Pranayama: The 4th Limb of Yoga Explained
The breath truly is the key in moving distractions from the mind.
What is Pranayama?
Pranayama is the fourth limb of the eightfold path of yoga. Prana is the vital life force and energy that runs through our body. This beautiful energy is constantly flowing through us, and through all living beings.
My yoga teacher used to say that the quality of our breath determines the quality of our lives, and many yogis believed that the length of one’s life is determined by number of breaths, not by number of years. The deeper you breathe, the longer you can live.
Pranayama is the act of controlling and directing this energy, namely by controlling the flow of breath. Pranayama involves many different breathing techniques that aim at slightly different results.
We can use the breath to calm and balance ourselves, to energize the body and the mind, to cool or heat the body, but it always aims at promoting and maintaining our overall health.
The Effects of Pranayama Practice
When we can control the breath, we can control the mind. If the mind is anxious, usually the breath tends to be shallow and fast, which in turn sends a signal to the nervous system that something is wrong.
By focusing and deliberately guiding and controlling the breath, we can send a signal to the nervous system that we are safe, everything is ok. This creates a place of peace and calm for the mind, the body relaxes and we receive space for concentration and meditation.
Physically, Pranayama is supporting the respiratory system by keeping it strong. We can also greatly influence the heart rate by controlling the breath. Long, steady breaths in and out for a period of time will slow down the heart rate and keep us in greater balance.
Pranayama goes together with asana practice and together they are considered to be the highest form of purification for the body and the mind.
How to Practice Pranayama in Your Daily Life?
When we start to practice Pranayama, it’s good to remember that we should never become breathless or anxious as we practice. Start slowly, and become aware of your breath in different situations in daily life.
If you are nervous or anxious, bring your awareness onto your breath and start to lengthen it. Make the exhale slightly longer than the inhale, and continue for few minutes. Observe the difference in the mind and the body.
As you are engaged in asana practice, you can keep your awareness in your breath. Try to keep the breath steady and long, and let the breath support you in the more challenging poses by making it deeper. When we bring more fresh air into the body, we bring more oxygen into the organs.
Study with your yoga teacher the different breathing techniques and explore their effects on you.
In its essence, Pranayama is easy to do in any place, any time. You can practice as you are sitting in a bus, or at your desk at work. Just a few minutes at a time, just a few controlled breaths at a time.