After the yamas, the niyamas, and asana—that is, the ethical principles and physical practice of yoga—yogis learn to control the breath. Managing the breath, called pranayama, is the fourth limb of yoga. (You’ll recall there are eight limbs.)
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali gives us some insight into the purpose of managing the breath. In sutra 2.49, we read:
That (firm posture) being acquired, the movement of inhalation and exhalation should be controlled. This is pranayama. (translation by Reverend Jaganath Carrera)
In other words, posture and breath are important tools in yoga; both prepare the yogi for meditation and finally union with the divine.
Why Yogis Focus on Managing the Breath
Prana—the breath—is our life force. In simple, practical terms, when we manage it well, we feel better and function better. When you’re nervous, you may notice your breath is shallow or very rapid. Managing the breath with pranayama can calm those nerves.
Similarly, if you’re sluggish, you can do pranayama exercises that help energize the body and focus the mind. One example is breath of fire in the Kundalini tradition.
Breathwork is a detailed science for yogis. You’ve probably learned a variety of exercises for managing the breath in your yoga classes. Patanjali says this about pranayama, referred to in this translation as “the modifications of the life-breath.”
The modifications of the life-breath are external, internal, or stationary. They are to be regulated by space, time, and number and are either long or short. (sutra 2.50)
We can work with inhalations, exhalations, and breath retention. We can take long, deep breaths or rapid, forceful breaths. Each has a different effect on the body and mind.
Yogic Tools for Managing the Breath
There are various breathing exercises in yoga. The most common are:
Ujayii breath, which we do often in conjunction with an asana practice. Ujayii breathing can help us hold poses, and link movement with breath in vinyasa-style classes.
Breath of fire, also known as kapalabhati or skull-shining breath, is a rapid, energizing breathing practice.
Alternate nostril breathing, where the focus is on breathing through the right or left nostril or both. The idea is that breathing through the left nostril results in a state of calmness, while breathing through the right nostril is more energizing. Alternate nostril breathing helps balance the entire body-mind system.
The Mysterious Fourth Kind of Pranayama
In sutra 2.51, Patanjali describes a fourth kind of pranayama.
Energy-control which goes beyond the sphere of external and internal is the fourth level-the vital.
Rev. Carrera notes that this fourth level is probably the state of the breath when we are in deep meditation. Perhaps we can say that in this state only being exists.
As its result, the veil over the inner light is destroyed. (sutra 2.52) And the mind becomes fit for concentration. (sutra 2.53)
So, we can see that managing the breath is an important part of yoga practice. Along with the ethical and lifestyle principles and physical postures, pranayama prepares us for meditation, which brings us closer to union with all that is.