feelings and stress relief should start to enter into the mind and body after you have completed. Breath retention is the process of elongating the breath as much as possible, keeping about equal inhales and exhales and holding in between each. Usually time between inhale and exhale is longer than between exhale and inhale, because it is harder to retain the breath when the lungs are empty. Shitali is a technique where you breath in through the tongue and exhale through the nose. This cools the central nervous system and is a great way to transition into Savasana, or the end of a practice. These techniques will grant increased control over the breath and body and with regular practice will help to alleviate a variety of maladies, illnesses, and inefficiencies in the body.

Pranayama is the fourth limb of yoga; according to Patanjali it comes after asana in terms of the progression of the yogi to enlightenment. Pranayama is not something you want to mess around with; improper use can easily lead to imbalance in the system and cause tension. It is a great way to enter into a practice or to cool-down afterwards, before entering corpse pose (which should always be done after intense asana practice). Use your bandhas and techniques to increase the efficiency of your breath and nervous system. It will also give greater emotional control, leading to relief from anxiety and stress.