Here is an excerpt of a pranayama lecture that I gave to a group of students going through their 200 hour yoga teacher training.
Transcript - Pranayama Lecture
In the context of the yoga sutras, pranayama is the fourth of the limbs. We have Yamas and we have Niyamas, and we have Asana, and Pranayama and Pratyahara, and Dharana and Dhyana, and Samadhi. It’s been a long time since I first started practicing yoga, but from that point it took a couple of years for me to start to put all of these pieces together. There’s these eight limbs and how do they all work with each other and what is the point of them all?
Read "Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali" by B.K.S. Iyengar
Yamas and Niyamas
So very broadly, Yamas and Niyamas are basically how we act in the world. Yamas are often described as moral restraints. I like to think about it in terms of physical although it’s not just physical but how we treat others in the world are often what the Yamas address. And then Niyamas are ethical observances, or how we process the information or how we handle ourselves based upon our understanding of who we are, who we want to be.
And what’s interesting about Yama and Niyama is that you know there there are 10 of them and most of us are raised with an awareness of Christianity and the ten commandments, and if you’re familiar with those teachings then you see the parallel and the similarities between the two teachings.
When you learn about the Yamas and the Niyamas, and now what I like about the Yamas and the Niyamas as opposed to the ten commandments is that if you don’t adhere to the ten commandments, you risk spending the rest of eternity and damnation and hellfire; but if you don’t adhere to the Yamas and Niyamas the only real consequence is that you just won’t live as well as you otherwise could, and that has a great appeal to me. I like that distinction. I don’t want to contemplate the alternative.
Now in one regard, another difference between the two teachings, and this isn’t meant as a knock against Christianity and that’s not my intention; I’m just trying to juxtapose a correlation between these two teachings in order to establish context; where the ten commandments, the way that we perceive them, and even if you’re not a Christian, if you’re an adherent to Islam or an adherent to nothing, the core tenants of these philosophies is that of the golden rule. Correct? “Treat others as you would wish to be treated”. “Do under others as you would have them do unto you”. I think it is the saying.
So that that is the core of these philosophical teachings. Whereas people, and this might be a generalization but, people adhere to the ten commandments often times out of fear of the consequences of not adhering to them, but adhering to the Yamas and the Niyamas isn’t about the consequence necessarily, because there is no consequence other than you won’t live as well. But the nuance to the Yamas and the Niyamas is more about how you feel about yourself than really what happens to others through those actions.
Let me try to clarify that. So we talk about the goal of yoga to live skillfully; to be in the present; to have a conscientious mind; to be thoughtful and considerate of our neighbors, of our loved ones, of our friends, of our families, of our communities. And as a result we can have stillness of the mind, we can meditate, we can figure out the true meaning and our true purpose. We can connect to our higher selves, and reach the state of samadhi.
Well if you do not adhere to Yama and Niyamas, then you feel conflict inside, you feel frustration inside, you feel anger inside. Because you live with guilt, when you treat people the way that they don’t deserve to be treated, when you say things that you knew you shouldn’t have said, when you do things that you know you shouldn’t have done, then you carry this with you. It’s like a burden on your shoulders, and as you carry this with you then it becomes increasingly challenging, increasingly hard if not impossible to discover inner stillness; to discover inner peace.
So the Yamas and Niyamas aren’t really about how you treat others. They are in a sense but they’re really about how you feel about yourself. So you don’t adhere to the Yamas and Niyamas because of how they affect others, although you might and you certainly can. You really adhere to them so that you can like who you are.
You know you have to like yourself. You have to live with yourself, and this experience in this lifetime. Part of adhering to Yamas and Niyamas is so that you can be happy with who you are, with the person that you become, or the person that you’re trying to be. And as a result, you can then take that gratitude, that happiness, and more easily spread that type of energy that’s in accordance with that. So Yamas and the Niyamas are largely about our awareness of how we interact in the world around us.
How the Yoga Sutras Affect Each Other - Pranayama Lecture
Now Asana, the physical practice of yoga is where most of us become familiar with yoga. We start with Asana, and at first we don’t know why we do it. One of our friends suggests that we go to a yoga class or we hear about yoga so we decided to try it out. We can’t pinpoint what it was but we liked it.
You know you wake up from savasana and you don’t know what prana is or what life force energy is but you feel that sense inside, that wonderful sensation and you’re like “I don’t know what just happened, but i want more of that. I’m going to go back again”. And so many of us spend the first couple years of our practice rooted in this very basic understanding and experience of yoga. We don’t really know about all these big words that our yoga teacher says… Muladhara what? Sahasrara, what are you talking about?
Those are hard concepts to understand. So we just go because it makes us feel good. We know that we need the exercise and we feel a little bit of peace when we’re done with it and quite honestly that’s enough. We don’t really need more than that, but something happens through the course of that asana practice… and the key thing from the asana practice is discipline you know.
It takes conscientious mental effort to get on your mat day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year. You know most of us would love to just sit down and take a pill and find enlightenment and to be happy, but it really doesn’t work like that. It takes effort, it takes decision. We have to decide, and we have to choose that that is the direction that we’re going to go, and this is how we’re going to be.
