We are working our way through the 8 limbs of Yoga. These are suggested steps to practice Yoga to attain the state of Yoga, according to Patanjali who wrote the Yoga Sutras. The first limb is the Yamas, 5 ethical guidelines to have more intimate relationships with the world around you and others. The second limb is the Niyamas, 5 observances to have more of an intimate relationship to yourself. The third limb is Asana, posture. As stated in our last session to practice Asana you just need to create Sthira and Sukham, steadiness and comfort in your posture so you can focus the mind on something specific becoming more effortless in your practice. This session we are focusing on the fourth limb, Pranayama, breathing techniques or exercises.
Why do we want to do want to focus on Pranayama? Well, we all want to feel more vital, energised, productive, healthy and creative. These are all fuelled by Prana, your life force or vital energy that animates, supports our homeostasis and it’s said to sustain our life and longevity.
I was reminded of a saying a Zen Buddhist monk said “if you want peace, you need to let go. So if you want a little peace, you need to let go a little. If you want a lot of peace, you have to let go a lot. If you want total peace, you have to let go completely.” The same can be said for Prana. If you want a little Prana, you breath a little, if you want a lot of Prana, you breathe a lot, if you want to have total Prana, you practice Yoga.
Prana uses your breathe as a vehicle to enter your body, circulate, absorb, inspire and eliminate that which doesn’t serve you any longer. These are the Prana Vayus, the direction of movement of Prana within you. This is why we practice Asana, Sthira and Sukham so we can improve the quality of our breathe, therefore the quality of the Prana we can create and utilise. So think of our practice today as Pranayama disguised as Asana. We are just doing breathing techniques in different shapes and forms. Clearing the pathways, we call Nadis, these energy lines that Prana uses to distribute it’s light of intelligence throughout our embodiment to promote healing, inspiration and transformation. We refine the skill in using the right Pranayama Kriyas, breathing exercise that cleanses, for the right issue.
Usually when there is a stimulating Pranayama it is usually followed by a Mudra, which means a seal, using Mula, Uddiana and Jaladhara Bandha, all three is call Maha Bandha, the great Bandha. Sealing the Prana and moving it to the desired point wether to heal, inspire or transform. Ultimately, we are doing all this to experience the goal of Yoga which is said to be Yoga Sutra 1.2 Citta Vritti Nirodha, to still the fluctuations or roaming tendencies of the mind. Stillness is what we are trying to achieve by practicing Yoga. Kaya Nirodha, physical stillness. Prana Nirodha, energetic stillness. Citta Vritti Nirodha, mental stillness. But it is hard to be still, especially the mind! Okay try not to think about what a big pink elephant. Don’t think about a pink elephant. It is almost the same as saying ‘stop thinking and still your mind.’ The mind freaks out and only wants to think.
Hatha Yogis figured out that, if you want to change the state of the mind, you change the state of the energy and physical body. But within that you train your breath to capture the attention of the mind and train the mind to follow the Prana. Prana and the mind are likened to schools of fish, they swim in tandem. Where the mind goes prana will follow, where your prana goes your mind will follow. If you start thinking about an email you need to send while you practice, most of your Prana will follow it, drawing your energy and attention away. Or, have you every gone to a class and rushed so quickly through that you really didn’t breath in or out, just hyperventilated through the whole thing and at the end fell asleep in Savasana, feeling drained, burnt out and dried up? We practice focusing the mind on moving and breathing to heal, inspire, transform and integrate or Yoga the physical and mental bodies, you alter the energy body. Focusing on regulating the Prana, consciously controlling the breathing and stretching the breath to have a desired effect on the whole.
A few practical things.
The anatomy of the lungs is mainly in the back of the ribcage as most of the vital organs sits in the front, heart, liver, stomach, pancreas, spleen, large intestine. So it is important to open, stretch the sides, back as well as the front of the body to increase the capacity to breathe better. Our breathing diaphragm and psoas muscles are woven in connective tissue link it and both are directly affected by the adrenal glands resting close to it. These muscles are some of the first to get adrenaline and cortisol when released, FFF response. However you have the power to control this hormonal reaction by conscious breathing to affect your vagus nerve and calm the sympathetic nervous system and stimulate the para-sympathetic nervous system with is responsible for a healthy immune, organ function and maintenance of the homeostasis.
Looking at the steps of the breath cycle
- Inhale – Puraka – Rajasic – Stimulating
- Retention on full Inhale – Antara Kumbhaka – Sattvic Inspire
- Exhale – Rechaka – Tamasic – Grounding
- Retention on empty – Bahya Kumbhaka – Sattvic Serene
The breath cycle is like the life cycle, we have the birth of the breath, celebration of life as it transitions to the decay and little death, then the re-birth. As you study the breath, it will guide you deeper into the more subtle, meaningful and philosophical aspects of embodiment. Some of the Pranayama Kriyas we will do is Ujjayi B, Kapalabhati, Bastrika, Bhramari, Viloma, 4 part breathing, progression breathing and more.
Classical Yoga separates Asana, Pranayama and Meditation. The Tantric Yoga approach is to weave them together, so treat this practice is you are doing Pranayama disguised as Asana.
The book I refer to is by James Nestor called Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. It is amazing!
*My wrist is wrapped up to offer myself support as I fell and waiting for it to heal. So I might be demonstrating different things on my hand that is injured. Please follow the healthy hand*