It’s rare to invoke the Yoga Sutra as a resource to simplify yogic teachings. When it comes to practical pranayama practices, however, Patanjali’s philosophy on breathing is quite simple.
Too often yogis hear the word pranayama followed quickly by warnings and complex explanations and demonstrations meant to simultaneously reassure us of the power of breathing while also justifying the necessity of wacky lung calisthenics. We can easily get lost down the rabbit hole of breathing techniques without a solid sense of what, exactly, Kumbhaka, Nadi-Shodhana, Bhastrika, and even Ujjayi are actually helping us accomplish.
To be sure, many of yoga’s most well-known breathing techniques have benefits, but context is always key. Now, you might not have time to figure out what contraindications belong to which technique. Or you might be scratching your head trying to figure out what breathing technique is most appropriate for your specific physical, mental, and emotional state in this particular moment. Let’s just stop now.
Instead of trying to figure out what contraindications you need to be aware of for each technique and which specific breathing practice will benefit you most in any given moment, why not allow the power of the breath to reside in its simplicity?
Breathing doesn’t have to be complicated
Breathing is, literally, your birthright. You don’t start breathing until seconds after you appear on this Earth, and you don’t stop breathing until your heart stops beating. Without ever being instructed, your body knows how to breathe. Your lungs do their job whether or not you decide to intervene consciously. In fact, breathing is one of the only autonomic processes in the body you have conscious control over. You can’t consciously control your digestion, regulate your hormones, or change your body temperature, although you can influence these systems based on external choices you make. But you can consciously stop your breath, flood your lungs with oxygen, or affect your balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide by regulating the length and duration of your inhales and exhales.
The best part is, you don’t even need any fancy techniques.
Like asana, Patanjali doesn’t have much to say about pranayama, but the Yoga Sutra includes more sutras on pranayama (6) than on asana (2).
Pranayama you can do right now
Pranayama shows up in the first chapter of the Yoga Sutra before Patanjali’s 8 limbs are even defined.
Sutra 1.34: Another way to purify the mind and regain your focus is to practice breathing exercises that emphasize exhalation and breath retention.
It’s simple to practically apply this sutra to your daily lived experience. In fact, you can practice pranayama right now by applying the two principles Patanjali presents in Sutra 1.34.
Take a deep breath in and a deep breath out. Continue to breathe, paying extra attention to your exhalations. Make sure to follow your exhale to its natural completion. Imagine you are fully emptying your lungs. Once you feel comfortable taking full exhales, begin to notice the natural pauses at the end of the exhale before the inhale begins. Try not to force anything or add any tension in your muscles. Simply notice and allow for the pauses to become longer as it feels appropriate in your experience.
Congratulations! You just practiced pranayama. You didn’t have to hold your breath for any certain count, place appendages on your face, or watch me demonstrate how to churn your abdomen.
How do you feel?
There is no right way to focus on your exhale or one right protocol for how to hold your breath. Well, there are many ways and protocols, but really, if you’re looking for a simple breathing practice to help you feel more centered and calm, you don’t need them.
In Chapter 2, Patanjali revisits pranayama.
Sutra 2.49: After you perfect your posture, you can begin to regulate the flow of your inhales and exhales to expand prana throughout the body.
Why must one perfect posture before focusing on breathing? When Patanjali refers to posture, he’s literally referring to how you sit or hold your body in space, not how you perform a Crescent Lunge or a Downdog. It’s important to hold your body in space well so that it can be an appropriate container to receive your breath.
Try this. Round your shoulders and back to assume a hunched position and take a deep breath. Notice how that feels in your body. Now find a long spine, relax the shoulders, sit up straight, and take a deep breath. Notice if it feels different to breathe when you hold your body upright. Prana, or energy, naturally expands through the body more efficiently when the container in which it moves is less obstructed.
Regulating breath to find freedom
For Patanjali, working with the breath is about regulation as a means to find more freedom, just like creative people often need structure to create their best work.
Sutra 2.50: Regulating the breath involves three steps.
