Stepping Through the Door; Pranayama, Fourth Branch of Ashtanga Yoga

Yoga as Life — By on May 1, 2009 12:30 PM

By, Miriam Stollar

Spring is blossoming all over this hemisphere of the world, a great time to really appreciate that same renewing life energy that invigorates us every single moment.
Take the time to let the body soak in that long inhalation, enjoy the sensation of that exhalation, whether in your asana practice, or smelling the flowers.  Sorry to those with spring allergies who are probably not enjoying their breaths at this moment (here in Kyoto, Japan, the sniffling white-masked population on the streets attests to the high percent of pollen allergies) – though it could be a good time to notice that third breath of yoga, the paused breath.  But we’ll come back to that.
The fourth branch of Patanjali’s Raja Yoga is Pranayama, most commonly translated as control of the breath.  Prana is life force, or vital energy, also called breath, and yama may be translated as control or cessation. 
As mentioned in the last issue of Yoga Bean, yoga Asana positions, as a practice designed to regulate both mind and body through the body’s hormonal system, is the opening of the door that leads to the real practice of yoga, the developing of a calm and clear mind that is able to gain wisdom and insight.
Pranayama practice, using the breath as the lever of both body and mind, is what brings us through that door.  While generally understood as the breath exercises themselves, Pranayama is actually the mental control of the breath achieved through the practice of the breathing exercises. So again, the exercises themselves, like the asana positions, are the tool, not the goal.  Once an advanced level of pranayama is achieved, the control of prana, or vital energy, may be directed mentally, without actual breathing exercises.
Sound too out there? Let’s go back to the basics again- take a slow deep breath, with awareness.  It’s easy to feel the magic of what one deep, slow breath can do to uplift our mind and body.  And yet how rarely we use that tool that is actually always with us, always on, and always free!  Enjoy another inhalation, and exhalation; is it any marvel that many more of these could have such powerful effects!  And “why aren’t all my breaths like this?”, we might ask.  When we focus our attention on our breath, we feel its greater benefits.  Yet how quickly we forget about it, as our attention turns endlessly to other objects.  The basic practice of yoga is mental concentration, or being able to direct our attention where we choose, rather than it being the slave of our senses and our emotions.  Breath control practice both develops this concentration through the regulation of the breath, and at the same time, this regulated breathing calms the mind, allowing a deeper mental concentration. 
In Yoga, there are three basic types of breath.  There is the inhalation, the exhalation, and, there is the suspended breath.  Inhale again slowly, and exhale slowly.  In our rush we often start exhaling while we are still inhaling; inhaling while we are still exhaling.  But there is always a moment in between, and in yoga, that pause of suspended breath is a most important moment of breathing.  Yet how we rush it!  Regulation of the breath involves both the inhalation and exhalation, as well as the paused breath in between, or kumbhaka.  The mental state during the paused breath between inhalation and exhalation, exhalation and inhalation, is considered to be an extremely potent state of potential spiritual power, and prolonging the suspended breath is a powerful yogic tool for both spiritual insight and vitality. 
Again, back to the basics!  Breath regulation is a strong yogic exercise that can accompany a well-balanced yoga practice.  But even just remaining aware of our natural breath – the inhalation, the exhalation, and the pause in between – is a difficult yoga practice that requires sustained concentration.  How many breaths do we manage to follow before we are again daydreaming, or thinking about what to have for dinner, or what we have to do tomorrow?  How often, during the day, can we remember to be aware of our breaths as we go through our daily routine? 
Pranayama, or an achieved mental control of prana, is the doorway linking the body to the essence of yoga. Pratyahara, the fifth branch of Patanjali’s eight-branched yoga, inner withdrawal of the senses, is inside that door. 
***It should be noted again that breath exercise starts initially with the observing of the natural breath, and should progress slowly into regulation of the breath only under supervision of an experienced yoga teacher, as part of a stable yoga practice. Pranayama exercises can be found in yoga literature everywhere, but these exercises may have strong effects, and not all exercises are suitable for everyone.  If you are interested in yoga and pranayama and do not yet have a yoga teacher, Yoga Bean can help you find a suitable teacher near you.

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