What the asana practice does is it starts to instill in you the discipline to try to traverse, to move along the path that is required, because it’s not going to happen as simply as a pill. We have to decide to move there over years and years and decades of our life. The type of asana that you practice doesn’t necessarily matter in most regards. I think it’s beneficial if you do something that challenges you. So if you only like to practice asana that’s easy then I think that you’re missing an opportunity to learn something from the experience of being challenged, but then in this and on the other hand sometimes in the “easy” asana there’s plenty of challenge to be learned from that too: to have patience and understanding, and acceptance of ourselves. In that regard if we approach the so-called easier asana practices with that mentality, then the learning from that is equally beneficial.
Because where we’re we’re exploring further than the poses, we’re looking into the insight that we receive from the practice of those poses, and so we develop discipline from the practice of Asana.
Then what we get with Pranayama at first, our introduction to pranayama is usually ujjayi breathing. Right, because you’re holding warrior II longer than you want to hold warrior II, virabhadrasana II. Or heaven forbid that you have to hold chaturanga longer than one half breath huh?
So to get through those challenging poses you discover ujjayi breathing. When you think about ujjayi breathing then all of the things that are going on in your mind about the discomfort of that pose, they aren’t as severe. Instead of thinking “oh my muscles hurt, and my body aches”, you can think about the breath instead of those other things, and through that practice you start to become more aware of subtlety. You start to develop the experience that there is more to this than meets the eye. You don’t know what it is. You might not have the words of the vocabulary for it, but you sense it. There is an energy to this practice, and that there’s something deeper to be explored and experienced and considered.
The practice of pranayama starts to take you deeper into your awareness down the rabbit hole. So even though there are eight limbs, and we have Yama and Niyama and Asana and Pranayama, these aren’t necessarily meant to be moved through one at a time. You sort of go through all four of these at the same time even if you don’t realize it.
You start going to the local yoga studio and you’re practicing Asana and then you learn ujjayi breathing and yogic breath, and you start to become aware of subtlety. Through that awareness of subtlety you have introspection. You realize about the type of person that you are and the type of person that you want to be.
Even if you don’t know of the Yamas and the Niyamas yet you’ve had some type of moral upbringing that’s been relayed to you through parents or peers, or through other spiritual leaders or teachers that you’ve become acquainted with at some point in your life.
They all come together (the yoga sutras) so they all affect each other, and it’s at this point in time that we start to develop Pratyahara. Now Pratyahara is often described as withdrawal of the senses, but I don’t necessarily like that description of it because most of us aren’t going to go live in a cave in the middle of nowhere like the ancient yogis did. We’re very much going to be rooted in our towns, in our cities, in our communities, and we’re going to be involved with people. We have jobs, we have careers, we have families, we have people that are dependent upon us, and we have responsibilities to these things. So it doesn’t make sense to think about pratyahara in terms of withdrawal of the senses. So instead I like to describe it as “mastery of the senses”.
When I talk about the senses we have our wants, our needs, our desires. You know we think about food, we think about sex, we think about alcohol. All of the things that consume people’s minds and their habits are related around these things.
So what mastery of the senses does is it allows you to be a master over your body, instead of letting your body be a master of you. It allows you to say “No” to that second drink or to that piece of cake, or to that person who’s not good for you. You know that inside, and you develop the inner strength to remove them from your life or not to spend your energy on somebody that’s not right for you.
This is how Pratyahara starts to have an effect on your life, but Pratyahara would not be possible without discipline. The discipline that you develop through Asana practice, understanding of the subtlety that pratyahara has or is required of it would not be possible without subtle awareness as taught to you through Pranayama practice. Then, without the Yamas and the Niyamas you wouldn’t have perhaps a moral basis to understand why you should control your basic desires anyway.
So you can see how all of these sort of play into each other and affect this eight limbed path.
Dharana and Dhyana
Now, once you start to master the senses through Pratyahara, then you can really start to still the mind, quiet the mind. Dharana, which is to focus on a single point – single pointed focus. As you progress through the practices, you become more adept at pushing all of that stuff aside and really being able to just sit in your space, to be in your posture, to be in your seat, to be in the awareness of your breathing, of your practice, focusing on being present, the single pointed thing. Then free of those distractions, then you can slip into meditation (Dhyana) where you can really contemplate who you are, what it means to be you.
What is your place in the world? What is your dharma? What are you meant to do? What is your responsibility? What is your calling?
Then, through there you apparently reach a higher state called Samadhi, where you have yourself figured out entirely. You know your place, your role in the world, and you are at peace and complete ease with whatever happens from that point.
Now I don’t assume that you stay in Samadhi once you achieve that state of being. You do slip in and out of that state of awareness, particularly if you are not adhering to Yamas and Niyamas. That can draw you out of that state of being as you start to feel guilt and all the things associated with not behaving according to your highest self.
So, it’s all a continual process, a continual practice. Right? We call it yoga practice, not yoga perfect, because there’s never a point when we get there and it’s finished and it’s complete and it’s done, and that’s all that we need from it and we “win” per se. We’ll never reach that point. We have to wake up every day and recommit to that.