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True Spiritual Living
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 17: Pranayama, the Art of Breathing Harmoniously

To be seated in a perfect posture is the first step, as we have already seen. After you are settled in the posture, which is itself an important achievement, take a deep breath. This should be a spontaneous process. The inhalation or the taking in of a deep breath should be effortless, almost automatic. The disturbance to which we are usually accustomed, either in the mind or in the nerves, causes heavy breathing, and heaving the breath in such an unnatural manner disturbs natural thinking. The breathing becomes disturbed when the mind gets disturbed, and vice versa. Frustrated feelings, tensions of any kind, also disturb the breathing process. Therefore, it is necessary to bring together the factors of breathing and thinking in a beautiful manner. A deep, spontaneous inhalation, and a correspondingly spontaneous exhalation, practised for a few minutes, will prepare one for the further steps.

It is also necessary that we should have no engagements in the mind, at least for the next one or two hours while we are thus seated. It is useless to sit either for japa or meditation when there is some engagement to follow immediately, because the practice of yoga is a great spiritual worship that we are performing. It is an honour that we are bestowing upon the great divinity within us. Yoga is not a business, which means to say, it is not like the other activities of life. It is not one of the activities at all. As a matter of fact, it is something that we do when all activities have ceased on account of their fulfilment. This is important to remember. Activities have to cease on account of their fulfilment, not on account of a defeatist mentality or a frustrated feeling. Therefore, when practising yoga we should feel that whatever is to be done has been done, and whatever is yet to be done does not immediately follow, so that the mind is not in a state of engagement of any kind.

An absolutely free mind is essential. Very few of us are free in our mind. We frequently look at our wristwatch, which is a disease of modern times. Wherever we are, we look at our wristwatch. One medical man has given a very beautiful indication of the possibility of a heart attack by observing how many times a person looks at his watch. From that we can determine whether a person is in tension; and a person in tension is subject to a heart attack. Why do we go on looking at our wristwatch every now and then? What is wrong with us? It means our nerves are tense and we are uneasy inside. There should be no tension of any kind. For that, we must know what tension is.

It is very easy to say that there should be no tension, but what do we actually mean by this word? It is a feeling in the mind which has a connection with the nerves. The mind, the pranas and the nerves are all connected together like intimate brothers, and if one is disturbed, the other also gets disturbed. The nerves can disturb the prana, the prana can disturb the mind, and so on; and the disturbed mind can disturb the prana, and the prana can disturb the nerves, etc. Tension is a kind of feeling which is connected with the prana, the nerves and even the muscles, and it acts upon the digestive system, the respiratory tract, the circulatory system, and all sorts of activities in our body. So, when we are in a state of tension, everything is in an unnatural condition. This is what is called a state of emergency, something brought about for a particular necessity that has arisen, and then the body is ready to take action. But it is not supposed to continue for a long time. The practice of yoga is, as I mentioned, the beautiful flower coming out as a consequence of the fulfilment of action, and it is impossible to equate yoga with any kind of activity. We live in a world of work, but yoga is not a work.

What is yoga, then? We cannot think except in terms of action, and if yoga is not an action, what is it? Yoga is a state of being. It is not a state of working or urging oneself to activity towards an ulterior end. Is there a difference between action and being? Yes, there is a tremendous difference. An action is motivated by a feeling towards the fulfilment of an ulterior end, and it is not an end itself. We do not engage in action for the sake of the action itself, but for a purpose to be fulfilled through this process called action. Being is not a means to an end. While action is a means to some end, being is an end in itself. Thus, yoga is an end. This is something most people do not know.

Though we use the word ‘practice' in connection with yoga, it is only a way of expressing oneself because it is not an ordinary kind of practice, like a legal practice or a medical practice, etc. It is a different kind of practice that we call yoga. Yoga is a tendency towards fulfilment of ‘being' in larger and larger measures. Even now we are a state of being. I am a being and you are a being, because our essential nature is a sort of existence. But it is incomplete existence, unfulfilled being and, therefore, it is a restless state of being. Though we are existing, that existence of ours at present has become a sort of condition subject to transformation so that, very unfortunately indeed, our being has become almost a kind of activity.

