Pranayama: The fourth limb of ashtanga yoga

Pranayama is a popular term now a days. But it is not just a breathing exercise!!! Let’s see Pranayama from the eye of Patanjali Yoga Sutra. Maharishi Patanjali, the compiler of yoga sutras has enlightened the path of ashtanga yoga (the eightfold path of yoga). And Pranayama is the fourth limb of ashtanga yoga which comes after asana. He has mentioned some of the sutras about Pranayama in “Patanjali Yoga Sutra”, one of the greatest work on yoga. The sutras are from chapter two, Sadhana pada starting from 49 to 53.

The First Sutra On Pranayama

The first yoga sutra on pranayama - What is Pranayama?

तस्मिन्सति श्वासप्रश्वासयोर्गतिविच्छेदः प्राणायामः॥४९॥
Tasminsati śvāsapraśvāsayorgativicchedaḥ prāṇāyāmaḥ||49||

tasmin = on that sati = has been (accomplished)
śvāsa = inhalation praśvāsayoh = exhalation gati = movement/flow vicchedaḥ = breaking
prāṇāyāmaḥ = pranayama

On that has been accomplished (Asana has been done), Pranayama is the cessation of the flow of inhalation and exhalation.

After accomplishing Yama, Niyama and Asana here comes the Pranayama. Usually our prana flow as breathing in and breathing out and breathing in and cycle goes on. Pranayama is to break this flow, in and out. Prana is the life force which works through breath. And breathing is an autonomous process which goes non stop. But we can break this process, regulate it and have control. This is what Pranayama is- regulating the prana by having control over breathing.

But breaking this usual pattern is not one day job. So be patient with yourself. Breathing is the regular self ongoing process since we are born. Controlling this automatic continuous flow requires sadhana, understanding and guidance. It is not like that for how long you can have control over breath. Stopping the flow once is not pranayama neither is the deep breathing exercise. If we breath pranayama, it’s Prana+Ayama. Prana is the life force (relate with breath) and Ayama is control. We, by practice, lengthen the flow of breath which includes retention and expansion. And can stop the flow of inhalation exhalation. This is what sutra says.

Breath and mind are inter related. Thus controlling the breathing gives you control over the monkey mind. Thereby you can dive into more deep practices with the tamed mind. For this reason we need to know the process which is complied in next sutra completely.

The Second Yoga Sutra – The 3 Movements, Factors & Goal

The Second Yoga Sutra on Pranayama

वाह्याभ्यन्तरस्तम्भवृत्तिः देशकालसङ्ख्याभिः परिदृष्टो दीर्घसूक्ष्मः॥५०॥
Bāhyābhyantarastambhavṛtti deśakālasaṅkhyābhiḥ paridṛṣṭo dīrghasūkṣmaḥ||50||

bāhya = external abhyantara = internal stambha = stopped/suppression vṛtti = movement
deśa = place kāla = time saṅkhyābhiḥ = number
paridṛṣṭo = regulated by
dīrgha = long sūkṣmaḥ = subtle

Pranayama has these movements, external, internal and suppression. Regulated by place, time and number it becomes long and subtle.

In the first sutra Rishi Patanjali has given the definition of pranayama. Now, in this sutra Rishi has conveyed the three movements of pranayama. And the factors that regulate it so that it can become long and subtle. In more appropriate words, sutra says:

  • The three movements/stages involved: External, Internal, Suppression or retention.
  • The regulating factors: Place, Time and Number.
  • Goal: Long and Subtle breath flow.

The Three Vrittis/States Of Pranayama

Practitioner works on these three stages day by day. With right practice, exhalation and inhalation (the two movements) will become long, smooth without jerk and deep. While in third, suppression of breath flow happens and retains for longer period with time. When this suppression or retention is going to happen? Transition comes in between when we exhale and inhale, similarly when we inhale and exhale. That means after each exhalation and after each inhalation there is a transition state. Here is the stambhan involved. Retaining the breath at this point is the third stage of pranayama.

This all should be practiced under the guidance of the master. It is not advisable to play with the breath flow. Capacity of each and every individual is different. Again a reminder: be patient and work on your own pace. With time and regular practice breath flow will become long, smooth and deep. You will be able to retain the breath in between transitions easily as if retention is the part of breath flow. Now by achieving this breathing cycle elongates. Eventually, we need less number of breaths.

Regulating Factors

Maharishi has mentioned the three factors which contribute in regulating the breath flow. Each one of them is helpful to become more aware and make it a mindful practice.

