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meet the fourth yogic limb: Pranayama, life force

In his autobiography Paramhansa Yoganandya explains,“Samadhi, which literally means “to direct together,” is the state in which the yogi perceives the identity of his soul as spirit … It is an experience of divine ecstasy as well as of superconscious perception; the soul perceives the entire universe … In other words, human consciousness becomes one with cosmic consciousness.”

According to the The Yoga Sutras, in order to achieve this enlightened state and live in  oneness with all of creation a spiritual seeker must follow the eight-limbed path of Asthanga Yoga.

The first three steps consist of universal guiding principles (the Yamas), observances (the Niyamas) and posture (Asana) practice. In the previous post of this series we explored Asana, which teaches mastery of the body as an essential component to cultivating an enlightened state. The next limb, Pranayama, directs attention within the body to the subtle realm the breath.

Pranayama

The Sanskrit word for the fourth limb of Ashtanga Yoga is Pranayama. 

Prana translates as breath and life force - it is the energy that flows through all and unites creation. Ayama means expansion, therefore we can understand Pranayama as, to extend, prolong breath/life force.  

A Bridge to Subtlety 

Pranayama practice invites conscious awareness deeper within to the breath and energy body making it a gateway to the “unseen” reality. The average humans attention usually runs with the senses out of the body toward the world and its stimuli. The Yogi and Yogini learn to direct their attention more deeply inward through Pranayama practice which pulls awareness toward the internal reality as opposed to the external reality. In this way Pranayama can be understood as a bridge between the outer and the inner worlds.

The Practicality of Breath Practice

There are numerous ways that practicing pranayama and consciously extending the breath can have positive effects on our modern lives. For starters, breathing fully and deeply helps to maximize the amount of oxygen in our bodies, which has a plethora of health benefits. Additionally there are numerous studies that site deep breathing with increased activation of the parasympathetic nervous system - which regulates the relaxation response. Developing the discipline of pranayama practice work can also make it more like to use breath as a tool in life  circumstances as they unfold. For example, there are practices you can do if lethargic to lift energy; practices to help cool the body in summer or warm it in winter; and specific practices you can turn to to center and relax the body in stressful situations. 

The Basics 

There are many pranayama techniques out there and chattra recommends you work with an experienced and trusted teacher for guidance - especially because we are all individuals with unique needs and constitutions.  Some common examples of breathing exercises you are likely to encounter in a yoga class include Nadhi Shodana (opposite nostril breathing) and Kapalabhati (breath of fire). Another very basic and still very powerful pranayama exercise that sets a great foundation for exploring the practices mentioned before is deep diaphragmatic breathing, commonly referred to as belly breath.

To explore this pranayama begin either seated or lying down, whichever shape allows for vertical alignment of the spine and comfort throughout the entire body. 

Imagine a balloon in the lower abdominal cavity. As you breathe in, imagine the the balloon filling and expanding 360 degrees around. On exhale, imagine the balloon emptying. Explore deepening the breath evenly to an edge that allows for a smooth, steady quality of breath and easeful mind. 

Reflections on Pranayama 

  1. Reflect on your average daily experience. What percent of your day is your attention directed outward - to all you see, taste, touch, hear and feel? What percent of your attention is directed inward towards the breath and energy within you? 
  2. For those of you with an breath practice, consider the relationship between Asana and Pranayama. How has Asana practice facilitated your Pranayama practice? How does Pranayama practice influence your Asana practice? Can you have one without the other? 

    shop our collection of Pranayama Bolsters

    (photo: Sisters of Yoga retreat)

    about chattra blogger Jillian Bobowicz

    Jillian is a yogini based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She leads weekly public yoga classes for adults and specializes in yoga for kids and families. Her studies have led her to complete trainings at YogaWorks, Karma Kids and Yoga Playgrounds. Jillian feels blessed to practice and teach yoga and is particularly passionate about empowering her students with tools to navigate the modern world with ease.

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