What do the Yoga Sutras Say About Breathing?

Q: What do the Yoga Sutras say about breathing?

A: Putanjali outlines several obstacles that prevent us from calming the mind (disease, idleness, doubt, carelessness, laziness, sensuality, delusion, spiritual failure, and instability in the yogic state). He explains that irregular breathing is one of the symptoms of these obstacles’ presence:

These obstacles are accompanied with sorrow, despair, restlessness of the body and irregular breathing (1.31)

Hence, it makes sense that in many yoga classes, teachers will encourage students to observe the quality of the breath to gauge mindfulness, moderation, and equanimity. Putanjali also suggests doing specific breathing practices to calm the mind:

[The mind become tranquil though] controlled exhalation and retention of the breath. (1.34)

Pranayama, which means control of the life force through breath, is the fourth limb of yoga, which comes after asana (the poses):

After perfection of the posture is achieved, the movements of inhalation and exhalation should be controlled. This is pranayama. (2.49)

It’s one thing to be able to do a steady, comfortable, and joyful handstand, arm balance, or back bend. It’s another to also control the breath. Adding in pranayama is what begins to take postures beyond gymnastics and into the realm of yoga. Putanjali doesn’t tell us how to breath, but instead gives us some variables to play with:

Pranayama has external, internal and fixed movements. When regulated according to place, time, and number, they may be either long or short. (2.50)

Different combinations of all of these factors are what make up the various pranayama breathing exercises we practice in yoga class.

There is a fourth sphere of breath control that goes beyond the other three and is transcendental. As a result, the covering of the inner light dwindles away. And fitness of the mind for concentration is gained. (2.51-2.53)

Pranayama is the basis for our journey through the last four limbs of yoga, withdrawal of the senses, concentration, meditation, and non-dualistic consciousness.

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