The fourth limb of Patanjali’s eight-fold path is pranayama. Prana is often more simple translated at breath or energy. Richard Freeman, is his book The Mirror of Yoga, states that prana can be more thoroughly understood to be “the substratum of all sensation, feeling, and thought, the medium through which all experience within the body presents itself.” The word, ayama, means to not restrict or control – ‘a’ being a negation in the Sanskrit language and yama meaning restraint, as in the first limb of yoga. Together these words have come to be known as the set of breath extension techniques that affect the nervous system and subtle body in various way in order to prepare the body and mind for the inner limbs of the yoga practice. Rather that elaborate on these varied breath practices and their effects, I’d like to focus on the breath as it relates to asana or posture practice.
There are many subdivisions of prana that describe the wide range of its movements and patterns inside the body, but two are the most important for our yoga practice, prana and apana. Prana is the physical pattern of rising up, blossoming and spreading out. The prana pattern is associated with the inhalation and is said to dwell at the core of the heart, or the anahata chakra. Note that the word prana is used to describe both the pattern of the inhaling breath as well as the general idea of the breath. Prana’s direct opposite is apana, the pattern of downward, inward and rooting movement in the body. The apana pattern is said to live in the muladhara chakra, which is located in the center of the pelvic floor. If you imagine a tree you can envision the joining of an expansive pattern with a grounding pattern. As with the tree, these patterns are intimately linked – without the stability and nourishment the roots provide the expansion at the top of the tree would not be possible, and without this expansion there is not point in rooting. They are like two lovers – yin and yang in the Chinese Taoist system – each in the heart of the other. We may separate them in our minds in order to think about and experience them, but ultimately they can never truly be separated.
These patterns initiate and inform the movement and alignment of the body in asana in such subtle and obvious ways that the entire practice can come to be seen as one continuous pranayama practice. The breath is constantly providing a ripple of sensation for the mind to observe to the extent that it becomes the internal organizing principal of asana, the foundational form of practice within hatha yoga. For example, the transition into the first position of the sun salutation when arms sweep upward and outward mirrors the prana pattern while the second position expresses the apana pattern by moving down and into a standing forward fold. On a deeper and more complex level, these patterns of breath inform the positioning of each and every one of the body’s joints in each and every posture. Further, each joint continually combines a different degree of prana and apana thereby balancing primary action with counteraction and making it non-static, constantly changing and dynamic experience. Freeman defines the underlying process of hatha yoga is to explore the relationship of the inhale and the exhale; to discover the root of apana in the prana, and the expansion of prana in the apana. We do this initially by uniting the ends of the breath through observing and cultivating opposite physiological patterns. When we inhale and the blossoming pattern naturally dominates we allow the mind to drop down to the roots of the body and the breath. To use the example above, when inhaling into the first form of the sun salutation we concentrate on the perineum and beyond into the legs and feet, which our extensions of the pelvic floor. In this way we remain connected to the earth rather than floating off into the mental projections inherent to the stimulation at the top of the inhale. Then when we exhale into the second form of the sun salutation and the rooting pattern is naturally dominant, we allow our mind to remain in the center of the heart. In this way our heart stays open and we are not overwhelmed by the seriousness of the exhalation that quite naturally brings sensations of fear, anxiety, dissolution and death. The breaths relationship to the movement of the shoulder join in reverse namaste (hands folded behind the heart in prayer position) is such that we may use the primary action of internal rotation (apana patern) to enter into the basic form of the upper arm bone but then the counteraction (external rotation) is applied to keep the heart open as we fold into parsvottanasna or pyramid pose. The learning curve is such that we may first discover and cling to one extreme end of the prana-apana continuum, then, in compensation we may grasp onto its opposite. In time, though this back and forth continues, it lessens and brings about a sense of integration and balance. Through consistent practice we may eventually experience physically how the intertwining of the two breathing patterns affect the entire structure of the body and mind.
