A fresh look at the sutras – Pranayama


pranayamaPRANAYAMA – the fourth limb

Pranayma, as Patanjali explains, is the control of the life force through the regulation of breath.

Literally, pranayama means breath control and gets a bit more attention in the yoga sutras in chapter 2. 49- 2.53.

And this is only right, because breath or prana is the life force itself and manipulation of the life force requires extensive knowledge.

Pranayama happens in four stages.

1. According to Patanjali (Sutra 2.49), a yogi becomes ware of the breath after first perfecting asana.

2. After becoming aware of breath/prana, sutra 2.50 deals with the three aspects of prana flow, which are:

  • manipulation of inhalation
  • manipulation of exhalation
  • manipulation of the pause in between breaths

3. Sutra 2.51 addresses the fourth stage and deals with the pure prana (life energy) that is beyond the first three steps.

4. Sutra 2.52 -53 explain the results of pranayama practice, which is thinning the veil of karma (which I call the veil of amnesia) and enable the practitioner to get ready for DHARANA (the sixth limb).


So the basic idea here is that through practicing pranayama, life energy gets regulated and manipulated through conscious control of breath.

I am naturopath by profession and my thinking is that of an engineer. This means that I always approach any subject for its efficacy (meaning I check how well it works in real life).

When I met my first pranayama teacher, I had read that yogi’s have the ability to stop breathing alltogether (in fact stopping all metabolism!).

So I was really looking forward to getting a traditional Indian view of what happens to oxygen metabolism in the body while doing pranayama exercises.

To my disappointment my teacher told me that he has no idea about oxygen, all he knows is prana and if I do the exercises I’ll never get sick.

So far, so good. I did my pranayama exercises for three years solid, did not get sick, and then stopped because I did not really feel any benefits any more.

During that time however, I watched numerous students get pretty sick with what to me were obvious metabolic imbalances and I kept wondering if it has anything to do with the pranayma.

So the doctor in me got stuck in the mechanism of breathing and the possible side-effects that can arise from either over-breathing or under-breathing.

(I must confess, I am not really concerned with stopping breathing alltogether, because that is out of my range of experiences)

The first thing that stuck out was that pranayama will override the autonomic breath control, which is located in the brain stem.

This simply means that the brain has its own automatic way to naturally regulate breathing according to an individual’s metabolism or life situation, which is continually changing.

So, for instance, when you are stressed and have an A-type personality, the body needs and creates lots of energy to deal with the stress.This will result in a high production of carbondioxide (CO2). As a result this persons blood stream and tissues will become more acidic because CO2 is an acid compound. To counteract this tissue and blood acidity the autonomic breathing control will speed up the breathing rhythm to get rid of the excess CO2 by exhaling faster.

Another person, however, with a B-type personality tends to react to stress more by “collapsing” than by acting and often gets stuck in a “non-doing” mode. Less energy will be created and therefore lesser amounts of CO2. Such a person tends to have a slower breath because the automatic breathing center will keep the all important pH balance by retaining CO2 in the body.

Both types of people obviously need to address the stress factors in their life, but until that happens, we have this beautiful wondrous body that luckily knows what to do and automatically regulates the breath.

Here are some more facts about breath.

  • Breathing (meaning oxygen intake and carbon dioxide output) is vital to the physical body as it enables energy production in the cells. Without oxygen body cells cannot produce sufficient energy.
  • Breath (alongside kidney function and protein content of the tissues) is a major factor for balancing acid/alkaline buffer, as I have described earlier
  • This point is vital to understand because a prolonged inhalation and/or breath hold (kumbhaka) will acidify the blood. Under the influence of breath holding exercises CO2 gets retained in blood and tissues, which is good if someone is too alkaline and needs more acid, but dangerous if the person is already too acid. Acidity caused by too slow breathing is known as RESPIRATORY ACIDOSIS.

    A faster than normal breath (such as Kapal Bhati), however, will alkalize the blood by blowing off more than normal CO2. This is good for people who are too acid but dangerous for people who are too alkaline. Alkalinity caused by too fast breathing is known as RESPIRATORY ALKALOSIS.

