Prāṇāyāma is the fourth limb of the eight-limbed yoga system, as presented by Patañjali in the Yoga Sutras. It means to extend, to stretch and, at times, to restrain life force (“prāṇā”) through the breath. It’s valuable to understand the nature of prāṇā itself — that is, exactly what are we extending, stretching, and restraining.
Prāṇā is a force in constant motion the drives the energy of all living things. “We are born with a certain quantum of prāṇā, and we 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 the kind of life we lead,” says Swami Saraswati. Ultimately, the Yoga System is designed to increase our prāṇā through regulation of the body’s systems, cleansing practices, meditation, and the cultivation of mindfulness in all that we do.
Dedication to the practice of Prāṇāyāma supports many layers of our being. It 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 Prāṇāyāma, we slow down the heart rate. Since living beings with slower heart rates generally live longer than those with faster heart rates, Prāṇāyāma literally extends our life.
Prāṇāyāma also gives us a direct link to our mental and emotional states. The breath highlights agitation in our psyche, as seen when anxiety shortens the breath and moves it up into the chest. Regulating the breath is one way of regulating that familiar process. As the Buddhists say, “So the breath, so the mind, so the heart.” Mind and prāṇā are often said to be like the two wings of a bird. Each moves and acts in accordance with the other.
Finally, Prāṇāyāma allows us access to the great universal force/awakening, known as Mahan Prāṇā. As an advanced practice, Prāṇāyāma guides our individual prāṇā into alignment with this universal force/awakening. Such alignment helps us experience our highest self in union with a universal consciousness. As we pass through the layers of the body and the mind, we are brought into relationship with this force/awakening, so that we can realize our fullest potential.
Like any form of conditioning and training, Prāṇāyāma practices have beginning, intermediate, and advanced stages. What’s most important about the practice is to attend to them with patience, gentleness, and compassion. Breathing practices that leave us breath-less, tense, or riddled with anxiety upset the balance of the nervous system. This in return drains our vitality. Any level of practitioner can benefit from Prāṇāyāma physically, mentally, or spiritually — depending on their intention. Like all yoga practices, it’s designed to meet us where we are, and to support the truth of our particular journey.
Posted by: Jenny Hayo
Join Jenny Hayo for her 6-week Intro to Pranayama series at 8 Limbs Capitol Hill, Wednesdays at 5:45pm starting March 5.