Yoga Philosophy 101 Revisited – Lesson VIII: Breath Expansion, the 4th Limb of Yoga
In our April through June newsletter issues, we began a discussion of the eight limbs of yoga set forth many thousands of years ago. They appear in Book II of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras as the way to end suffering. The eight limbs are: five social principles; five personal codes; postures; breathing; sense withdrawal; concentration; meditation; and transcendence. To review the first three limbs, you may read our April, May & June newsletter blog entries on Patanjali’s Yoga Philosophy.
There are four statements about the science of breathing in Book II, 49-53, of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. According to TKV Desichar’s Reflections on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, pp.72-75, the four sutras are translated as follows:
Sutra II, 49– Pranayama is the conscious, deliberate regulation of the breath, replacing unconscious patterns of breathing.
Sutra II, 50– It involves the regulation of exhalation, inhalation and suspension of the breath. The regulation of these three processes is achieved by modulating their lengths, and maintaining the modulation for a period of time, as well as focusing the mind on the process. These components of breathing must be both long and uniform.
Sutra II, 51– Then the breath transcends the level of the consciousness.
Sutra II, 52– The regular practice of pranayama reduces the obstacles that inhibit clear perception.
Sutra II, 53– And the mind is now prepared for the process of direction towards a chosen goal.
An exercise I recommend is breathing a triple breath into the upper chest, mid chest, and then inflating the belly. The process is enhanced by holding the breath in for a few seconds. To fully exhale, the stomach muscles are lifted into the rib cage, and the elongated exhale is held out for a few seconds. Adding a raspy sound to the breath, called the ujjayi breath, helps to focus the process. In this way we are able to increase the amount of prana, or life force taken in, and release the body’s toxins with full exhalations.
Through shallow breathing, we are taking in only a fraction of energy-producing prana. By consciously deepening the breath, we can increase our aliveness as we take in more prana. What exactly is prana? The best answer I have found is from BKS Iyengar in Light on the Yoga Sutras, p. 153.
Iyengar writes: Prana “permeates each individual as well as the Universe at all levels. It acts as physical energy; as mental energy; and as intellectual energy with a discriminative faculty, where information is examined and filtered. This same prana acts as sexual energy, spiritual energy and cosmic energy. All that vibrates in the Universe is prana. It is the prime mover of all activity–the wealth of life. This self-energizing force is the principle of life and of consciousness. All beings are born through it and live by it.”
Studying the science of breath at the Krishnamacharya Yoga School in India, I learned that extending the exhalation is a way to relax the body, whereas prolonging the inhalation will serve to increase energy because you are takin in more prana. You might count the number beats your natural inbreath and outbreath take. Then prolong the exhale for a few counts more to relax, or inhale for a few beats longer to energize yourself. Example: To relax, if you inhale to the count of 4 or 5, then prolong the exhale to the count of 7 or 8. To energize, do the opposite, adding to your natural inhalation count.
Focusing consciously on the breath and regulating it will assist us in transcending the mind’s chatter so we can access the Presence within. In yoga we say that the breath is the bridge from the mind to the body. And the famous poet Rumi wrote that “God is the space between the breaths.” Especially in challenging times, it’s important to always remember to BREATHE.