The third limb of Yoga is Asana. Asana has two meanings: “the place where a Yogi sits” and “how the Yogi sits there”. It is very important for a Yogi to have a straight spine, finding length through the spine, and to have the abdominals engaged to protect the spine. The poses and postures build from here.
There are many different Asanas (poses) practiced all over the world in many different sequences. The most common series of Asanas are found in the Sun Salutations. These are also the Asanas that help the Yogi master proper posture of the back (lengthened spine, engaged abdominals). Each Asana targets and strengthens the abdominals, provided the Yogi holds their posture correctly. Some Asanas target specific muscle groups, and others target the entire body. Some Asanas are designed to build strength, and some are designed to grow length, but the thing I love most about Yoga is that most Asanas are designed to do both! A great resource for these poses is '2100 Asanas' by Daniel Lacerda.
The fourth limb of Yoga is Pranayama. Pranayama means breath control. Yogis practice their breath control during Asana practice by doing one action or movement during each inhale and one action or movement during each exhale. Pranayama aims to slow the breath so that Yogis will ultimately be able to sustain the breathing of just one or two cycles per minute.
There are 6 common types of Pranayama practice that can be used before or during an Asana practice. The first is called Abdominal Breathing. To learn how to breathe into the lower abdominals, lay on your back, knees up, and soles of your feet on the floor or mat. Place your hands on your lower belly, close your eyes, and imagine sending your inhale into your lower belly where your hands are. The placement of the hands is to aid your mind in knowing where to send the breath. Stay in this position, practicing this breath for a minimum of 15 minutes. Doing this daily for a week will likely have you breathing into your lower abdominals as soon as you step onto your mat.
The second breathing technique is called Ujjayi (Victorious or Ocean Breath). Ujjayi means “freedom from bondage.” To achieve Ujjayi breath, the Yogi must create a slight blockage in the back of the throat, specifically the epiglottis, which will create a hissing sound. The sound will be created on both the inhalation and the exhalation, and both will pass through the nostrils. This breath technique is commonly used during Asana practice, specifically with Ashtanga Yoga practice.
The third breathing technique is called Bhastrika (Bellows Breath). Bhastrika will increase the body temperature and purify the mind. It works by inhaling deeply and exhaling forcefully through the nostrils. The Yogi then inhales with the same force, the same amount of breath, and continues this cycle for a determined amount of breaths. Good practice is to start with 10 and gradually increase as you go, and each inhalation and exhalation should last approximately 2 seconds. This breath technique is generally used while sitting in Easy Pose before the Asana practice begins.
The fourth breathing technique is called Kapalabhati (Breath of Fire). Kapalabhati Breath is like Bhastrika but differs in the length of the in- and exhalation. During Kapalabhati breath, the exhalation is short and sharp, but still passes through the nostrils. During the sharp exhalation, the Yogi hugs the abdominals in towards the spine, which helps to force the air out. The inhale then happens naturally between forceful exhalations. Start with a 10-breath practice and slowly increase this with time. Kapalabhati also builds heat in the body and is excellent to perform before beginning Asana practice.
The fifth breathing technique is called Anuloma Viloma (Alternate Nostril Breathing). Alternate Nostril Breathing is generally practiced before Asana practice and is used to balance and centre the mind. Before beginning Alternate Nostril Breathing, I highly recommend blowing your nose to clear all obstacles from your nostrils. Sit in Easy Pose, using your right thumb, close your right nostril. Breath in through the left nostril for 5 seconds. Close the left nostril with the Ring finger, retain the breath for 5 seconds, open the right nostril, and exhale through right nostril for 5 seconds. Then inhale through the right nostril for 5 seconds, close the right nostril with the thumb, retain the breath for 5 seconds, then open the left nostril and exhale for 5 seconds. This completes one full round. Continue with this this timing for a few rounds, then gradually increase until 10 seconds is reached. Practicing with 5 second inhales, 5 second retention, and 10 second exhales is another option as well.
The last breathing technique is called Simhasana (Lions Breath). Traditionally this is practiced in Lion Pose, however, the breathing technique can be used in many different Asanas to help release heat from the body. For example, sometimes I prompt my students to practice a few Lions Breaths while in Downward Dog halfway through our practice. To perform Lions Breath, take a deep in halation through the nose, and on the exhalation, which passes through the mouth, take the gaze to the Third eye and stick the tongue out and down. It may look and feel silly, but it really works to release heat and let go of some anxiety.
If you are wanting to practice Pranayama before Asana, I recommend a few rounds of Alternate Nostril breathing followed by a few rounds of Kapalabhati Breath. This will leave you balanced and warm, which is a fantastic state in which to begin an Asana practice.