FOURTH STAGE: PRANAYAMA
प्राणायाम — Prāṇāyāma — a Sanskrit word meaning “extension of the prāṇa or breath” or “extension of the life force”.
The first 3 limbs are essential to ready the body for the demanding practice of pranayama. While it is much more subtle than asana, advanced practice is far more powerful and must be approached mindfully and with proper guidance.
However, Ashtanga is a system designed for a ‘householder’ — this is a person who has family and professional responsibilities, enjoys social interaction and is unable to dedicate long periods of time to a separate Asana and Pranayama practices. The system enables us to integrate each of the limbs into our daily lives. Pranayama and asana can be done at a convenient time, preferably on rising to set us up for the forthcoming day. The principles within the Yamas and Niyamas are fused into our day to day lives.
Ujjayi Pranayama, also known as the Victorious breath, is the breathing practice that is used in Ashtanga and enables us to practise both asana and pranayama simultaneously. The technique should however be practised independently from time to time so that we learn to control both the sound and the length of breath which is essential to develop a strong practice. When returning to physical practice feel the inhale creating space the exhale releasing you into that space.
Ujjayi breathing technique — The Victorious Breath
This excerpt from a Yoga Journal article offers a good introductory explanation to Ujjayi breathing:
“Narrowing the throat by half-closing the epiglottis (the piece of cartilage at the top of your voice box) gives your breath a voice. Let that voice become your teacher. Listen to the tone of that voice as you inhale and exhale, and make that tone as even and smooth as you can, without any catches or wavering and without any change in pitch. Listening to the voice of ujjayi pranayama will give you greater sensitivity and control over the nuances of your breath.
At first, you may wonder exactly how to manipulate this epiglottal valve at the root of your throat. Here are two methods which can help you learn this action. First, just sigh, and notice the slight constriction in your throat that occurs. That’s the area you need to control when you’re practicing ujjayi. A second way is to open your mouth and inhale softly, noticing where the breath touches your throat. For most people, that will be deep down at the base and back of the throat. Again, that’s the spot you need to constrict slightly to practice ujjayi. After you’ve zeroed in on this area, close your mouth and inhale, letting the breath touch your throat there. Once you can inhale in this way, practice exhaling with the same constriction of the epiglottis.”
Other Pranayama practices
There are many pranayama practices that involve restraining breath (kumbhaka) but these should be performed only after guidance from a qualified teacher. However, Nadi Shodhana or alternative nostril breathing is a powerful form of pranayama which is safe to practise. It has wide reaching benefits and may be practiced when you don’t have time or energy for your Ashtanga practice.
During the course of a day our breath tends to flow more strongly through one nostril than the other, naturally switching dominance every four hours. This reflects our basic polarities of brain, body, mind and personality — the breath moving back and forth, helping to sustain balance.
The autonomic nervous system has two components: the sympathetic, which is responsible for excitation and arousal (fight or flight); and the parasympathetic, which is responsible for relaxation (rest and digest). In yoga these systems are said to correspond with the pingala and ida nadis. These are lines of energy that start at the base of the spine and end in the nose. Pingala ends at the right nostril and relates to the sympathetic nervous system and ida ends at the left nostril and relates to the parasympathetic nervous system.
We can assist the breath in its balancing act with conscious alternate nostril breathing:
— Place the thumb under one nostril, closing it off.
— Breath in for a count of 8.
— Move the thumb to the other nostril.
— Breath out for a slow count of 8.
— Continue for 5 minutes.
Then move on to circulating energy:
— Breathe slowly, in and out through the nose.
— As you breathe in, feel you are drawing the air in through the left hand and up your arm to the base of your neck.
— Breathing out, allow the energy to flow down your right arm and out through your right fingers.
— Continue for several breaths. Then reverse the flow, inhaling up through your right arm and exhaling down through your left arm, for several breaths.
— Now switch to your legs, inhaling up your left leg to the base of your spine, and exhaling down your right leg, for several breaths, then reversing: up the right leg and down the left leg, for several breaths.
— Now start the breath at the base of the spine, inhaling while drawing the energy up to the top of your head and then exhaling, letting the energy flow down your face, throat, chest, belly and deep into the pelvis. –
– Continue for several minutes, circulating the energy up the spine with each inhale and letting it flow — like a waterfall — down the front of your body with each exhale.
This article by Erich Schiffmann gives a detailed description of how the breath is used in asana practice.
And here is a video by advanced practitioner Lino Miele demonstrating the link between asana and pranayama. Notice the equal smooth breathing used within the posture and the vinyasa between.