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The Eight Limbs of Yoga - Pranayama

Updated: Mar 17

Welcome to this week’s discussion on the guiding principles of the science of Yoga - the Eight Limbs.

So far, we have discussed three of four of the personal examinations, attitudes and physical practises that the aspiring yogi examines and adopts on their path; as we now discuss the fourth, we may begin to see how these examinations and practises support each other and help the yogi in their path of transformative self-understanding and towards liberation from societally conditioned ideas and false understandings about who they are.


‘Pranayama’ is the fourth of the Eight Limbs and literally translates as ‘control of the breath’.

To understand Pranayama, one must understand the concept of ‘Prana’.

Within the yogic tradition, and the wider tradition of Hinduism and other Indo-sub continental traditions (such Buddhism), prana is understood to be the vital life-force that sustains all things, including animate and inanimate objects.

This vital life force emanates from the Sun and pervades all elements of life, from rocks and stones through the entire natural world to the complex machines of the human body. Prana is intimately connected, and in some traditions coterminous, with the breath and respiration.

In the ‘Yoga Sutras’ of Patanjali (c.1st century C.E), the practice of pranayama is vaguely alluded to and minimal detail is given as to the practicalities or methods of controlling the breath. It wasn’t until almost 1,500 years later that the traditional text of the ‘Hatha Yoga Pradipika’ (c.14th century C.E), elaborated upon the methodology of pranayama in extensive detail and effectively canonised the practice within the yogic tradition.

The ‘Hatha Yoga Pradipika’ provides instruction on many different techniques of pranayama, all designed to help the yogi cultivate and increase the levels of prana within their bodies, therefore cultivating high levels of health and well-being. These techniques come with wonderful names, such as the ‘Skull-Shining Breath’, the ‘Victorious Breath’ and the ‘Sun-Piercing Breath’.

Pranayama as a practice consists of four distinct elements:

  • ‘Puraka’ ~ control of the inhalation

  • ‘Antara Kumbhaka’ ~ internal retention of the breath

  • ‘Rechaka’ ~ control of the exhalation

  • ‘Bahya Kumbhaka’ ~ external retention of the breath

These four practices are connected with the four natural stages of each and every inhalation and exhalation we make in life. If we sit and silently become attentive towards our own breathing, we can recognise and connect with these four stages; the inhale, a slight pause, the exhale, a slight pause… and so the cycle begins again.

By cultivating this attentiveness towards our breath, we can begin to understand our breath and actively cultivate the prana of the body. With this understanding, we can begin to practise controlling the breath.

A simple and powerful technique of pranayama for calming down the rhythm of our breathing and bringing a calm, steady state to the body and mind is as follows.

Find a comfortable seated position, either cross-legged on the floor or using a chair and sitting upright, allow your spine to become long and tall with the crown of your head reaching towards the sky. Close your mouth and begin to breathe in through your nose and out through your nose - allow your breath to flow naturally at this point without trying to control it; just simply allow it to flow in and out of your body.

After a few minutes, you will begin to notice that the rhythm of your breathing slows down and becomes deeper, all by itself. The lungs will naturally expand a little further and you’ll begin to use more of your torso to complete each inhale and exhale. Allow this process to be spontaneous; don’t hold any expectation or judgement towards your breath, just be attentive and silently notice.

When you feel ready, begin to bring the breath under your conscious control by extending the inhale-pause-exhale-pause pattern to match a silent count in your mind.

As you inhale, count to four; at the top of the inhale, hold the breath inside the body and again silently count to four. As you exhale, again, silently count to four and as the natural pause comes at the bottom of the exhalation, hold the breath outside of the body and silently count to four once more before repeating this pattern again.

Continue with this pattern of pranayama for 10 - 15 minutes, remaining attentive and focused on your breath. This technique, while simple, can take some practice to master, so be patient with yourself and keep practising.

Pranayama techniques have been shown to calm the nervous systems of the body, induce a clear, mental state and oxygenate the entire physical system. Energetically-speaking, pranayama increases and purifies the prana supporting the life of the body; a relaxed, healthy, oxygenated body, using the full capacity of its breath, is one that is radiant and shining with the life of the Universe itself.

There are many techniques of pranayama and, as an aspiring yogi moves deeper into their practice, it is wise to seek out a master of these particular techniques for instruction and guidance.

Matt ~ The Bearded Naked Yogi

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