Chapter 9: The Technique of Pranayama
In our study of the eightfold practice of yoga as propounded by the Yoga System of Patanjali, we noticed that even physical posture, or asana, has a spiritual significance and it is not merely a bodily exercise. So is the case also with what is known as pranayama. As it is true that asana is not merely a physical exercise but a spiritual discipline with a deeper connotation behind it, so is pranayama not merely a technology of breathing in certain ways but it is also a spiritual exercise. Yoga is attunement with the spirit in different levels of its manifestation. There is only spirit ultimately, the Absolute, and any step taken in the direction of its realisation is a spiritual step, though it may be in the form of a social discipline, a physical discipline or any other kind of temporal exercise.
The technique of pranayama in the system of Patanjali differs from the various methods of pranayama described in the hatha yoga texts in the same way as the asana in the system differs from hatha yoga asanas. Patanjali makes his system thoroughly psychological and spiritual. He could observe that the intention behind the physical exercises, so-called, the asana, is the setting in tune of the bodily structure with the constitution of the physical elements: the earth, water, fire, air and ether. Likewise is the intention behind the regulation of the vital energy inside. We have to draw a distinction between breath and vital powers. Just as electricity is not the same as motion and heat, etc., though it can manifest itself in these forms, prana is not breathing, though it also reveals itself as a process of breathing. The internal cumulative system of energy in our personality is the prana, as far as we are concerned, in this particular context. We are wholes not only psychologically but also vitally. We are organisms. The meaning of an organism is that it is an inseparable completeness of structure, and not a mechanically constructed whole of which the parts do not organically relate one to the other. Even as asana or physical exercise has a wider significance than merely bodily exercise, pranayama has a wider significance than the regulation of the breath. What is the significance implied?
Just as the body is constituted of five elements and it is incumbent on the part of every individual to set this physical system in tune with the five elements outside in the stage of yoga known as asana, it becomes imperative that the vital system within us also is set in tune with the vital system in the universe in the process of creation. Reality seems to have descended into grades of more and more intense density when it comes to lower levels of diversification, and in this process of the diversification known as creation, a twofold activity has taken place. One is cosmic, and the other is individual. The process of creation is not only cosmic, but it is also individual. Our scriptures, especially the Upanishads, speak of these mysterious processes through which the universe appears to have passed until we realise ourselves as what we are today.
The traditional gradation of this descent is in the terminology of what we know today as Ishvara, Hiranyagarbha, and Virat. The potentiality for creation is Ishvara, the subtle concept of the outlines of the future manifestation of the universe is Hiranyagarbha, and the actual materialisation of this subtle concept is Virat. Up to the level of the Virat, creation is universal and the individual has not been isolated from the cosmic. This is what is known as cosmic creation. Right from the beginning of the potential will to create, up to the manifestation of the physical universe in the form of the Virat, it is divine creation, Ishwar-srishti – which means to say, up to the level of Virat there is no consciousness of the separateness between subject and object.
For ordinary human beings like us, it is difficult to conceive what this Virat or Hiranyagarbha could be. For us these are only some words which cannot convey much of a meaning. How is it possible to descend into a material manifestation without the consciousness of the distinction between the subject and the object? We can only explain it by a kind of analogy, though very inadequately. We are conscious of the distinction between the limbs of the body. The right hand is different from the left hand, one ear is different from another ear, one leg is different from another leg, the head is different from the stomach, etc., but we never feel that there is a real diversity among these limbs. Notwithstanding the fact that they are isolated in one way spatiotemporally, they are really not cut off organically. This analogy is not complete because the perception of the limbs of the body implies the perception of space and time, and we cannot introduce the concept of space and time in the Virat. This is the defect in this analogy. But there is no other possibility of explanation because when we give examples, we cannot stretch them to the breaking point. The partial implication of this analogy is that there is an organic connectedness of the various parts of creation even in the lowest cosmic manifestation, called Virat, and there is no individuality.
Now, while Ishvara is the potentiality for creation, it is the seed of the universe, and the universe is said to be present in this cosmic seed latently, as a huge banyan tree can be conceived to be present in the little speck of a seed. We cannot see the tree there even with a powerful microscope, but it is there impliedly and we can infer its existence. So is the universe said to have existed in Ishvara potentially as our individuality exists potentially even in the state of deep sleep. We have no individual consciousness, or even the trace of it, when we are fast asleep; but yet, it is there. Had it not been there, it could not crop up the next day in all its colours as it was earlier.