Being cannot be an activity. It is a misnomer. But our individual being, the psychophysical individuality or personality, is so incomplete, so unfulfilled in every way, so full of craving for this fulfilment which it is lacking, that it has got involved in a state of what is called becoming, not being. Philosophers say this is a world of becoming—samsara. ‘Samsara' is the Sanskrit word for ‘becoming'. It is always tending towards something else, urging us for more and more of everything. As an old saying goes, man never ‘is', he is always ‘to be'. We never are; we are yet to be. We have not yet become what we want to become, and this mix-up of thought and feeling between the concepts of ‘becoming' and ‘being' is the source of our tension.

Every person is in a state of tension because there is a tug of war going on between the unfulfilled ideal that is ahead and the present state of being. What is required is the reconciliation of the character of the ideal that is not yet realised with our realistic condition at present. The reality is something, and the ideal is another thing; this is our fate. We are always fond of achieving something which is not yet with us. That is why we are working. Otherwise, why should we work? Our activity is an indication that we are moving towards an ideal which we want to achieve, attain, possess, enjoy, and so on.

We are restless because happiness is a condition of the present, and not of the future. We cannot be happy merely on account of a concept of the future. It is either now, or it is not at all. But our mind is always thinking of a future fulfilment. So, how can we be happy today? And inasmuch as a future ideal is always ahead, like the horizon, it is never realised. Therefore, we can never be happy; neither today nor tomorrow can we be happy. We are always unhappy. The world is a vale of tears, a reservoir of sorrows, on account of this apparent impossibility of reconciling the future ideal with the present realistic state of affairs.

I am mentioning all this to give an idea of what tension is, of which we have to be free to an appreciable extent before we sit for yoga. This tension can be released—though not wholly, at least in an appreciable measure—through an intelligent analysis of the whole situation. It is not always necessary that the ideal should be in our possession just now. A student is studying to obtain a degree in a college or a university, which is, of course, an ideal before him, a future, but it need not create tension. That would be undesirable. Though on a psychological analysis it is true that he has not yet attained what he is aspiring for, wisdom requires that though the ideal is not yet possessed and has not become a present, it can be reconciled with the present realism by having a healthy hope. The child takes nine months to come out of the womb of the mother. Does it mean that the mother should be always in a state of tension, worrying when the baby will come? That is not desirable. It is known very well that it will take nine months. We sow a seed in the field and expect a crop, but should we be in a state of tension, worrying when the crop will come? We know that it will take some time, perhaps months. When we cook our food we light the fire, boil water and put rice into it. Should we be in a state of tension, worrying when it will be cooked?

Therefore, our ideals, future possibilities and achievements need not necessarily create tension or anxiety in our minds, because we have the confidence that the future is going to be ours. This is an art by itself. This, in general, is by way of an introductory analysis of the nature of tension, of which we have to be free. If we are in a state of tension, we cannot think healthily, speak healthily, or do anything in a healthy manner. We will be in a state of tremor in the nerves, the muscles and the entire body.

The point is that when we sit for yoga—it may be japa, meditation or even a concentrated form of sacred study, called svadhyaya—we should not have any kind of engagement which will press us in another direction. For example, if we have to catch a train in half an hour, we cannot sit for japa. Because in half an hour the train will whistle, a consistent and whole-hearted sitting for meditation would not be advisable at that time. There should be a sufficient gap between the commitment or the engagement that is to follow and the practice for which we are sitting.

Now, various types of pranayama are prescribed in systems of yoga, about which we need not bother much, just as there is no use bestowing too much thought on the multiple and complex yoga asanas in the practice of the yoga of the spirit, because all these physical exercises called yoga asanas, bandhas, mudras, etc., are expected to be preparations for training the body to be seated in a particular posture. They have a necessity in the sense that they train our muscles and nerves so that we may be settled in a particular chosen posture. The same is the case with pranayama. The pranayama by itself is not yoga, but it is a prescription for bringing a sort of harmony in breathing. We take either very short or very long breaths, due to the condition of the mind and the exertions that we put forth through the body. It is very difficult to draw a line of distinction between the thought process and the breathing process because the process of breathing and the process of thinking go together always. This is why some teachers of yoga have emphasised the aspect of pranayama as an advisable precedent to the higher step of thought adjustment in yoga. Others have thought otherwise, maintaining that it is proper to regularise the thought processes first, and then allow the pranas or the breathing process to take care of itself of its own accord. These are two schools of thought, which emphasise this side or that side. There is truth in either side, and we cannot say that one is right and the other is wrong. The proper thing for us would be to strike a middle course, take a via media, and give due respect to the art of thinking systematically as well as to the art of breathing harmoniously.

