The Yoga Sutras are a collection of 196 sutras or teachings on the theory and practice of yoga written at least 1,700 years ago and can be understood as guidelines for how to live a meaningful life of purpose. According to these teachings there are Eight Limbs (or often called the Eightfold Path ‘Ashtanga Yoga System’, ‘ashta meaning ‘eight’ & ‘anga’ meaning ‘limb’) which ultimately can lead to bliss or enlightenment. The word Yoga (‘Yug’ in Sankrit) means to Unite or to Yoke and represents the connection between body and mind that we bring together through our practise.
The 8 Limbs of Yoga
- YAMA – Restraints, moral disciplines or moral vows.
- NIYAMA – Positive duties or observances.
- ASANA – Posture.
- PRANAYAMA – Breathing techniques.
- PRATYAHARA – Sense withdrawal.
- DHARANA – Focused concentration.
- DHYANA – Meditative absorption.
- SAMADHI – Bliss or enlightenment.
This month we will be exploring the fourth of the 8 limbs of Yoga, Pranayama. Broken down the word ‘Prana’ can be understood as our life source or vital energy and the word ‘ayama’ means control or restraint. Therefore, the word Pranayama can be understood as the control or restraint of breath through breathing techniques. In the Yoga Sutras Patanjali taught that controlled breathing can be practiced as a means to attain a higher state of awareness and as an important step on the journey to Samadhi, meaning Bliss or Enlightenment.
In Nischala Joy Devi’s book, The Secret Power of Yoga she explains it beautifully; ‘Pranayama’s physical and mental effects have the supreme purpose of leading us into the stillness necessary for meditation. Asana steadies the body; pranayama aligns the mental and emotional patterns’ she continues on to say that, ‘the practice of pranayama slowly allows the veils covering our true self to lift. We are able to ascend unencumbered toward the light and merge with our Divine nature’…which sounds wonderful, who doesn’t want to reach a state of ultimate bliss?
…I know what you’re thinking, this is all well good in theory or if you had the luxury of taking a month off and heading to an Ashram in India… but how do we put Pranayama into practice leading busy London lives? I often speak to my students about the importance of Pranayama and not just in relation to Asana (physical postures). Pranayama can be practiced off the mat, on the mat, on the way to work, on your bed, pretty much anywhere once you know how! Devoted regular practice can have some surprising effects on your mental and physical health; it can improve your mental health, reduce stress and anxiety, calm the nervous system, reduce blood pressure and improve the quality of your sleep, not forgetting the ascent to spiritual enlightenment of course.
Yoga Teacher and author of A Life Worth Breathing, Max Strom, believes “Pranayama has really been left behind,” and calls it a classic ‘Cinderella story’. “Pranayama is often overlooked while the beautiful sister, Asana, is the guest of honor in yoga studios. But give breathing a chance, and you’ll realise it’s the true queen”. Apps, books, podcasts and workshops focused on Breathwork are becoming more and more popular and more and more people are realising the power of finding your breath and using Pranayama as an essential practice to improve wellbeing.
Some of the most popular and commonly practiced styles of Pranayama, that you may have already practiced in Yoga classes, are as follows: Basic Breath Awareness, Triangle Breathing, Nadi Shuddhi Pranayama (Alternate nostril breathing), Ujjayi Pranayama (Victorious Breath or Ocean Breath) or Kapalabhati Pranayama (Breath of Fire). Try these wherever or whenever you can take 5-10 minutes out of your day and notice the effects Pranayama has on you mentally and physically. Controlled or focused breathing can help you better prepare for meditation, help you to stay connected and present in your Asana practice and become a vehicle for finding a place of peace and unity within yourself that you can then tap into at any time.
1. Basic Breath Awareness:
Begin by simply bringing your attention to your breathing and noticing how your breath is behaving. Is it slow and steady or short and unbalanced – are you using the full capacity of the lungs or accessory breathing (into the chest rather than down into the belly). Bo Forbes, clinical psychologist and integrative yoga therapist describes cultivating this mindful relationship with our breathing as “truly valuable information in creating stress resilience.”
