The Eight Limbs of Yoga-Part VI
“Where the mind goes, the prana follows.”
The Great South Indian saint, Thirumular, shared this truth many eons ago. The word Prana literally means breath or vitality. It is a cosmic force that gives life to everything. Without it, nothing would move or function. Because prana is difficult to control, but necessary to do so, this is the focus of the 4th limb of Patanjali’s 8 Limbs of Yoga. Called pranayama, the 4th limb concerns the regulation of the breath using specific techniques and exercises.
Because Patajali understood yoga as “the science of the mind,” he was careful to make sure that he wrote the 8 Limbs in a specific order so that the practitioner could successfully study and perform each limb. Thus, after mastery of asana is gained, the next step is to learn how to control the prana.
All branches of asana practice understand how pivotal the breath is. What’s more is that Hatha Yoga is actually based on the equilibrium of the breath. When we breathe, there is a force that moves upward and a force that moves downward. These are called prana and apana, respectively. One goal of Hatha Yoga is to balance these two forces by learning how to control the breath as a whole. The prana and apana must be blended together in a subtle way so that you can better control your emotions and mind. (Side note: Prana means breath and also is the word used to describe the upward movement of the breath).
By regulating the prana, you regulate your mind. The two are undeniably interconnected. Once you learn how to control your breath, you can then learn to control your mind. To make this point clear, think about what happens to your breath when you get angry or scared. Your breath gets heavier and faster, doesn’t it? When you are thinking deeply or reading a good book and you break that concentration, you will notice you were barely breathing. This is why we take a deep breath or sigh heavily after being in deep thought. The mind, when concentrating, stops the breath. When automatic retention, or holding, of the breath occurs, it is called kevala kumbhaka. This happens without your effort and is what is experienced when a person goes into a deep meditation. When the mind comes to a standstill, the prana automatically does the same.
The three types of pranayama, according to Patanjali, are bāhya vrtti, ābhyantara vrtti, and stambha vrtti—inhaling, exhaling and retention. In addition, pranayama also includes deśa, kala, and samkhya—place, time and count. When we are practicing pranayama, we should direct our attention to a specific place like the base of the spine or the throat. Time refers to how long we retain the breath. Lastly, count concerns the amount of counts we breathe in, breathe out and hold the breath.
Because prana is such a powerful energy, inward retention is usually taught in the beginning of a person’s study. It is safe and easy. Dabbling in outward retention on one’s own is not recommended. There are plenty of pranayama exercises a person can do that are safe and effective that can prepare you for more difficult pranayama.
For example, nadi suddhi, or alternate nostril breathing, is a common pranayama exercise taught to beginners. Here is a step by step instruction so you can start delving into your pranayama practice.
- Sit in Padmasana or in a comfortable seated position you can hold for an extended period of time.
- Close the left nostril using your left hand thumb and exhale fully through the right nostril.
- Keeping your left thumb over your left nostril, inhale through your right nostril. The breath should be gentle–not too fast or too slow.
- Once your lungs are full, close the right nostril with the left ring finger and exhale fully through your left nostril.
- Now inhale through your left nostril. Once your lungs are full, close your left nostril with your left thumb (same as before) and exhale fully through your right nostril.
This completes one round of nadi suddhi. As a beginner, try to do 10-20 rounds of this exercise.
Once you have practiced this many many times consistently and with success, you can then try more difficult variations such as using a count based on a ratio of 1:2 (inhale:exhale). This means that you can, for example, inhale for a count of five, and exhale for a count of ten, just as long as you exhale twice as long as you inhale. If you haven’t already noticed, it is much easier to inhale for a longer count than it is to exhale. By practicing this count pattern, you try to reverse this routine and achieve mastery over this otherwise automatic process.
There are numerous types of pranayama techniques to explore. Each one carries with it its own immediate benefits and brings you a step closer to learning how to control the motion of the inhalation and exhalation so that you can then control the mind.
Patanjali’s Sutra I-52* states: Tatah ksiyate prakasavaranam. It means that, “As a result [of pranayama], the veil over the inner Light is destroyed.” The inner light is our true Self. The mind is a veil woven of thoughts. If you were to remove each strand of the veil away, you would remove thought by thought. Once all the thoughts are removed, what are you left with? The inner Light; the true Self. This is the ultimate benefit of pranayama.
Pranayama is an accessible and influential tool for anyone looking to learn how to meditate and control one’s emotions and mind, as well as move through asana practice. Since it is easier to control the breath than it is to control the mind, be sure to utilize various pranayama techniques to reach these goals. When you turn your focus to the breath, you give yourself power over your mind and thus over your life.
*This is taken from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Sri Swami Satchidananda.