Hiranyagarbha is like a dream state where a hazy notion of the manifestation to come forth is present, but it is not clear enough. In Virat it is blazing forth as if in the midday sun with all its distinct colours and varieties. Hiranyagarbha is comparable to the vital sheath within us in the cosmic sense, and Hiranyagarbha is also known as Mahaprana, Sutratma, Cosmic Prana. As physically, bodily we are part of Virat, subtly, in our vital existence, we are part of Hiranyagarbha; causally we are part of Ishvara, and essentially we are integrally related to the Absolute.
So in the practice of pranayama, the spiritual element comes in when we bear in mind our relationship with Hiranyagarbha, or the Cosmic Prana. We do not merely perform an exercise through the fingers by holding the nostrils, drawing the breath in and out for no purpose. It is a methodology adopted to set the energy within in tune with the cosmic power, the cosmic Shakti, Mahaprana, Hiranyagarbha outside. Gradual attunement is the intention. Just as we are separated physically one from the other, we cannot conceive any kind of organic connection among ourselves. Each one regards the other as a totally distinct individual on account of a very vehement interference of space and time among us. This factor which causes the notion of difference introduces itself even in our subtle body, and it does not leave us even in the causal state. We are not free from the notion of space-time even in dream; it is the mind alone that reveals itself as the object in all the phenomena that we recognise in dream. The space-time notion does not leave us. We see things in space and in time even in the dream condition. The solid objects, the material things that we perceive in dream, are mentally constructed. They are not physical objects. The brick wall in dream is not a brick wall. It is not a physical object. It is a mentally constructed substance. The so-called brick wall, building, or even a hard rock in dream is a psychologically conceived something projected externally in a space-time which is also mentally constructed.
The idea behind this analogy is that we are wedded to the notion of space-time to such an extent that our very existence seems to be impossible without it. We are spatiotemporal beings. Mrityuloka is this world. This is a world of perishability, transiency, destruction and death because this is a world of space-time, separability and condition. We are conditioned not only in the waking state but also in the dreaming state, and our prana also works in a conditioned manner. Even when we are fast asleep and we are not conscious of anything in the world, we are conditioned in the sense that there is the seed of egoism, individuality, isolation, and subject-object distinction latently present even in the state of deep sleep.
In the wholesale transformation of the total personality of ours which is yoga, it becomes necessary for us to take note of our inner being, internal to the physical body, and tune it to the level of the universal in the status of subtle existence. There is a relationship between the mind and the prana. They are not totally disconnected one from the other. The practice of pranayama would not be successful, and it would not yield the required result, if the mind did not cooperate with the practice. If the mind is distracted, emotions are boiling and there is irritation of the whole system caused by some factor or other, then the regulation of the breath by a forced technique of breathing would be of no avail. In fact, a disturbed mind should not practise pranayama. It would be deleterious to one's health. Emotionally imbalanced persons should not practice pranayama. In a sense we may say an extreme step taken in the direction of pranayama would be dangerous, more dangerous than the practice of asanas, if the other factors contributory to the success in this practice are absent. Though it is true that the mind is connected even with the body, and not merely with the prana, and even asanas would not be to one's advantage if there is emotional disturbance or mental disharmony, the case is more intense in the case of the prana because the more we go inside, the greater is the subtlety of the thing that we are handling.
Therefore, it is essential to assess one's own self when one enters into the inner techniques of practice. Are there tensions of any kind, nervous or psychological? The motive behind pranayama being the suspension of breathing, ultimately – the retention of it for the purpose of concentration – this would become impossible and impracticable, and even harmful, if the nerves, the muscles, the emotions and the mind as a whole are not collated with the practice. Agitated personalities – people in a state of repressed emotions, suppressed desires or unfulfilled ambitions which work deep sorrow into oneself – such people are not to go into the deeper practices of pranayama, such as the suspension of the breath, because tension, imbalance in mind, emotional tension, etc., are the opposite of the attempts that you are putting forth in the practice of pranayama. You try to bring about a system or harmony in the vital energy inside by the practice of pranayama, but emotional disturbance is contrary to it. You will be blowing hot and cold if you try to do both things at the same time. You have deep-seated desires which clamber for satisfaction in the outer world of space-time and, at the same time, you turn a deaf ear to their calls, close your eyes to their very being, and then take recourse to the regulation of the breath. That would be most harmful, and one should not take recourse to this practice. The intention behind pranayama is to set the subtle body in union with the subtle body of the universe. The sukshma sharira within, the linga sharira, the subtle body, is to be en rapport with Hiranyagarbha, the Cosmic Prana.
Very little is mentioned about pranayama in the sutras of Patanjali. He does not go into such details as are found in the hatha yoga texts, the purpose behind it being that Patanjali is concerned only with higher meditation in the end, and he propounds or advises only that much of the technique of the regulation of the breath as would be essential for the concentration of the mind in its higher reaches.
