The Urban Yoga Den

…where it's all yoga.

Focus: The Eight Limbs, Pt. 2 – Asana & Pranayama June 5, 2010

In our yoga classes, the May/June Focus is The Eight Limbs.  Each week, we practice a pretty pure Level 1 Integral Yoga (IY) Hatha set accompanied by background on the Limbs from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

To review Weeks 3 & 4, Asana & Pranayama:

Continuing our process of growth through the Eight Limbs, we now transition from the moral observances and purification guidelines of the Yama and Niyama to the more tangible Hatha practices that support these philosophies.

The 3rd Limb – Asana (postures or poses) – addresses physical limitations so we may cultivate more comfort during the limbs that follow.  When we practice Asana we decrease stiffness, aches, cramps and digestive dis-ease.  The classic IY set is my favorite for effectively aligning the body, stretching the muscles, stimulating digestion, toning the thyroid gland and eliminating toxins.

As you know, I am an alignment junkie (an affectionate term that a small group of DC yoga instructors has informally adopted).  So when I teach Asana, I spend a lot of time fine-tuning Tadaasana (Mountain Pose) so students may apply the same alignment principles in their other poses.  Why spend so much time on alignment?  Let’s revisit our promises from the Sutras.

“Heyam Dukham Anagatam” is the lovely assurance that, through yoga practice, future pain can be avoided.  I admit that I take license (under the influence of Dr. Steve Weiss from Align By Design anatomy and physiology program) by making this a literal statement about physical pain.  Various commentary on the Sutras typically explores psychological or karmic pain.  Still, for my previously injured and oft aching body, the promise of less physical pain is relieving.

Consider as well the Yama and Niyama (1st and 2nd Limb) – particularly Ahimsa (non-violence) and Samtosha (contentment).  What if we approached each yoga pose without mild forms of violence such as pushing or straining or hurting – what if we shaped our bodies with ease?  What if we accepted exactly where our body is instead of comparing or contrasting with yesterday’s abilities or the guy on the next mat – what if we were content with our very own Asana, as it is, in this moment?

After all, Book Two, #46 says “Asana is a steady, comfortable posture.”

With physical distractions out-of-the-way, we can move closer to yoga’s goal to still the mind, and deeper into Pranayama (breath regulation) practice.

As previously described, the 4th limb – Pranayama – continues detoxification, awakens our life force energy and balances our nervous system.  Specifically, the following practices (also archived under the Tips-n-Tools page) each have their own powerful and tonic-like benefits.


  • Sit in a comfortable, cross-legged position or on a chair with feet flat on the floor, hands on the knees.
  • Elongate the spine to create space for the breath to fill the torso.
  • Inhale and exhale through the nose, unless otherwise instructed.
  • The lungs are long and thick, like a barrel inside of the torso.  Fill up the barrel!


This deliberate deep three-part breath can increase the oxygen intake by up to seven times more than normal; consequently, we generate more red blood cells and therefore strengthen the immune system.

  • Begin with a complete exhale, all the way down to the lower lungs, around the belly.  Contract the belly to empty the torso of air.
  • Begin your inhale at the lower lungs, allowing the belly to relax outward.
  • Continue inhaling into the middle lungs, expanding the rib cage forward, along the sides and into the back.
  • Top off your inhale at the collar-bone.
  • Exhale, releasing the air from the collar-bone, emptying the rib cage, and then contracting and emptying the belly.
  • Continue for three to five minutes then return to normal breathing.


This rapid, naval-pumping breath continues your Asana’s detox process, energizes the body and enhances alertness in the mind.

  • To find the correct area to activate for this technique, place the palm of the hand over the belly button, and stretch the thumb upward, toward the lower sternum, where the ribs meet.
  • It is important to sit upright, open the heart and isolate movement to the belly area.
  • To practice before your first round, relax the belly while inhaling just into the lower lungs, then exhale sharply while contracting the belly inward.  Some people compare this forceful exhale to a bellows, to the contraction we feel when laughing heartily (try it!) or to blowing out a candle with your nose.
  • Your inhale will follow naturally, filling up the belly as it relaxes outward.
  • To prepare for your first round, inhale a deep three-part breath, exhale all the way down and out of the belly, inhale just into the belly, then sharply exhale to begin.
  • Find your own rhythm and pace.  Continue with the sharp exhales and natural inhales for 15-20 cycles.  Repeat for three rounds.
  • After each round, exhale completely, inhale a deep three-part breath, then let the exhale slowly seep out.  Return to normal breathing.
  • If the practice becomes challenging during your rounds, focus on the forceful exhale, and let the inhale become more and more relaxed and passive.
  • As your practice advances, increase up to five rounds, with up to 100 cycles per round.
  • This is a complex practice.  Please consult the texts listed above or e-mail me at with any questions.


Use this soothing alternate-nostril breath for balance during stressful times or the change of the seasons.

  • Raise the right arm and place the palm in front of the face; make a loose fist; release the thumb, pinky and ring finger into Vishnu Mudra.
  • Inhale into both nostrils.
  • Plug the right nostril with the thumb and exhale through the left nostril; keep the thumb where it is and inhale through the left nostril.
  • Now plug the left nostril with the fingers and exhale through the right nostril; keep the fingers where they are and inhale through the right nostril.
  • Switch and plug the right nostril; exhale/inhale through the left.
  • Switch and plug the left nostril; exhale/inhale through the right.
  • As you become comfortable with the pattern of exhale/inhale/switch/exhale/inhale/switch/etc, begin to lengthen the breath to deep three-part breathing (into belly, ribs, collar-bone; out of collar-bone, ribs, belly).
  • After about three minutes, and after finishing an exhale on the right side, relax the right hand to the knee and return to normal breathing.

Happy breathing!

Next week…Pratyahara (withdrawal from or discipline of the senses).  I will be out-of-town, so if my subs do not address this 5th Limb, I’ll be sure to combine it with Dharana when I return to teach on Wednesday, May 16th.


Each Sunday at the 8:30am “Ahhh-some” class at Past Tense, we’ll launch our “limb of the week.” Together, we can deepen our practice by exploring each limb through special poses, breathing exercises, meditations and Sutras excerpts.

  • WKS 1 & 2 (MAY 9 – MAY 22) – YAMA/NIYAMA
  • WK 3 (MAY 23 – MAY 29) – ASANA
  • WK 4 (MAY 30 – JUNE 5) – PRANAYAMA
  • WK 5 (JUNE 6 – JUNE 12) – PRATYAHARA
  • WK 6 (JUNE 13 – JUNE 19) – DHARANA
  • WK 7 (JUNE 20 – JUNE 26) – DHYANA
  • WK 8 (JUNE 27 – JUNE 30) – SAMADHI

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