The Limbs of Yoga: Breath

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Patanjali and co’s stage of the ashtanga process consists of techniques designed to gain control over breathing while recognising the connection between the breath, the mind and the emotions. Pranayam translates as life-force expansion, and yogis believe, with a credible body of evidence, that it not only rejuvenates the body but extends life. Prana is life force and energy, often achieved through breathing practices. Ayama is a stretching, a regulation, a control, thus pranayama is an expansion of our life force and a stretching of our capacity through breath control. Not a stretch to see why it is such an integral and important part of a yoga practice. Pranayama in an asana routine can be undertaken at the commencement and conclusion of a yoga practice as well as within the postures, or used as a stand-alone breathing practice at any time.

The first four stages of Patanjali’s ashtanga yoga concentrate on understanding our personalities, gaining skill in controlling the body, and developing an awareness of ourselves. The body, while not separate to the mind, is a gross tool of the sense organs and a significant distraction to the journey towards a higher state of consciousness if not under strict control. The breath is a vehicle to achieving an awareness of our consciousness. We need to learn to slowly and systematically measure and manipulate its distribution. Understanding the vital role breath plays in stilling the mind and the body, it is also important to remember that breath is not under our control. In this light, we can look at our relationship with it in terms of pranayama as one of collaboration and negotiation—also key skills to master for whole life practice.

Breath will come in and out. The amount of actual attention you have paid to breathing since your birth is miniscule. Breath doesn’t need you as the doer, and this in itself is a valuable knowing. All of the time your mind has spent applying itself to planning control of and attachment to the things that you believe are the most essential to your survival (reputation, good Instagram selfies) is time you haven’t spent on operating your breath. All the drama, the days when life seemed like it was literally going to end because of some heartbreak, criticism, reputational blow, disappointment or disaster, you just kept on breathing, and living.

Breath as the most critical element to your life is seemingly a free agent, blissfully decoupled from your mind and its distractions, able to single-pointedly get on with delivering essential services day and night. There is much we can learn from our breath, and perhaps the best lesson is humility. Our mind needs to be re-minded that it can pretend to be the boss all it likes, but everything we actually need is within, patiently performing and waiting to be noticed. If you are a yoga teacher or student, you will have heard this phrase many times: come back to the breath.

The breath is the constant that we orient our practice around, it is the central golden cord of releasing distraction and returning to stillness and awareness. Breath similarly anchors meditation practices. We follow its path in and out of our nostrils with wonder each time we return, as if seeing the miracle of our breathing for the first time. The gratitude and eager embrace of breath as something to anchor onto to settle our minds is soon lost again as the rainclouds of thought return, and the process of loss and gaining of consciousness continues.   

When we talk about training our breath in yoga, we are really training our minds to recognise that breath is there for us and available to us. We can slow it down, deepen it, extract healing powers from it, and regulate the reaction of our bodies and minds. The breath within those actions doesn’t fundamentally change. We change around it. Pranayama teaches us to trust and surrender in that which we don’t control. These layer together when we make breath a conscious and central part of our practice in a loop of remembrance and surrender. It is the physical and lived experience of that wisdom.

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