You must have all been well acquainted with the practice of anuloma-viloma pranayama, breathing through the nostrils alternately with a little bit of retention in the beginning, and increasing this period of retention later on, for the purpose of cleansing of the nerves. You know, when water flows through a pipe, for instance, sediments can get deposited in the pipe. There can be a little sand or mud, etc., when the water is pumped from the pump-house or the Ganga to the water tank; but if you pump the water both ways – from top to bottom and from bottom to top – and do not allow the water to run in only one direction, the sediments get disturbed, upset, and the pipe gets cleaned immediately. The sediments get thrown out on account of the flow of water both ways; otherwise, if it flows only in one direction, they will settle down and are undisturbed there.
Likewise, the sediments in the nervous system are supposed to be cleaned to allow the free flow of the prana, and even as a double pumping of water from both sides through a pipe will clean up the pipe thoroughly, the double process of breathing through the different nostrils is intended to clean the whole nervous system. But the final intention is the enabling of the person, the seeker, to lower the rate of breathing, which is an indication of calmness of mind, tranquillity of mood, the diminution of agitation in the system, etc. We breathe very hard, heave the breath with force when we are running fast or are upset in the mind or otherwise disturbed. When we are calm and quiet, when we are poised, when we are tranquil, when we are fast asleep there is slow breathing, which means to say that there is a connection between the psychic condition and the vital state of the breathing.
We have to emphasise again the connection between the mind and the vital energy so that there need not be any kind of misconception about the overemphasis that is usually laid on the techniques of asana and pranayama. Most of the seekers in the path of yoga give scant respect to yama and niyama and the mental condition behind them, while they go very enthusiastically to asana and pranayama. They forget the proceeding stages are the controlling factor behind every stage in practice. The preceding stages are the yama and niyama, the personal and social disciplines to which we made reference earlier, and the final determining factor in every form of success, namely, the state of mind. But people ignore these aspects. Whatever be the state of mind, they have no concern with it. They practise fifty asanas and sit for pranayama twenty times a day with sorrow in the heart, grief in their emotions, and various types of desires which they could not fulfil for one reason or the other. There is indiscipline of the personality in respect of the body and the mind on one side, and indiscipline of the relationship of oneself with society on the other side. With both these difficulties, one cannot achieve much success in pranayama. Hence, caution is the watch-word; vigilance is to be kept up in taking any step in this practice.
I have to reiterate again that emotionally disturbed people with unfulfilled desires should not hold the breath for long, though you may practise deep inhalation and deep exhalation. There is no harm in that. It is a very good physical exercise for the purpose of maintaining health. We generally breathe shallowly and not very deeply, but it is a good practice to breathe deliberately, to inhale as deeply as possible and exhale slowly, as deeply as possible again. That again cleanses the system.
But kumbhaka is not permitted in the earlier stages. Though it is okay to the extent that it is felt comfortable, it should not go to the point of suffocation. The moment you feel discomfort, you should cease the practice of retention. And retention becomes spiritually meaningful only when it is attended with concentration of mind. Some people hold the breath in a mechanical manner, but they do not know why they hold the breath; they chant Gayatri mantra and hold the breath at that time. The idea behind this is that the mind should be concentrating on the meaning of the mantra at the time of holding the breath because concentration of mind gets accelerated at the time when the prana is suspended. Whenever you concentrate deeply, the prana does not function. Suppose you walk on a narrow causeway, or you walk on a wire as in a circus. You will be holding your breath lest you should fall. When you concentrate the mind on a single point, even when you pass a thread through the eye of a needle, you will be holding the breath to know that the thread will not slip out and will not go out of the eye of the needle. Whenever there is a necessity to concentrate the mind, there is an automatic suspension of breath, thus indicating the relationship between the two. This again is a point to remember in order that we may not forget the relationship, or the essential coordination, of the mind with the prana within us.
Now, to come to the point, prana is the total energy within us. It is not merely the breath. The entire force that is within the body is the prana. We cannot define what prana is, just as one cannot say what strength is, what force is, what power is, what energy is. It can only be felt within oneself. I know what strength is, but I cannot describe what strength means. It is the capacity of the individual in the maximum possible manner, in the highest extent. That capacity is the prana within us. It is a gross form of thought, and in this sense we may say that prana is the connecting link between the mind and the body. The body is directed by the mind through the pranas. The prana also ramifies itself into various functions, and on account of the various functions that prana performs, it is designated in various ways as prana, apana, vyana, udana, samana, etc. When the breath goes in, it is called by one name; when it goes out, it is called by another name. When it is performing the function of digesting food in the stomach, it has a third name. When it enables circulation of blood, it is called by a fourth name, and when it helps the swallowing of food in the gullet it has a fifth name, etc. It does not mean there are five pranas, or more than five in number. They are only functional nomenclatures of a single energy which reaches up to the fingertips and the nails, and there is no spot in our body where the prana is absent. That is why we are vitally awake in every part of the body. We are alive in every cell of the body. When we say we are alive, we mean that prana is functioning there. If prana is withdrawn from any particular part of the body, we say that part is dead. It is not living. So prana is life, prana is energy, and it is the liaison between the mind and the body.