Alternate breathing, called sukha purvaka pranayama, is generally prescribed. But though the system of Patanjali also prescribes alternate breathing, the aim is not this; alternate breathing is a preparation for something else. That something else, which is the aim of pranayama, is what is called kumbhaka—that is, the retention of the breath. Now, the moment we think of the retention of the breath we are likely to imagine a condition of suffocation, but that is not the intention. We are not to be suffocated. The retention of the breath should be spontaneous on account of a concentrated attention of the mind, into which we occasionally get drawn. A person walking on a wire in a circus holds his breath, or when we cross a high precipice by walking on a narrow trail, we hold our breath. When an archer shoots an arrow, he holds his breath. He does not do alternate breathing at that time; there is a spontaneous stopping of the breath. Even when we see a cobra suddenly dropping in front of us, we automatically hold our breath.

Anything that requires attention of the mind also calls for retention of the breath. That means to say, an undistracted mind is harmonious with retention of the breath. We are breathing because we are distracted; it comes to that, finally. It is because our mind is distracted that we are breathing; otherwise, we will not breathe. Patanjali specifically mentions in one sutra that breathing is a great obstacle in yoga. We will be surprised because we live by breathing, and Patanjali calls it an obstacle. It is an obstacle because it is an unnatural condition that has arisen in us, because our whole personality is unnatural. We are not natural beings. The more we understand our predicament today—physically, socially, biologically—the more we will be surprised, and in a state of consternation as to our smallness and the humble position that we occupy in the realm of Truth.

There is a sort of agitation in our body—that is to say, in our whole personality. This agitation has to be subdued, but not suppressed. The intention of pranayama is not to suppress the breath. Yoga is not a suppression or repression of anything—not repression of the desires, not repression of the breathing, not repression of the thoughts. The words ‘repression' and ‘suppression' should not be used, as the connotations thereof have no relevance to yoga. Yoga is sublimation, which is again a difficult thing for ordinary minds to understand. Even the process of pranayama should be a sublimation, and not a suppression, of the process of breathing. We are not asked to hold our throat or our nose so that we may not breathe.

Sublimation means a healthy transformation. It is a growth, and not a decomposition, destruction or fall of any kind. An adult grows from childhood or adolescence, but an adult does not lose anything by becoming an adult. The adult does not think, “I have lost my childhood, I have lost my adolescence, so I am a loser.” The adult is not a loser by not being a child or an adolescent, because that lower condition has been absorbed into the higher condition of the adult. Growth is, therefore, a good example of the sublimation of lower conditions, and both pranayama and the stages of yoga which come later on are processes of sublimation. In fact, every stage of yoga—not merely pranayama, pratyahara, and so on—is one of sublimation. Right from yama, niyama, and so on, it is a process of sublimation, boiling, purifying, and making us into gold from the condition of ore—by which nothing is lost, but something wonderful is gained. A sense of elevation, buoyancy of spirit, health, lightness, etc., will be the symptoms of success in the art of sublimation. We will feel like running, rather than slowly walking. Lightness and buoyancy are the symptoms of health, which are a freedom that we feel in the entire system, and are not a suffocation in any part of the body, the pranas or the mind.

Thus, the prescriptions by way of pranayama and so on are intended to make us grow into a condition of health, where there is a gradual removal of all that is toxic in our system. That which is toxic is not a part of our essential nature. What we are necessarily, and in our essence, is the determining factor of true health; and that which is extraneous to our true nature is what we call toxic. Any element that has entered into us as a foreign factor, not belonging to our nature, will be the cause of distraction.

In the previous discourse I gave an indication that this extraneous matter is the element of diversity interfering with the principle of unity. Essentially, there is an indivisible something in us, whose expansion into infinitude we are seeking through yoga; but the factor of diversity interferes with it constantly and pulls us externally through the organs of sense, making us attracted to certain things and repulsed by other things. These factors cause distraction both in breathing and in thinking, and they have to be carefully obviated.