by Catherine Madsen
Bliss Crafter, Austin Yoga Tree
The fourth limb of yoga is pranayama, which can be translated as ‘life force extension.’ Let’s briefly review the first 3 limbs before we start to learn about the power of our breath.
The first limb is yama, which means restraint. The five yamas shape our daily behaviors as well as provide a firm foundation for our other seven limbs to be built upon. The yamas are:
1. Ahimsa – nonviolence
2. Satya – truthfulness
3. Asteya – non-stealing
4. Brahmacharya – moderation
5. Aparigraha – non-possessiveness
The second limb of yoga is niyama, meaning observance. The five niyamas are daily habits that lead to a healthy life. They also continue our journey through the eight limbs. The niyamas are:
1. Saucha – cleanliness
2. Santosha – contentment
3. Tapas – restraint
4. Svadhyaya – study of scriptures, study of the self
5. Isvara pranidhana – worship of the Lord, surrender of the ego
The third limb of yoga is asana, otherwise known as pose. Asanas are designed to create space in our bodies so we may cultivate discipline and the ability to concentrate. Essentially, asanas pave the way for the remaining five limbs that focus more on the meditative aspect of our yoga journey. In order to meditate effectively and comfortably, our body and mind must be controlled; the poses we practice help develop that control. It is important to note that ‘mastering’ a pose does not mean the pose is physically perfect, ‘mastering’ a pose is when we can practice our asanas with a body and mind that are free from tension and restlessness. Once our bodies are at ease, we are able to use discipline and concentration to meditate and move through the remaining limbs.
Now for the fourth limb, pranayama! Translated as ‘life force extension’, pranayama focuses on breath control and the extremely important link between the mind, the body, the spirit, and the breath.
“A long and subtle breath establishes a calm mind. A calm mind is the foundation for everything great.”
Breath is life. It is a fundamental part of our physiology and yet days can go by where we don’t ever even think about the breath, let alone control it. The breath is the key to everything; it gives us life and controls our energy. Tuning into the breath is a rejuvenating and revitalizing practice that can and will change your life.
Pranayama, like asana, helps to prepare the body for meditation. Asana works to make the body limber and cooperative so the practice of being still in meditation is comfortable. Pranayama functions in a similar way; it allows us to practice our control and discipline in preparation for meditation. When we tune into our breath, either on or off the mat, we are exercising self-control, this self-control is required for a meditation practice.
Sitting in stillness and silence is a task that seems simple enough but is one of the most difficult things you will ever do. It is easy to become frustrated when you are trying to meditate, to be still, and your mind will not stop wandering. Without self-control, it is easy to quit. With self-control, you can stop the incessant chatter in your mind and be at peace.
The combination of pranayama and asana is a powerful one, to say the least. The asanas prepare our bodies for meditation while pranayama prepares our minds for meditation. One of the most effective ways to combine the third and fourth limbs is through a breathing technique called ujjayi.
Ujjayi is a form of pranayama that is both energizing and soothing. It helps to release tension and stress in the body while quieting the mind. Lastly, when done properly it can massage the internal organs. Ujjayi translates to victorious breath and is often practiced during an asana practice. Below is the breakdown of ujjayi pranayama:
“Breathe deeply until sweet air extinguishes the burn of fear in your lungs and every breath is a beautiful refusal to become anything less than infinite.”
We are officially half way through our eight limbs of yoga journey! The first four limbs focus on refining our personalities, gaining control over our bodies, and developing an awareness of our breath. This prepares us for the remaining four limbs in which we work towards attaining a higher state of consciousness. Next up is pratyahara, also known as withdrawal of the senses.