The importance which Patanjali gives to the practice of pranayama is to the extent necessary in the practice of meditation. Thus, the concept that is before one in meditation, the ideal or the goal that one keeps before oneself, will also condition in a similar manner the function of the breath so that while breathing affects the mind in one way, the mind can affect breathing in another way. Disharmonious breathing can have such an impact upon the thinking faculty that we cannot be poised in our mind when there is disbalanced breathing. The other way around, there cannot be harmonious breathing when there is disbalanced or irritated thinking.
Often it appears that the mind and the prana are like the obverse and the reverse of the same coin. They are not two things at all, and we will realise later on that even the body is not absolutely outside the mind. It is a condensation of thought itself in a peculiar manner. The five koshas, the panchakoshas, are annamaya, pranamaya, manomaya, vijnanamaya, anandamaya, which are the various layers of our personality – the physical, the vital, the mental, the intellectual and the causal. These are degrees in the density of a single substance and not five different things like layers of an onion, one quite different from the other. Not so. Our koshas are not like peels of onion that can be taken off, one after another. They are, rather, like clothes hanging in various degrees of density – light above and heavy below, etc. The body, the prana, the mind, the intellect, and what we call the unconscious or the subconscious – the anandamaya kosha, the causal state – are all one single embodiment which can be called the individuality of the person.
Therefore, the purpose of pranayama is to condition the body and the system as a whole in such a manner as to enable the diminution of the sense of personality or ego, the lessening of self-consciousness, and the clearing up of the cloud of this dense formation called individuality for the purpose of enabling a clear concept of the ultimate purusha, which is the object of meditation.
I am mentioning all this to recall to our memories that every item of practice is spiritual, and nothing but spiritual. We do not have an unspiritual element anywhere. It becomes spiritual the moment it is connected to the ultimate purpose of life, the reality behind things. The moment it is disconnected by some factor or other, for some reason or the other, there appears to be a difference between consciousness and matter, purusha and prakriti, etc. They are not two things. They appear to be different on account of an emphasis that is laid on this side or the other side. It is a total movement from the lower to the higher.
So in pranayama we are actually aiming at a complete harmonious movement of the prana equally distributed throughout the system, and not allowing it to get concentrated in any particular part of the system. The beauty of the body also is said to increase by the practice of pranayama, as yoga texts sometimes tell us. Beauty is nothing but equidistribution of energy in the system. That is why children look beautiful. All children look beautiful; whether children of beggars or children of princes, it makes no difference. Merely because of the fact the prana is equally distributed in their system, the ego is not manifest. It is potential, but not revealed; therefore, it is not drawing the prana in any particular direction, especially towards objects of sense.
The prana usually moves towards objects, and therefore, we feel weak in our system. This is why people with strong sense desires cannot be successful in the practice of pranayama. Where the mind is, there the prana also is. And where is the mind? You can yourself imagine. The mind is always outside somewhere, in some object, in some person, in some thing, some problem, and some business that is to be executed outside in the world. The prana is immediately jetted forth, splashed out by the force of the mind in the direction of the object that the mind contemplates. This is also the secret of what is called telepathy. Telepathic communication and distant healing, etc., about which you must have heard, are nothing but the processes of the directing of the prana along the line of thought which has something as its motive, purpose or objective. If you deeply think of a person even far away from you – say in London, for instance – your prana will be driven to that person. You will be wondering how your prana can go to London: “I am a very small man sitting here, and my prana is inside my body. How can it travel to London?” Your prana is not inside your body. It is cosmically distributed. Just as any disturbance in any drop in the ocean can be felt by other parts of the ocean, and the impact of the disturbance on any part of the ocean can be felt in other parts also, the impulse of the mind in a given direction so propels the prana that it sets in motion the cosmic ether. As radio waves travel from the broadcasting station to receiving sets, as television waves move from place to place, so the cosmic ether gets the impact of your thought and a message is conveyed by the electric energy that pervades through the ether on account of the propulsion that is given to the prana which is apparently within you, but which is also connected to the prana outside, really speaking.
Therefore, one should bear in mind that in advanced stages of the practice of pranayama, one should be cautious enough to investigate into the motives behind one's mind, and there should be no indication whatsoever that the mind is contemplating an external object, because contemplation of external objects due to a desire for such objects would be the opposite of the very aim of yoga, which is self-integration. The subject we shall take up further at another time.