This Pranayama is easy to try anywhere and at any time: start to pay attention to your breath and just notice how it is behaving. Notice if the breath begins to naturally slow now you are paying attention to it, begin to become aware of your breathing and for 2-3 minutes simply observe your breath.
2. Triangle Breathing:
Triangle breathing can be a highly affective pranayama practice for calming the mind and also balancing the body.
To start, inhale and exhale once fully.
On the next breath, count the length of your inhalation.
Hold for the same count as your inhale.
Exhale for the same count as your inhale.
So your breath becomes an evenly controlled triangle. For example; if your breath count is 5 you would inhale for 5 breaths, pause or hold the breath for 5 and then exhale for 5.
Continue to draw this triangle with your breath for a few rounds.
If you feel comfortable you can begin to slowly increase the length of your triangle with one count at a time but if you find yourself becoming short of breath, return to the previous count.
3. Extended Exhalation:
Bring your awareness to your breath and take few deep, relaxing breaths – inhaling and exhaling fully.
Begin to count each inhale and exhale – counting to 5 with each breath in and extending each exhale to 7 counts. If this is uncomfortable shorten each breath to 3 or 4 counts on the inhale and 5 or 6 counts on the exhale.
Continue to breath consciously, extending your exhalation on each round and continuing to count your breath.
This style of Pranayama will calm the body by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for slowing the heart rate and allowing the body to move into rest & digest mode.
Keep counting your inhale and exhale for 5 to 10 minutes before returning to a normal breath again.
4. Nadi Shuddhi Pranayama (Alternate nostril breathing):
This practice of alternating between the right and left nostrils as you inhale and exhale can help to focus the mind and create more unity between your body and your breath. This can be a powerful breath to practice after Asana practice to help you prepare for meditation.
Find a comfortable seated position.
Bring your right hand in a gentle fist in front of your nose, then extend your thumb and ring finger.
Close your right nostril with your thumb.
Inhale through your left nostril, then close it with your ring finger.
Open your right nostril and exhale slowly through it.
Inhale through the right nostril then close it.
Open your left nostril and exhale slowly through it.
That is one cycle of Nadi Shuddhi.
Repeat this practice 3–5 times at a comfortable pace.
5. Ujjayi Pranayama (Victorious Breath or Ocean Breath):
“This classic pranayama practice, known for its soft, soothing sound similar to ocean waves, can further enhance the relaxation response of slow breathing” says Patricia Gerbarg, MD, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at New York Medical College and co-author of The Healing Power of the Breath. Gerbarg teaches ‘that the vibrations in the larynx stimulate sensory receptors that signal the vagus nerve to induce a calming effect’.
I often teach Ujjayi breath by asking students to imagine they are holding a mirror in their hand and are trying to fog up the mirror as they exhale by making a soft, oceanic HA sound.
Start by inhaling into the nose slowly.
As you exhale slowly through the nose make a soft HA sound (as though you are fogging up a mirror) through the soft palette at the back of the throat.
Try this firstly by exhaling through the mouth.
Then try to make the same sound with the mouth closed, breathing slowly and steadily.
This breath should sound like a gentle oceanic noise.
Continue to engage with this breath for 5-10 rounds.
Ujjayi breath can have a calming effect when practiced seated or help to energise the body when practiced during Asana.
About Liz Joy Oakley
Liz Joy Oakley is Head of Vibes at MoreYoga and teaches Yoga & Meditation specializing in Yoga for Anxiety. Liz came to Yoga after being diagnosed with Malignant Hypertension and Generalized Anxiety and left the Fashion Industry to work in Wellness and help others to lead healthier lives holistically.
Liz is passionate about helping people achieve a healthier, happier lifestyle and aims to cultivate joy through her work. She now works in London facilitating workshops and events based around yoga, meditation, improving mental health, happiness, nutrition and wellbeing.