The Place/Desha: Desha means the location, place or spot. While practicing pranayama we can focus on some place intentionally. When we breathe various movements occur in the body. Focus on that movements, on stomach, back, chest etc. One can be aware of other locations like bhrumadhya (center of eyebrows). Bhrumadhya point has it own importance. So, bring your attention to different place and experience on your own.

The Time/Kaala: Breathe for any length of time. Which means one should elongate inhalation, exhalation and retention. Count your usual inhalation and exhalation and to start with, set your breath flow according to that.

The Number/Sankhya: Counting the number of seconds for each stage and elongating, it will reduce the number of breaths per minute. For example, if you usually breathe for 5 seconds in one cycle of inhalation and exhalation then you take 12 breaths per minute. And when you are practicing pranayama, suppose you are starting with 4 seconds of inhalation, 4 seconds of exhalation and 4 seconds of retention then a complete cycle takes 12 seconds. This will lead to 5 breaths per minute.

Even if you simply follow the deep breathing with no retention then also it will take 8 seconds to complete the cycle, 7.5 breaths in a minute. Gradually you can increase your inhalation and exhalation time or you can double your exhalation than inhalation time or you can include the retention in transitions. This all will prolong the breathing cycle and we have to breathe for lesser number of times.

The Goal

As the sutra says breath is long and subtle. The prana is prolonged by practicing and keeping the above factors in mind. You will notice the fineness in the flow. So practice consciously and mindfully to attain the goal. Do not be in hurry. Prana is the force which runs the life, if we try to control it forcefully then we may have to face harmful consequences. So, take your time and practice under the right guidance. Once by practice you achieve it what happens next?

The Third Sutra – The Fourth Pranayama

The final stage of pranayama - the fourth pranayama from Patanjali Yoga Sutra

वाह्याभ्यन्तरविषयाक्षेपी चतुर्थः॥५१॥
Bāhyābhyantaraviṣayākṣepī chaturthaḥ||51||

bāhya = external abhyantara = internal viṣaya = region/sphere/field/object akṣepī = transcending
chaturthaḥ = fourth

The fourth Pranayama is that which transcends the sphere of external and internal.

Till now we are practicing something, we are doing something. But in the stage of fourth pranayama, it happens. It happens when one masters over the above. It is the stage beyond deliberate inhalation, exhalation and transition. The stage where the attention of inhalation, exhalation and retention is not lost but transcends. The goal and result of above three stages is this stage only. You experience the effortless flow and transcending state. This is the fourth pranayama, the first step to dive into realm of spiritual experiences while practicing pranayama.

The Fourth Yoga Sutra – What Happens When Pranayama Happens

Result of Pranyama - The Fourth Yoga Sutra

ततः क्षीयते प्रकाशावरणम्॥५२॥
Tataḥ kṣīyate prakāśāvaraṇam||52||

tataḥ = then/thereby kṣīyate = diminishes/disappears prakāśa = light āvaraṇam = covering

There by the covering over light diminishes.

By gradual happening of fourth stage pranayama, covering over the light disappears. It thins every time you dive into the pranayama. Here, light is the reference to knowledge and truth. But it is covered by the curtain or a wall. When this wall breaks with hammers of pranayama, light automatically comes and knowledge happens. Inner wisdom reveals the right path to move forward to self realisation.

The Fifth Yoga Sutra – You Become Ready

The Fifth Yoga Sutra on Pranyama from Sadhana Pada

धारणासु च योग्यता मनसः॥५३॥
Dhāraṇāsu cha yogyatā manasaḥ||53||

dhāraṇāsu = for dharana cha = and yogyatā = qualification/fitness manasaḥ = mind

And mind qualifies for the dharana (concentration).

Mind becomes ready for the dharana by practicing pranayama. Now mind is fit for concentrating as the veil which covers the light is no more.

This is the inner experience, defining it into words will not justice the experience. We are just trying to present the sutra that Rishi Patanjali has complied and gifted to humankind. Blessed are those who understand and start their journey guided by Sage Patanjali.

Brief About Patanjali Yoga Sutra

Patanjali yoga sutra is the compilation by Maharishi Patanjali, which is considered as one of the authentic and sacred text on Yog. Maharishi Patanjali is one of the great sages of Bharat (India). His great works are to uplift the human. Who is the great sage Patanjali? His 196 yoga sutras are divided into four chapters. These four chapters are:

  • samadhi pada
  • sadhana pada
  • vibhooti pada
  • kaivalya pada

Ashtanga yoga is well systemised by maharishi in Yoga Sutras. Ashtanga Yoga is the eight limbs of yoga, namely, Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyan, Samadhi. The above sutras on pranayama are from the great work on yoga “Patanjali Yoga Sutra”, from chapter 2.


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