Over the next few months we’ll #GoDeep into Patanjali’s Eight Limb Path. If you’re just checking in, be sure to read our intro post on the path itself and its first limb, the yamas. So far we’ve also covered the niyamas and asana.
Pranayama, the fourth limb on Patanjali’s path, acts as the gateway between the first three (yamas, niyamas and asana) and the final four (pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi). In the first three limbs we are focused on the corporeal body and our place in the world; in the latter limbs we shift our focus to our internal landscape.
Pranayama is tied to both worlds, bridging the physical and the spiritual. The word breaks down to prana — life force — and yama, which, taking it back to the first limb, means a reining in or a mindful monitoring of our thoughts and conduct. But ask another Sanskrit scholar and she might highlight the word ayama tucked in there, too, which translates to extending or drawing out.
Pranayama, then, is a mindful controlling of the breath, the source of our life energy; it is also the extension of that vital force, the act of fostering and stimulating it. However you slice it etymologically, pranayama is about getting intimate with what keeps us moving. Practices like Breath of Fire and Alternate Nostril Breathing (get breathing with our how-to guides) ask us to retain, quicken, watch, manipulate and imagine the breath in unusual and initially uncomfortable ways. The result is a greater awareness of our own organism and of the dynamic life force at work within it. By feeding our breath we grow it, strengthening the respiratory system and soothing the nervous system. More prana in our systems makes us more vibrant and more dynamic. As Iyengar once said, “The yogi’s life is not measured by the number of days but by the number of his breaths.”
Alongside asana, pranayama can also serve as a potent tool for purification. By generating tapas in the body and by making space for prana to flow freely, these practices cleanse and condition from the inside out. And, as the body settles and relaxes into its rightful state — healthy and unblocked — the mind is free to dive deeper into meditation and reflection. We’ll revisit this idea in our next Eight Limbs post on pratyahara, the withdrawal of our senses from the outside world.
For more on pranayama take a look through our articles on Right Breathing; clearly we are pranayama advocates, seeing as intentional breath is one of our five pillars! And consider this quote from Krishnamacharya, the widely acknowledged father of modern yoga: “If you can breathe, you can do yoga.”