Although pranayama (breath regulation) is classically considered one of the three main components of yoga, along with asana and meditation, it’s strangely omitted in the majority of modern yoga. Yogis who want to advance on the yogic path shouldn’t skip this crucial step. It’s the important fourth limb of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga, following just behind asana.
Pranayama serves as a link between the external and internal practices of yoga. The first three of Patanjali’s eight limbs—yamas, niyamas, and asana—are considered external practices that help the yogi master their body and its energy. After these comes pranayama, and the limbs that follow are internal practices that help the yogi master their senses and mind. Pranayama is the step that helps yogis graduate from the external to the internal.
If your mind is disturbed, you’ll never be able to meditate. Pranayama can clear the mind of ignorance, desires, and delusion. BKS Iyengar explains this beautifully: “As the breeze disperses the clouds that cover the sun, pranayama wafts away the clouds that hide the light of intelligence.”
Only when you clear the mind of ignorance and agitation can you concentrate. Only when you concentrate can you meditate. And only when you meditate can you achieve the ultimate goal of yoga: self-realization. This is the natural progression of the eight limbs of yoga.
Pranayama translates as “breath expansion.” It’s a conscious regulation of the breath, an altering of its natural flow. There are four parts to pranayama: recaka (exhalation), puraka (inhalation), bahya-kumbhaka (suspension of the breath after exhalation), and antar-kumbhaka (retention of the breath after inhalation). Beginner’s pranayama focuses mainly on exhalations and inhalations. Advanced pranayama incorporates inner retention, outer suspension, bandhas, and mudras.
If you’re confident in asana and struggling with meditation, start or come back to pranayama. 10 or 20 minutes a day will advance your overall yoga practice. Follow these tips for beneficial pranayama:
There are many kinds of pranayama to practice. You might start with simple abdominal breathing or alternate nostril breathing, and then work with a teacher to learn more complicated techniques. Classical yogic texts caution that pranayama must be learned by a teacher or a guru, as advanced pranayama can be detrimental to health if practiced incorrectly.
Consult a teacher, incorporate the tips listed above, and try to make pranayama just as important as your asana practice to keep advancing on the yogic path.