Learn how to harness the breath to feel calm and energised.
The eight limbs of yoga
Almost 2,000 years ago an Indian sage, Patanjali, created the Yoga Sutras, a collection of ancient yogic texts. One of the main teachings is the Eight Limbs of Yoga (Ashtanga) which can be described as the foundation of yoga and is commonly practised today by yogis all around the world. The Eight Limbs comprises of eight steps that lead us to enlightenment. If practised regularly they can help us to live a happy and meaningful life.
Patanjali’s Eight limbs are:
1. The Yamas (restraints)
2. The Niyamas (self-disciplines)
3. Asana (yoga poses)
4. Pranayama (breathing techniques)
5. Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses)
6. Dharana (concentration)
7. Dhyana (meditation)
8. Samadhi (absorption)
When we hear the term pranayama we traditionally think of the breath. However, there is so much more to Patanjali’s Forth Limb. Breath is the vital life force of the body. If we can control our breath, we can control our energy and what is going on inside us. Pranayama, along with asana, sets the ground work for meditation. It can be used to regulate the nervous system and improve focus, allowing us to live a more productive and purposeful life.
The science behind pranayama
When we feel stressed or anxious our body enters the ‘fight or flight’ state, which is a physiological response that prepares our body to stay and fight the threat or to flee. This can make us feel nervous, sweaty, jittery, and have difficulty concentrating. Now this response may be useful when we are in a dangerous situation, however it is not so helpful if we experience these effects on a daily basis. Deep belly breathing stimulates the vagus nerve which is responsible for regulating the nervous system. It takes us out of the heightened state and returns the body to normal. This is when we feel calm, relaxed and focused.
In yoga, it is said that the breath mirrors what is happening inside that body. Pranayama is a great way to control our physiological responses and can provide a distraction for our busy minds. In my personal experience, pranayama is the quickest, most effective way to relieve stress and improve concentration.
Practice Tip: You can practise deep belly breathing multiple times a day. It is particularly useful when you are time poor and feeling a little under the pump, as even just a few minutes can make a difference to how you feel.
Find a comfortable, seated position where your spine is straight. You can place your hands on the belly. Inhale through the nose to the count of four (or longer if possible) expanding the belly as much as you can and exhale to the count of four allowed the belly to retract. Do this for at least two minutes. Over time you will may be able to extend the inhalations and exhalations to the count of seven or eight. Try adding in kombuchas, which is when you hold at the top of the inhalation for a moment and then hold at the end of the exhalation.
It is great to use pranayama regularly even when you don’t feel stressed as like every skill it takes practise. The best time to improve on a skill is when you are feeling calm and peaceful.
The energetic body
Prana literally means vital force energy and yama can be translated to discipline. The breath can be used to harness energy within the body. The body is made up of thousands of Nadis, which are a network of channels that prana flows through . At the centre of these channels, in the spine, are seven Chakras. Pranayama can be used to unblock these channels to allow energy to flow through freely. In others words, if we are feeling out of balance we can use the breath to bring a sense of equilibrium back to the energetic body.
Practice Tip: I have discussed previously ways to calm the nervous system using pranayama, another way to put us into a relaxed state is to prolong the outbreath. Conversely, we can increase our energy by prolonging the inhalation. Pranayama is not just a process that we can used to de-stress, it is a technique that can be used to revitalise our whole being and help us to reach our full potential.