1. Regulating the exhalation
2. Regulating the inhalation
3. Regulating retention of the breath
The regulation of the breath can be measured by place, time, and number. The goal of regulating the breath is for the breath to become long and fine.
This sutra comes closest to offering instruction and providing the necessary scaffolding that can support the pursuit of freedom. Patanjali doesn’t offer specific techniques, though because the specifics don’t matter. As long as you regulate your inhale, exhale, and the pauses in between the two so your breath becomes long and smooth, you’re practicing pranayama. How you do it is up to you and dependent on what you need in any given moment. In this way, pranayama is more about becoming aware of your own inner landscape than it is about mastering a specific technique.
The second part of Sutra 2.50 can best be explained through a comparison to the game of chess. Place, time, and number of breath cycles are the chess pieces that allow you to configure infinite strategies when playing with your breath. You can bring awareness of your breath to different places in your body, breathe for any length of time, and take any number of breaths during that time.
To play a game of breathing, place your awareness at the sides of your ribs as you breathe in and out. Set a timer for one minute. Count how many breath cycles (one full inhale and one full exhale) you take in one minute. Continue this practice over the next few days and see if, as you create more breath awareness, the number of breath cycles you move through in one-minute changes. Most importantly, notice how it feels to refine your breath.
Congratulations! You just practiced pranayama. No fancy techniques with confusing Sanskrit names required. You have all the pieces you need to craft your very own pranayama practices. These are also all the variables you need to craft your own pranayama practices. Play with where you place the awareness of your breath, how long you breathe, and how many breath cycles you take. If playing with these variables helps you embody a longer, more smooth breath, and it feels beneficial for you, then you’re heading in the right direction.
The fourth part of the breath
The last three sutras on pranayama make a case for the role of breath practices in attaining freedom.
Sutra 2.51: There is a fourth part to breath regulation. The fourth part is experienced when one is able to transcend the previous 3 parts of the breath.
Sutra 2.52: When you have experienced the fourth part of the breath, the veil that has been covering your True Self disappears.
Sutra 2.53: Practicing breath regulation readies the mind for the sixth step of the 8 limbs, concentration.
It’s hard to teach Sutras 2.51 and 2.52 because they speak to an individual experience that can’t be described with words. The idea presented here is that as we master breath regulation, we’ll eventually experience a new sensation that is so subtle it can’t be described. This progression toward subtle experiencing is helpful if you’re looking to become enlightened, but since enlightenment isn’t the most practical goal, know that it’s enough to practice breathing to bring about feelings of peace and calm. Besides, it’s experiences of peace and calm that often help us feel most free from the obstacles, pain, and discomfort we experience in our daily lives.
The power of simplicity
It is a common occurrence for me to teach workshops and classes on pranayama, where students eagerly await instruction on how to perfect and master common breath techniques like Breath of Fire, Alternate Nostril Breathing, or even Ujjayi. These techniques don’t define pranayama, and knowing how to do them doesn’t mean you’re practicing pranayama. In fact, being able to do those techniques well requires the prerequisite of being able to regulate your breath with refined awareness, which is what Patanjali points to in the Sutra. Students are often disappointed upon learning they won’t be pumping their belly buttons hundreds of times or learning how to properly constrict the glottis to achieve the perfect Ujjayi. But at the end of the workshop or class, they also realize that they don’t need to know how to do those things to have a positive experience with the breath.
Start simple, and you’ll find the long-term effects of pranayama to be much more profound and beneficial to your overall wellbeing.
*All Sutra translations offered are Ashley Zuberi’s own interpretations based on the English Sutra translations from 10+ translators. Those translators include: T.K.V. Desikachar, Usharbudh Arya, Alice Bailey, M.N. Dvivedi, Georg Feuerstein, Vyaas Houston, Swami Jnaneshvara, Swami Prabhavananda, Shree Purohit Swami, Swami Satchidananda, Alistair Shearer, I.K. Taimni, and Swami Vivekananda.
Edited by Ely Bakouche