  • Breath also has some degree of influence over the function of the autonomic nervous system (fight-flight / rest-relax), meaning it can influence or reaction to stress (overactive sympathetic mode) or get us out of the slump of apathy (overactive parasympathetic mode). Inhalation tends to activate the sympathetic part, exhalation the parasympathetic.
  • There is another important aspect to breathing and that concerns the exchange of oxygen and CO2.
  • You may have heard a teacher say that “deep” breathing enhances oxygen uptake to the cells. That is not true according to a number of researches. It is only true when the deep breathing is part of a physical exercise regime. Let me explain:

    O2 (oxygen) saturation is already almost optimal when breathing normally. So, unless you are suffering from a lung disease the arterial blood will have 98-99% oxygen saturation.

    Now according to the ”BOHR Effect” – (discovered by Christian Bohr, 1904, the father of Niels Bohr, one of the founders of quantum physics ), oxygen is only released into tissues that have a high CO2 concentration. (CO2 is the natural end product of energy production).

    When do we have high energy usage? When we move our muscles!

    Physical exercise will increase energy demand and release CO2 into the blood and tissues.

    The hemoglobin molecule that carries new oxygen will travels to those areas of high CO2 content and release oxygen
    (because oxygen is needed to make more energy to keep exercising).

    But, and here is the crucial point, if there is no physical exercise, very little CO2 will be created and oxygen will not be released efficiently.

    Now, what happens if i continue to take deep breaths without moving (as in pranayama)?.

    As I already have almost 100% oxygen saturation of the hemoglobin molecules in my blood, I firstly won’t get more oxygen and secondly I will release less oxygen into the tissues.

    And this is pretty much the opposite to what you are being told when “breathe deeply and fill your body with more oxygen”.

    The correct way to do pranayama is to breathe slower and less in an effort to increase CO2.

    But wait, I hear you say, doesn’t that make the body more acidic? Don’t we all need to alkalize the tissues?

    In short, no. In my naturopathic clinic I see way more people being too alkaline and suffering imbalances because of the health food media’s faulty ideas that we all need to alkalize. ( I will go at some stage into more detail about this as it opens up a can of worms).

    buyteko2And this brings me to the last point:

  • CO2 is crucial to the body.
  • Today you can still hear some yoga teachers advocate CO2 as a toxic by-product of natural energy production. This is not so.

    The truth is that CO2 is only toxic when you have too much of it!

    Apart form that, CO2 has many vital functions in the body such as:

    • a strong vasodilator
    • a strong antioxidant
    • a muscle relaxant
    • an anti-inflammatory
    • metabolism of proteins, fats and carbohydrates depends on CO2
      (link: normalbreathing.com)
    • CO2 regulates oxygen uptake of the cells (Bohr effect)
    • normal CO2 levels in the brain are associated with creativity, clarity of thought and action and “super-endurance”, according to Dr. K.P Buyteko.
      (link to Dr. Buyteko’s lecture)

    In fact, too low CO2 in the blood causes for instance:

    • hypoxia – too little oxygen in the blood
    • chronic fatigue
    • slow brain function; as CO2 partial pressure in the blood reduces, the blood CO2 content in the brain is reduced as well.

      This will tend to make the brain function more reactive (meaning more emotional) and less rational (meaning less clarity of thought and action)
      (link: normalbreathing.com)

    (As an aside it is interesting to note that the famous breath researcher Dr. Konstantin Buyteko (Buyteko method), himself a yoga practitioner, considered CO2 to be so important, that he suspected CO2 to be prana.)

    So, even after these short examples of the biological, medical importance of breath, it is clear that breath manipulation is something that should be undertaken only after proper education and under proper supervision.

    One of the best ways to that these days is by studying pranayama with the Kaivalyadhama college in Lonavla (Pune), where the effects of breath have been studied from both western and eastern viewpoints for more than 100 years.

    As to sutra 2.49, I totally agree with Patanjali that pranayama should only be practiced after a yogi has realized what breath is (by doing asana or meditation) and when the consciousness of the practitioner is sufficiently developed (that he or she knows what exactly is going on with breath)

    And once a yogi has reached that state of consciousness, pranayama can be a very valuable tool to balance the physical body as well as the spirit by achieving metabolic equilibrium.

    This metabolic equilibrium is our birth given natural state of divine consciousness – in other words our natural state that is free of the “veil of forgetfulness” and one with the spirit of life.


    And on to the fifth limb: Pratyahara