Pranayama - 4th Limb of Yoga

Written by Fergus Higgins

Classical yoga under Patanjali has 8 different "limbs" of yoga. The first "limb" is the Yamas or social contracts. The second "limb" are the Niyamas or contracts with oneself. The third "limb" is Asana or yoga poses -- there are hundreds! The fourth "limb" is Pranayama or breath!

In my opinion, Pranayama is breath, is life-force. As human beings we have a brain. Our brains have a nervous system which can be conscious and subconscious. The subconscious nervous system instructs certain actions. One such action is to tell the muscle of our diaphragm to contract pulling our diaphragm down creating a vacuum in your chest cavity which sucks air into our lungs! It literally sucks air into our lungs!

Or to look at it another way, the universe is forcing air into you to keep you alive. It literally forces air into you!

Try this:

  • Exhale.
  • Hold the exhale.

Notice what happens:

  • Our nervous system triggers muscle that makes the diaphragm contract...
  • which expands the thoracic cavity creating pressure...
  • which creates suction that sucks air into your lungs.
  • The Universe fills your lungs with prana/life!
  • Air is literally forced into your lungs, whether you like it or not!

Again, one could say the universe forces itself inside you through your lungs. It forces life into you, prana!

"The breath is an immediate connection to the Universal." -- John Friend

The human brain has the ability to create concepts, which separates us from all other species! 25% of all oxygen inhaled is used by our brains. However:

"A small piece of your brain is this consciousness. If you really look at who you are - most of your brain is dedicated to autonomic functions - you're a machine!" -- Courtney Raia

So back to Pranayama! The 4th limb of yoga!

"If you control your breath you can control your mind!" -- BKS Iyengar.

Notice how we lose our breath when we experience extreme emotional situations! Our emotions deepen our breath and sometimes we even hold our breath! Others will say don't forget to take a deep breath! So our emotions can effect our breath.

Can the reverse occur? Can the breath effect our emotions? Yes!

We can learn to control our mind by controlling our breath! Notice when you're calm how easy your breathing is?

Try this:

  • Inhale, count 1, 2, 3, 4.
  • Exhale, count 1, 2, 3, 4.

Do this for a minute! About 6 inhales and 6 exhales.

Notice how you become calmer, more centered, a more even breath!

Try it for 5 minutes and see the benefits!

Try 20 minutes! Simply focusing on our breath.

So Pranayama can be viewed as being the life force that sustains life!

The breath can be viewed as being forced into us by the universe!

And then we live our lives.

We manifest.

Pranayama is viewed in yoga as being manageable and there are different breathing techniques to do this. There is alternative nostril breathing (Nadi shodhana). Kapalbhati! Inhaling a third, two thirds, three thirds, then fully exhaling! Breath retention! And many more.

In a yoga asana class our breath can talk to us. After checking the foundation and alignment of our pose our breath can let us know if we are pushing ourselves or not. It speaks to us by getting faster? Slower?

Pranayama, the 4th limb of yoga, should be respected and honored using a guide knowledgable in its ways because, like the ocean, it should be respected for its power.

Lastly, a great yogi who once lived by the name of Larry Schultz said: "Instead of wanting to control change, we learn to control our breaths and so allow transformation to reveal itself to us."

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