Last week we took a deeper look at the first two limbs of the Eight Limb Path of Yoga, the yamas and niyamas. If you missed that post, check it out here! Practicing the yamas and niyamas prepares us for the work we’ll do in the next two steps.
This week, we’ll dive into the two limbs that are more commonly known: Asana, or the postures of yoga, and prayanama, breathing techniques to direct the flow of prana, or life energy.
As we discussed in our overview of the eight limbs, asana is what most people think of when they hear the word yoga. Asana refers to the physical postures of yoga and is much more about connecting to our bodies than holding crow pose for five minutes straight.
Humanity displays a serious disconnect between our bodies and our minds. We seem to have forgotten that our bodies are amazing vessels filled with energy and that they hold way more knowledge than we give them credit for.
When we practice asana, we are tapping into that knowledge and discovering ways in which our minds might deceive us. This deception often manifests in the body (read more about how emotions can cause physical pain here!) and asana offers us the opportunity to pay attention to, and honor, our bodies in ways we neglect in daily life.
In meditation, we’ll often use an ‘anchor’ to focus our attention, such as our breath. In asana, the postures become our anchor, or that thing we come back to when we realize our thoughts have wandered.
Notice that the focus of asana isn’t even on physical health, although a regular asana practice will indeed result in better health. The focus is health of the mind; the idea is that health of the body will follow as we rid ourselves of things that no longer serve us on a physical and emotional level.
“Asana is perfect firmness of body, steadiness of intelligence, and benevolence of spirit.”
“Posture becomes firm and relaxed through control of the natural tendencies of the body, and through meditation on the infinite.“
~ Yoga Sutras
I see asana as a way to honor my body, and to quiet my mind. When I practice, I find myself in what is really a state of meditation, as my focus is on the posture and making sure my body feels comfortable in it. Yes, with regular practice you will very likely become more flexible and curious about more challenging poses. But the Sutras emphasize that the focus of asana is about ridding ourselves of “chitta vrittis”, or the fluctuations of the mind.
Our breath is always there, yet we are usually unaware of it. Our breath is quite literally keeping us alive, and the energy that causes our breath is what we seek to direct in pranayama. In Sanskrit, prana means ‘life force’, and yama can be defined as ‘control’. The idea behind pranayama is that we can increase our prana by mindfully using the energy we receive from the air we breathe, which can result in numerous health benefits.
For most of us, our breathing is chronically restricted which restricts the flow of life-giving energy in our bodies. We tend to breath shallowly, not taking in full breaths and not breathing out completely, especially during times of stress. When we breathe like this, we’re depriving our bodies of the nourishment of the air we breathe. In pranayama, we are consciously directing the flow of our breath, and nourishing our bodies and minds with prana.
Much like meditation, pranayama can help calm the mind and body. In the short term, a pranayama session can leave you feeling calmer and more mindful. It can also lower your heart rate, and help you sleep. Over time, this type of controlled breathing can result in greater lung capacity, as it encourages the practitioner to take deeper breaths.
In one translation of the Sutras, Sri Swami Satchidananda defines pranayama as:
“…. the method whereby the life force [prana] can be activated or regulated in order to go beyond one’s normal boundaries or limitations and attain a higher state of vibratory energy and awareness.”
There are a number of different methods of pranayama, but here we’ll go over just two of them that are great for beginners.
Pranayama – Nadi Shodhana
Nadi shodhana, or alternate nostril breathing, balances the right and left hemispheres of the brain. It can have a calming effect and is a great technique to start with. I will often practice this type of mindful breathing before asana, or as a beginning to a meditation session.
To do, sit comfortably crossed-legged or in a chair. Bring your right hand to your nose and use your thumb to block your right nostril. Breathe in, breathing through the left nostril.
Breathe out of your left nostril and use your pointer finger to block your left nostril as you release your hold on the right. Breathe in through the right nostril, then out. Repeat this as many times as feels good. It can be helpful to count to a certain number for each inhale and exhale.
Pranayama – Kapalabhati
Kapalabhati is also known as “skull shining breath” and although this sounds creepy, it’s really not. Kapalabhati basically consists of fast, powerful exhales, contracting the lower belly. We are not used to breathing this way, so it can take some time to get used to. Inhales can be natural, as you will naturally want to fill the lungs back up after you have emptied them with your full exhale.
To practice kapalabhati breathing, quickly contract your lower abdomen to push out the air in your lungs. As you release the contraction, your lungs will fill back up automatically as your body seeks to replenish its oxygen supply. Repeat this as many times as feels good or set a timer if that’s helpful.
With consistent practice, asana and pranayama can be life-changing. These practices can improve the quality of life on both a physical and mental/emotional level. They also help build upon the foundation we create with practicing the yamas and niyamas and prepare us for the deeper states of concentration in the next two limbs.
Next week we’ll move into the next two steps of the Eight Limb Path of Yoga: Pratyahara, or turning inward, and dharana, or concentration.
At Inspiring Actions, there are amazing opportunities to practice both asana and pranayama, but you don’t have to know how to do them to come! We recognize that no one is going to be at the same spot on this path, and regardless of your experience and exposure to yoga, you are welcome here! Join us at one of our classes at our studios in River Falls and Hudson, Wisconsin, as well as online; we’d love to have you practice with us!
If you’re interested in giving pranayama a try, check out one of these tutorials !