29 Mar Pranayama – Place, Time, Number
In our last week of philosophy month we focus on the fourth limb of yoga, the last of the more hands-on limbs before they take a dive into the (even more) esoteric. Pranayama is the fourth limb of yoga. Pranayama means breath control and it is exactly that: practiced control of breathing.
The sutras primarily talk about pranayama as the suspension of breath, either after the inhale, after the exhale, or complete suspension of both inhale and exhale. This suspension of the breath is different from holding your breath until you’re blue in the face. We take a step deeper into the subtleties of experience as we move from asana to pranayama. From your body posture to your every inhale, exhale, and the spaces in between.
Stop reading for a moment to notice your natural, normal breathing. Don’t change a thing.
Can you spot the moment your inhale stops and your exhale begins? Is there a pause?
Maybe it’s easier for you to notice a break after the end of your exhale before you breathe in once more. Is there a split second of suspension in this space?
There are many different pranayama practices. As with asana, no specific breath practices are mentioned in the Yoga Sutras, but they do tell us three characteristics of pranayama.
One characteristic is place, or where your breath touches, both inside and outside of your body. On the inside, the air you breathe moves in and out of your lungs, of course. From there your blood circulates your breath through every inch of your body.
The exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide (called respiration) takes place not in your lungs, but at the level of each individual cell. There may be places in your body where it’s easier to send and feel your breath and places that feel locked off, congested, in need of more vibrant respiration.
As for outside place, consider how forceful your exhale moves from your nostrils. How close would a tiny piece of cotton need to be to your nose for it to blow in your exhale breath? Some pranayama practices call for a forceful exhale. Others, more subtle. Thus, place is one characteristic of pranayama.
Second, pranayama is characterized by time. That is, the duration or count of your breath. Like this: breathe in for 1, 2, 3, 4; hold for 1, 2, 3, 4; breathe out for 1, 2, 3, 4; hold for 1, 2, 3, 4… The final characteristic is number, how many repetitions you take of the particular pranayama you’re practicing.
Pranayama is to be done with concentration. With a wandering mind, pranayama is simply a mechanical feat. It’s not always easy to stay focused on something so subtle. Again and again in this system of yoga, we come back to focus and concentration of the mind.
As said above, pranayama is the last of the more hands-on first four limbs of yoga. After pranayama, the fifth limb of yoga is pratyahara, the turning inward of your senses. The outer world no longer distracts as your focus and concentration draw towards the more subtle still. You can see how engrossment in a controlled breathing practice might bring you here.
From pratyahara comes dharana, dhyana, and finally samadhi.
Dharana translates as concentration, and as a limb of yoga, it means complete concentration. A steady focus on one object, no distractions. Maintained concentration leads to dhyana, meditation. Free of distraction and fluctuations of mind (citta vrttis), the yogi becomes absorbed completely in their object of meditation.
Poetically it’s said that in dhyana the differentiation between the knower, the act of knowing, and the what is known (the object of concentration) disappears. From here, the seer abides in its own true nature: samadhi.
Beyond knowing and knowledge itself is samadhi, liberation. Freedom from the painful cycles of birth and death, or so the tradition goes. There are seven levels of samadhi! It doesn’t stop here, but we will.
Back to earth from these esoteric ideas, this week we’ll focus on breathing. Although it’s not a pranayama practice, we’ll explore the physical mechanics of breathing with asana and in each class this week practice a different pranayama technique (varying in place, time, and number!)
There has been a good amount of scientific research published on the efficacy of different yogic pranayama practices.
Alternate nostril breathing, for one, has been shown to reduce anxiety during stressful situations (Kamath, et al., 2017) and reduce blood pressure in hypertension patients (Kumari, et al., 2015)!