2.49 – Once a steady and comfortable posture has been achieved, one can slow and suspend the movements of breath through the practice of pranayama.

तस्मिन् सति श्वासप्रश्वास्योर्गतिविच्छेदः प्राणायामः ॥४९॥

tasmin sati shvasa prashvsayoh gati vichchhedah pranayamah

  • tasmin – upon that
  • sati – being; existing; being present; has been achieved
  • shvasa – inhalation; breathing
  • prashvsayoh – exhalation
  • gati – movement; motion
  • vichchhedah – cessation; suspension; pause; interval; space; pause
  • pranayamah – extension of breath; breathing exercises; the non-restraint or free flowing (ayama) of life-energy (prana)

2.50 – Pranayama consists of inhalation, exhalation, and the pauses between. These movements become lengthened and refined through the observation of location, duration, and number.

बाह्याभ्यन्तरस्थम्भ वृत्तिः देशकालसन्ख्याभिः परिदृष्टो दीर्घसूक्ष्मः ॥५०॥

bahya abhyantara stambha vrittih desha kala sankhyabhih paridrishtah dirgha sukshmah

  • bahya – external; outside; exterior
  • abhyantara – internal; inside; interior
  • stambha – restraining; stopping
  • vrittih – fluctuations; modifications; activities; movements
  • desha – place; region; location
  • kala – time
  • sankhyabhih – number; count
  • paridrishtah – observed; perceived; seen
  • dirgha – long
  • sukshmah – subtle; minute; fine

2.51 – A fourth stage of pranayama transcends the inbreath and the outbreath.

बाह्याभ्यन्तर विषयाक्षेपी चतुर्थः ॥५१॥

bahya abhyantara vishaya aksepi chaturthah

  • bahya – external; outside; exterior
  • abhyantara – internal; inside; interior
  • vishaya – object of sensory experience; content; subject matter; impressions
  • aksepi – withdrawing; suspending; throwing off; transcending
  • chaturthah – fourth

2.52 – That pranayama unveils the light.

ततः क्षीयते प्रकाशावरणम् ॥५२॥

tatah kshiyate prakasha avaranam

  • tatah – due to that; from that
  • kshiyate – dissolved; destroyed; diminished
  • prakasha – luminosity; light; shining
  • avaranam – covering; hiding; veiling

2.53 – And the mind develops the capacity for concentration.

धारणासु च योग्यता मनसः ॥५३॥

dharanasu cha yogyata manasah

  • dharanasu – for concentration
  • cha – and; also; both
  • yogyata – competence; capability; fitness
  • manasah – mental; of the mind

Commentary on Sutras 2.49—2.53:

This set of sutras introduces pranayama, one of the greatest spiritual technologies ever developed.

When our posture is stable and our attention becomes concentrated, the breath slows and becomes more refined. That naturally occurs when we’re engaged in enjoyable reading, watching a sunset, or while our attention is quietly absorbed in other activities. Yogis discovered they could concentrate directly on their breath and ride it into a calm, poised state of consciousness.

The breath is a bridge between the conscious and subconscious mind. It’s the function of the autonomic nervous system that is easiest to bring under conscious control. And by using specific breathing techniques, we can throttle the sympathetic nervous system (known for the fight-or-flight response it produces) and increase the parasympathetic nervous system (which produces a relaxation response).

The three stages of pranayama are inhalation, exhalation, and the pauses between each. By consciously regulating the length of each stage in various ways, we can produce specific effects such as slowing or quickening the heart rate or lowering blood pressure.

By feeling into certain areas of our body and observing the breath in those locations, we can relax, open, or energize them. For example, by slowly breathing into the tight areas surrounding the heart center, we can release that tension and create a sense of expansion. Or by gently holding our focus at the naval center and watching the breath there, our energies gather in that area, and we become more centered and grounded.

Using sushumna pranayama, we move our attention along the spine as we breathe. That internalizes awareness and refines the central nervous system. It releases blockages within the chakras, clearing the way for dormant forces to rise and higher states of consciousness to unfold.

During advanced stages of absorption in meditation, the in-breath and out-breath become extremely subtle and can even stop for periods of time. In that breathless state, the light of the Self is revealed. In rare conditions, this state of breathlessness can naturally unfold when our attention is highly concentrated. Or, we can cultivate it through certain yogic methods.

From the tantric tradition, we learn about three important energy channels in the subtle body located in the area of the spine—the solar channel (pingala nadi), the lunar channel (ida nadi), and the central channel (sushumna nadi). In normal human conditions, either the solar or lunar channel is more dominant.

The solar and lunar channels can become perfectly balanced through pranayama and other yogic techniques. When that occurs, dormant spiritual energy, Kundalini, enters the central channel, rises through the six chakras, and unfolds the 1,000-petaled lotus at the crown of the head. As the crown chakra unfolds, the light of Awareness illuminates all the dark corners of consciousness and unveils the essence of reality.

That is the goal of yoga, to uncover what is always present. The practice of pranayama plays a prominent role in guiding the yogi toward that recognition. Patanjali shows us this in Sutras 2.51 and 2.52, and then in 2.53, he doubles back to describe how pranayama also helps in a less advanced stage. In that sutra, he states that it prepares the mind for the fifth limb of yoga, concentration.

When thoughts and emotions are whirling, the body becomes restless, and the breath shallow and uneven. It’s impossible to focus the mind without straining while in that state. But by consciously regulating the breath, the body automatically calms down, and thoughts and emotions become more serene. Then, concentration becomes almost effortless.