Continuing our journey through the seasons and the eight limbs of yoga here we arrive at the Summer Solstice and our fourth gateway – the traditional yogic practice of prāṇāyāma.
Right now, I’d love for you enjoy a slow, conscious breath.
Can you feel the fullness at the end of your inhalation before the breath turns around and starts to leave?
I think of that as the summer solstice of my breath. It is full, vibrant, spacious and buzzing with energy.
The word prāņayāma consists of two parts: prāņa and ayāma. “Ayāma” means “stretch” or “extend” and prāņa refers to our life force or energy. So, literally what is meant by prāņayāma is to stretch or extend our energy (I like the phrase ‘conserving our energy’).
This is traditionally done via regulating and ultimately quietening the breath. It is for this reason that developing awareness of breath and our capacity to move without disturbing the breath is such a strong focus of the way I have been taught yoga and choose to teach it myself.
As we develop the relationship between the body and the breath we eventually come to a point of being able to keep the body quiet and still and work only with the breath. Traditionally this has been done in seated postures, but there are also a range of supported lying postures that can help us to develop a positive connection with our breathing and move in the direction that is signposted by the traditional texts.
Within the Yoga Sūtra there is important guidance for prāṇāyāma presented in sūtra 2.50:
“bāhya-ābhyantara-stambha-vṛttiḥ deṣa-kāla-saṃkhyābhiḥ paridṛṣṭaḥ dīrgha-sūkṣmaḥ”
“By observing the exhalation, the inhalation and the pauses between them from three perspectives (placing our attention, varying their relative lengths and considering the number of repetitions), we can refine both the length and the subtlety of the whole breath.” (Translation from ‘Embodying the Yoga Sūtra’ by David Charlton and Ranju Roy).
The word “paridṛṣṭaḥ” means “to watch over comprehensively” and this is a useful starting point when starting to work with our breath. Another way to put it is that we are developing mindfulness of our breath, an ability to perceive it without changing it – an easy relaxed breath is the starting point of prāṇāyāma practices.
The same sūtra emphasises breath regulation in the form of long (dīrgha) and smooth or subtle (sūkṣma) breathing in the key instructions on the practice of prāṇāyāma.
These are qualities we practice regularly in our asana practice if we are working with slow, steady movement coordinated with our breathing. Using ujjayi breathing in asana also helps to develop this skill and leads us progressively towards more the more subtle practices of prāṇāyāma.
The breath is often described in yoga as being like a ‘bridge’ between the body and the mind, in the sense that breathing can be both conscious and unconscious. There is also an intimate connection between our breathing and our nervous system, and when there is strain in the breath, there is a risk of also disturbing the mind (the precise opposite of what yoga is meant to be) so great tenderness toward oneself should always be observed while practising prāņayāma.
A common prāṇāyāma technique is called Nāḍī Śodhana or “alternate nostril breathing”. Nāḍī means ‘channel’ or ‘river’ and Śodhana is a means of cleansing and clearing. Nāḍī Śodhana is the technique that cleanses or purifies the channels through which our life-force (prāņa) flows.
It is done by inhaling through the left nostril and exhaling through the right, then reversing the pattern, inhaling through the right nostril and exhaling through the left.
Being in the Cycles
This post is part of our journey through the eight festivals of the Celtic calendar – Being in the Cycles – during which we are encountering each of the eight limbs of yoga like a series of gates to pass through on our path.
For a bit of fun we turned this local gate into a model of Nāḍī Śodhana breathing.