With the opening of the “yogic body” in asana practice we learn to consciously join the prana and apana patterns. We are able to draw the essence of the apana pattern up through the central axis of the body while simultaneously pressing down on the prana pattern causing them to ignite in the roots of the navel. The movement of breath can be imagined as bright tubes opening up from one central channel into many branches that then return into a single tube within the core of the body. In hatha yoga these tubes are referred to as nadis. Nadi means “little river.” For most of us, our small rivers of breath and energy are all out of balnace. Some flow a little, some not at all and still others are flooding the system all the time. Different classical yogic texts refer to different numbers of nadis but all give special attention to the ida, pingala and sushusmna nadis. The ida nadi is considered to be the moon channel, which is said to be cooling and calming and is accessible through the left nostril. The pingala nadi is considered to be the sun channel, which is heating and energizing and is accessible through the right nostril. These two “side channels” are also associated with different states of mind and it is said that when you stimulate one of these two primary channels you experience characteristic moods or modes of thinking associated with the temperament of that side. The sushumna nadi is the empty channel right in the center of the core of the body and can be accessed through the root of the palate. Anatomically, the root of the palate begins in the soft palate in the back of the roof of the mouth where the uvula hangs down. He root is like a cup immediately underneath the pituitary gland. Yogic texts describe a nendlessly extending flower called the sahasrara chakra, or the thousand-petaled lotus, originating at the root of the palate and opening through the crown of the head. From the base of the sahasrara is the gateway to the central channel. Here the three nadis, the central staff of the sushumna, the ida and the pingala from a caduceus. Just like the wand of Hermes in Greek mythology, the two side channels wrap around the central staff so the two opposing qualities of the breath find their resolution and balance in the central axis.
The practice of yoga asana and pranayama prepare the body and mind for this resolution. If you even have a glimpse of the uniting of the complementary principles of sun and moon, prana and apana, inhale and exhale, something begins to occur in the pelvic floor. According to yoga theory, the two streams of breath are allowed to unite when the blockage, or kundalini, between them is removed. The root of the word kunda is “coil” thus leading to the image of a coiled serpent lying asleep at the base of the spine where prana and apana are attempting to unite. To again quote Richard Freeman, “pranayama could be explained as various techniques for breathing that consciously join prana and apana as a means for freeing the inner breath so that it can unfold into its true liberated state.” When the goddess of prana is freed the inner breath, the kundalini, uncoils and stands up straight along the central channel. In other words, the breath becomes still and is concentrated in the central channel, allowing the normal world-constructing and world-interpreting activities of the mind to temporarily suspended and the mind enters a state of pure awareness. Recall Yoga Sutra I.3 – yoga is the suspension of the fluctuations of consciousness (yogas-citta-vrtti-nirodhah). In the context of asana practice we skillfully extend the length and smoothness of the inhale and exhale as we churn and wring out the body in order to allow the prana and apana to unite, flow easily into an unobstructed central channel so that deep levels of meditation or samadhi can arise. Because the image of the goddess standing upright in the base of the pelvis is so vivid and colorful it is important to remember that the process of yoga is really about the observation of what is and not the reduction of it to our theories or images of what we’d like it to be. Internal imagery may help us to observe and experience the subtle and blatant effects of the breath but if we hold onto them too tightly we may miss the experience we are seeking all together. So as a final metaphor for the breath, through our practice we must cultivate the razor’s edge of intelligence that occurs in the balance of discriminative awareness (inhalation) and complete non-attachment (exhalation) in order to see everything, just as it is, without the mind’s overlay of theories, preconceptions and expectations. This is the yoga of action – on and off the mat.
This brief, and albeit superficial, description of pranayama is based primarily on my experience at Richard Freeman’s 2012 Teacher’s Intensive and my own personal experiences with asana and pranyama over the last ten years. Richard’s book “The Mirror of Yoga” is highly recommended to anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the concepts presented above.