The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali outline an eight-limbed framework for yoga practice. These limbs, in their written order, include:
- Yama: Ethical precepts, including non-harming, truthfulness, non-stealing, wise use of sexuality and non-greed
- Niyama: Daily practices, including cleanliness or simplicity, cultivation of contentment, commitment to practice, study of self and sacred texts, dedication of your practice to something bigger than oneself
- Asana: Physical postures
- Pranayama: Refinement of the breath
- Pratyahara: Releasing attachment to the senses
- Dharana: Concentration
- Dhyana: Meditation
While the limbs are not hierarchical—all of them operate simultaneously to feed into the whole Self—they do build on one another. For example, a commitment to ethical behavior underlies the way we practice all the others. The Yamas are truly the foundation of practice.
The first three practices are based in the physical realm. The last four are concerned with the mind. In the middle, bridging the physical, mental and spiritual, is pranayama.
The breath is the only of our autonomic functions we can control. In other words, while the average human takes between 17,000 and 30,000 breaths per day, largely without being aware we’re doing it, we can, if we choose, control the rate and depth of our breathing. Studies have shown that shallow, fast breathing stimulates our sympathetic nervous system (the fight-or-flight response). Slow, deep breathing enables our parasympathetic nervous system (the rest-and-digest mode). You can read more about this in this comprehensive article: The Science of Breathing.
The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is our default mode. It is the state we are designed to live in most of the time. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) kicks in when we perceive danger. Our heartbeat and breath rate quicken, our blood pressure rises, our blood vessels constrict, we perspire, get goosebumps and our blood rushes away from the vital organs and into the muscles so that we can run away from the wild beast that’s pursuing us. Our SNS is essential to our survival, but it is not a sustainable place to live.
While we may not need to worry about escaping grizzly bears in our everyday lives, driving on the freeway, hearing loud music, watching scary movies, working long hours with little down time, getting into heated arguments—in person and on social media—and innumerable other daily occurrences can push us into our sympathetic nervous systems. Pranayama practice—especially deep, slow breathing—can shift us out of fight-or-flight and into the more sustainable rest-and-digest mode. In rest-and-digest mode, our minds become more quiet.
Sitting or Lying Down?
Until the 20th century, pranayama was always practiced in a sitting position. Sitting with a free belly and long spine allows for the fullest, deepest inhalations and exhalations. But BKS Iyengar discovered that not all his students could sustain this position easily for long periods of time. Because of various structural restrictions, many students couldn’t sit with their spines straight enough to create the freedom in the torso necessary for them to breathe easily.
Using props, he designed a way for practitioners to practice lying down. Placing a pranayama pillow under the spine from the lumbar to the head, and a blanket supporting the head and neck (see the above photo), a practitioner can enjoy an expanded chest and lengthened spine. The blanket supporting the head promotes a gentle form of jalandhara bandha (chin lock) to keep the prana from rushing up into the head and possibly causing a headache.
Lying down pranayama is appropriate for anyone—beginners and experienced practitioners. It’s especially welcome when you come to practice in a state of fatigue. Not having to hold your body up allows you to concentrate solely on the breath.
In sitting pranayama practice, a meditation cushion can be tremendously helpful. Most bodies, even very flexible ones, need support to sustain a healthy sitting position for any length of time. Remember that the intention is to create a situation where your torso is both energized and mobile. Sitting in a slumped position cuts off your abdomen from the breathing process, which severely limits your capacity.
The Body-Mind Connection
Practicing slow, deep breathing calms the nervous system which of course includes the brain. As the nervous system calms and quiets, our minds become quieter. The last three limbs of yoga—concentration, meditation and Samadhi—become more accessible.
Pranayama is a powerful practice. As such, it’s important to find a knowledgeable teacher, one who maintains a long-term, consistent practice. Your breath has the capacity to change your physical, mental and emotional landscapes. It is important that you embark on formal practice with care and the guidance of someone who’s aware of all the possible pitfalls that might arise. As with asana practice, there’s no one-size-fits-all prescription for practicing pranayama.
That said, breathing deeply and slowly—nothing fancy—can change the whole tone of your daily life. Here are a few suggestions:
- When you feel agitated while driving—say you’re in a hurry and seem to be hitting every red light—take the opportunity while you’re stopped at those annoying lights to breathe slowly and deeply.
- When you’re about to spout off and say something you might regret later, stop and take five—deep breaths, that is. Tell the person you’re talking to that you need a time out. Breathe deeply and then decide whether you really need to say what you thought you needed to. Spouting off is one choice; delaying a conversation until you feel clearer is another. This also applies to those mostly futile social media discussions where nobody’s mind ever changes. Back off and breathe.
- When you sit down to meditate, take a few minutes to breathe slowly and deeply. This might help set your mind up for a more focused meditation.
- At any time, if you feel yourself gasping for air while attempting to breathe deeply, you’re trying too hard. Stop, take a few natural breaths and then return to slow, deep breathing. Remember that like asana, breathing is not a competition. At no point should it ever feel stressful. Tune into what your body needs today and keep it easy.
If you want to learn more about the breath and its relationship to yoga practice, Donna Farhi’s The Breathing Book is a classic.