The 4th limb of yoga covered in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is Pranayama.  Each of the 8 limbs offers guidance on how to practice or achieve yoga in one’s life.  This rich guide that offers a deep dive into yoga and human evolvment was compiled over 1,700 years ago.  Not surprisingly, science and modern day psychology are starting to catch up and agree with the wisdom of yogis from centuries past.

What is Pranayama Breathing?

Pranayama is a broad limb covering a variety of exercises that enable us to use and control our breath, which itself is an extension of our life force.  Prana, a word often used interchangeably with energy, is the force that animates our being.  The breath itself is our most direct link to living as it is the most essential process to maintaining life.  The impact of our breath is much more far reaching that simply supplying the oxygen necessary for our body to remain alive on a cellular level.  The breath has the ability to trigger responses in almost all the other necessary life systems. When you take a slow deep breath allowing it to ease out of you as a sigh, you activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which triggers hormonal responses that lower cortisol and stress levels, in turn offering care for your cardiovascular system, as circulation is improved, which means nutrients can be carried more efficiently and toxins removed effectively.  All of this happens with a simple sigh.  Think about how often our body calls on the tool of a sigh subconsciously; when we are sad, moved by love, relaxed, or stressed.  The sigh, regardless of its intonation is serving a huge purpose within our body and mind.

Now, consider that if all of these amazing benefits can be found from the unconscious, or subconscious use of breath, imagine the impacts that can be received from conscious use of breath.

This is what we call pranayama breathing.

Most of us have at minimum a basic pranayama practice, we are guided through a specific way of breathing during an asana practice.

For example, Ujjayi pranayama, used in ashtanga and vinyasa style yoga, is a technique used to help create and regulate internal heat.  This type of breathing encourages us to draw out, or lengthen our breath, slowing it down.  Slow breathing has been shown to tone the vagus nerve, which triggers a response in the parasympathetic nervous system.  The vagus nerve also has the ability to reduce inflammation in the body. In this way, Ujjayi helps to keep the mind calm and focused by giving it an anchor or tether to attach awareness to.

We are starting to discover now with science that the practice of pranayama may in fact be the most potent part of our yoga practice as far as physical and psychological benefits are concerned.  At the same time, pranayama breathing is helping people feel more present in a world that is increasingly stimulating and distracting.

There are countless pranayama practices, each with its own benefit and purpose and I encourage you to have an experience with them following the guidance of an experienced teacher.  Alternate nostril breathing (nadi shodhana) is one that is a great entry point into regular practice and is a useful tool in preparation for meditation.  This technique helps to restore balance to the hemispheres of the brain by stimulating Ida and Pingala nadi, which are the two of the three main energy channels in the body.

Each of the first 4 limbs of yoga, help to create the right set of conditions within us to be able to explore the higher aspects of self that are available.  Pranayama has the ability to help harness the mind from all its fanciful wanderings and engage it in a more meaningful and purposeful way.

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This article has been contributed by Vancouver-Island based yoga teacher Fiji McAlpine, who you can find teaching on Interested in other ways breathing can support your healing and wellness? Check out this article on the power of breathwork, a powerful tool for personal growth and emotional release.