This blog post is the fourth in our series about the eight limbs of yoga, the yoga technology of spiritual growth, outlined in Patanjali’s yoga sutras. The fourth limb of the path is pranayama, breath work.
The yoga word for life force or Spirit is prana, and breath is the vehicle used in yoga practice to encourage the free flow of prana. It is somewhat similar to the eastern idea of qi or chi. The idea of unblocking qi underlies the practice of Tai chi, Qigong, Reiki, Healing Touch, Acupuncture, etc. As in this eastern therapeutic concept of qi, in yoga, the free movement of life force/prana/Spirit is thought to encourage vitality in the body and foster its ability to heal. What distinguishes prana from the energetic concept of qi is the yoga idea that life force, prana, rides on the breath. We can see in this yoga idea of prana our Judeo/Christian concepts of the breath of God and the healing power of the Holy Spirit. Consider the synonymous meaning of the following words as both breath and Spirit: ruach (Hebrew), pneuma (Greek), and spiritus (Latin).
Pranayama, breath work, has a particularly important role in yoga practice, as breath is the key to uniting body, mind and spirit. We use our breath to monitor our physical yoga practice. When our breath becomes fast and shallow, it signals that it is time to modify asana or rest. We use our breath to focus our minds on the present by following our breath cycle with our attention. Breath-centered focus relieves us, at least temporarily, from the on-going internal chatter of our thoughts by dampening external stimulation and encouraging our ego/will to quiet. Paradoxically, as we quiet and draw inward, we widen our perspective and increase our receptivity to God’s presence.
The healing effect of breath work is enhanced when practiced audibly. Western medical studies on the parasympathetic nervous system show that sound, such as the audible breathing of yoga’s sounding breath (ujjayi), singing, and chanting stimulates the vagus nerve, increasing vagal tone, and the body’s ability to recover and transition from stress. As such, a yoga practice integrated with sounding breath, not only increases feelings of well-being, it encourages overall wellness and resilience.
Pranayama is typically segmented into two types: langhana or calming energy, and brahmana or enlivening energy. Langhana breath work uses slow, lengthening exhalation and breath retention after exhalation to encourage the body and mind to calm. Brahmana breath work focus on inhalation and breath retention after inhalation to energize and enliven, mind and body.
Dr. Herbert Benson from Harvard Medical School in 1975 published a book called The Relaxation Response in which he documented the body’s breath patterns in stressful and calm situations. Concerned about the harm done to the body from chronic stress, Benson’s research showed that the body could be encouraged into the more healing “rest and digest” mode, eliciting relaxation by the intentional use of slow, deep, diaphragmatic breathing with prolonged exhalation. Benson’s study documented from a western medical viewpoint the healthful, physiological effect of langhana breath work, to slow heart rate, lower blood pressure, and reduce stress hormones such as cortisol.
Whether a student is best served with langhana “calming” or brahmana “energizing” pranayama depends on each student’s individual needs. Ujjayi or sounding yoga breath, and the langhana pranayama technique of slow, prolonged exhalation may be practiced safely by most yoga students. However, breath retention and many brahmana pranayama techniques have several serious contraindications including glaucoma, high blood pressure, and anxiety, and thus, should be attempted only with medical permission and under the direction of an experienced yoga teacher.
Regardless of whether we individually need energizing or calming energy, perhaps the most important pranayama we all can practice is to simply pay attention to our breath: watching it grow full and deep, providing focus for our minds, and eliciting a relaxing effect, that quiets the body. When we apply a breath prayer or sacred word to the inhalation and exhalation of our breath cycle, we nourish our Spirit on the wave of our breath. We often use the simple breath prayer, I AM, God’s response to the question of God’s name. Exodus 3:14. Affirming our faith with a breath prayer in our pranayama practice we experience a breath-centered union of body, mind and spirit, and open to God’s life-giving presence.
Pranayama Langhana Practice
Try this calming “langhana” breath work. Sit up tall and with intention breath with an audible, slow, full breath:
Inhale for 4 counts; Exhale for 4 counts; Repeat 4 times.
If this even-count breath pattern is comfortable, begin to lengthen and slow the exhalation. Notice the slight pause at the end of each exhalation, observing the transition from exhalation back to inhalation.
Inhale for 4 counts; Exhale for 5 counts
Inhale for 4 counts; Exhale for 6 counts
Inhale for 4 counts; Exhale for 7 counts
Inhale for 4 counts; Exhale for 8 counts
Once you've found your deepest, longest exhalation, repeat three more breaths. If it resonates with you, repeat the breath prayer I AM with each breath cycle; ride the tide of your breath and enjoy the peace and serenity that accompanies this practice.