THE FOURTH LIMB OF YOGA, PRANAYAMA
Pranayama is the Sanskrit word meaning “extension of our life force energy.” Prana refers to the breath and yama means to extend or draw out. Pranayama in yoga is the practice of controlling our breath. It is one of the disciplines in the path of yoga.
The breath supplies our bodies and organs with oxygen that is vital for our survival. This makes breathing our most important function. The inhalation (puraka) of the breath stimulates the respiratory system and fills the lungs with fresh air. Retention (kumbhaka) or holding of the breath raises the internal temperature of the body and increases the absorption of oxygen. The exhalation (rechaka) causes the diaphragm to return to its original position where toxic air and impurities are forced out of the body.
When we are rushing through our daily lives, we are often unaware of the quality of our breath. We tend to be unconscious of our breath because it is so automatic and, therefore, we take it for granted. Usually when we are stressed, our breath is very fast and shallow. The practice of expanding the breath alleviates a great deal of tension that we carry in our bodies. When we learn to control the breath, we have the power to soothe and revitalize the body and calm our busy minds.
We begin yoga practice by centering ourselves around the breath. When we focus on the breath, we can very easily shift its quality. The breath will soften and deepen as we concentrate on it. Within minutes, students are extending their breath deep into their bellies, which enables them to continue their yoga practice from a serene place. Beginning a yoga class with pranayama helps us to cultivate sensitivity and awareness. An increased awareness allows us to be more focused in each posture and, therefore, be mindful of our limitations and more respectful of our bodies.
Our breath or vital energy can be channeled through a series of different breathing exercises. Pranayama is often practiced seated or lying down. Students are guided through a slow gentle approach with eyes closed to keep their awareness inward and concentrated to the breath. The student is asked to note sensations in order to experience more subtle aspects of their practice. Breathing exercises in yoga are an integral part to developing sensitivity in the body. The deeper we breathe, the more deeply we feel. There are many different breathing exercises that are practiced in yoga from very simple even ratio breaths to more complicated advanced techniques. Breath work needs to be approached gently and gradually and should never feel forced.
Pranayama is the bridge between outward or active practices such as asana (the practice of yoga postures) and the internal, surrounding practices that lead to deep meditation. The union of pranayama and asana is considered the highest form of purification and self-discipline. Minding the breath is central to the practice of yoga and helps us to pursue our spiritual journey through a relaxed body and mind.