Yoga Sutras for modern life. Fourth limb: Pranayama

Praṇayama is the fourth limb of Yoga and brings us to the fourth part of my mini-series dedicated to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

Pranayama is yogic breathing technique which is practiced to clear the physical and emotional obstacles in order to direct and expand the flow of prana – or ‘life force’ – throughout our energy pathways.

The power of controlling body and mind through the breath

Every cell in our bodies needs oxygen to function properly. So, it is no surprise that research shows that a regular practice of controlled breathing can decrease the effects of stress on the body and increase overall physical and mental health.

Praṇa is a force in constant motion that drives the energy of all living things. According to the ancient yogic tradition, we are born with a certain amount of praṇa and we can maintain it, increase it or decrease it through the air we breathe, the food we eat, the thoughts we think, the actions we perform and in general the kind of life we lead.

Ultimately, the entire yoga system is designed to maximise our prana through the regulation of bodily functions, cleansing practices, meditation and the cultivation of mindfulness in everything we do.

At a more literal level, Pranayama is an incredibly effective way to become aware of our own bodily reactions to stress factors and negative thoughts. Learning how to control our breath actually allows us to change unhealthy patterns and improve mental and physical wellbeing. Through mindful breathing, we are able to invigorate our bodies with this life force and change the way that our central nervous system reacts to stress.

The original formula for breath control is a 1:4:2 ratio. Inhale (Purak, in Sanskrit) for 1 second, retain the breath in the body for 4 seconds (Kumbhak, in Sanskrit) and exhale for 2 seconds (Rechak, in Sanksrit).

The practice of Praṇayama supports the physiological structure of our respiratory system, keeping it strong and toned as we age. Breathing practices also have a direct effect on our cardiovascular system by regulating the heart’s rhythm. When we take long, deep breaths, as is often encouraged in Praṇayama, we slow down our heart rate. Since living beings with slower heart rates generally live longer than those with faster heart rates, Pranayama literally extends our life.

Mind and prana. Two wings of the same bird

Mentally, according to Patanjali, the practice of Pranayama can remove the veil made up of thoughts that can over our inner light. Mind and praṇa are often said to be like the two wings of a bird. Each moves and acts in accordance with the other. Because of this synchronic movement, we can use Pranayama to work on those thoughts that are blocking us from experiencing the truth within and ultimately to quiet the mind.

At its highest level, Pranayama allows us to access the great universal force known as Mahan Praṇa. Through continuous and extensive practice, it is said to align our highest self with a universal consciousness. This great force, which can manifest as a sense of awakening, is instrumental to realise our fullest potential.

In yoga, there are many different types of Pranayama practice. These five are responsible for various pranic activities in the body: Prana, Apana, Vyan, Udana & Samana. Out of these Prana and Apana are the most important. Prana is upward flowing and Apana is downward flowing. Practice of Pranayama achieves the balance in the activities of these pranas, which results in healthy body and mind.

On a very basic level, we all know that breathing is probably the most natural things we do. It is essentially what keeps us alive, but it is also a gift and a very powerful tool that enables us to bring balance in our lives.

Simply taking time to focus on our breath offers us the opportunity to pause from our daily preoccupations, physical symptoms and emotions that risk taking over our mind. By focusing on the breath, we can return to a neutral state of being, gain clarity, feel rejuvenated and enhance our overall sense of wellbeing. These are just a few wonderful reasons to invite a Pranayama practice into your daily routine.