I contemplate that infinite consciousness which is the indwelling presence in the prana.
—The Yoga Vashishtha
Pranayama techniques entice most of us—they appear so simple and elegant. It is unusual to find a book on yoga that does not at least hint at the practices of breath control. Part of the reason for this is that among the various disciplines and techniques of yoga, few point so directly toward its goal as the science of pranayama.
The Sanskrit word pranayama is often divided into two words—prana, meaning “life force” or “life energy,” and yama, meaning “control.” Pranayama is the yogic science of controlling the life energy, primarily through the skillful manipulation of breath. Another division of the word is used by yoga adepts. These adepts say that the second word in the compound is actually ayama, meaning “to expand” or “to prolong.” They describe the practice of pranayama as a method for amplifying and expanding life energy, and ultimately reuniting it with its source—consciousness.
It is essential to learn how to control prana gradually.
Those who dive into pranayama practice often find the waters uncomfortable. A hasty pranayama experiment can lead to uneasiness and the tendency to put off the practice for another day. Many students do not sustain their discipline. Others find it surprisingly difficult to integrate the energy that is aroused. The danger of an undisciplined, overzealous approach to pranayama has been likened to encountering a wild and ferocious tiger. It is essential to learn how to control prana gradually. Here are some ideas that may help.
Four Vantage Points
The practice of pranayama varies from system to system and from school to school. Each tradition attracts students whose interests and attainments match its goals. But gaining knowledge about pranayama is not as easy as one might expect. Although general techniques are explained openly, important details are left out—to be filled in by a teacher in private.
Every school states that the practice of pranayama requires a systematic approach. For this reason, students are directed to find a teacher who is qualified to instruct them. For millennia, yogis have cautioned against practicing without guidance. Otherwise, a sense of scale and purpose is missing. The student who persists in experimenting on his own may find himself face to face with the inner tiger—prana—untamed, misunderstood, and dangerous.
The tradition of hatha yoga, codified by the sage Svatmarama in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, describes pranayama in some detail. With control of breath as the centerpiece of practice, students learn to perfect physical postures leading to breath retention. Locks, such as the root lock, the chin lock, and
the stomach lock, are taught as essential accompaniments. Regulation of diet is also an important adjunct, but Svatmarama emphasizes the practitioner’s mental control: “All the pranayama methods are to be done with a concentrated mind. The wise man should not let his mind be involved in the modifications (vrittis).” (Hatha Yoga Pradipika 3:127)
This important assertion links pranayama to the great schools of meditation. It also tells us that to begin any practices involving breath retention we should have a deep sense of nonattachment, a well-disciplined practice of meditation, and considerable experience with hatha yoga. Svatmarama concludes that without one-pointed concentration, the attainments of asana, pranayama, and mudra are “useless.”
The poetic language and symbolism of this system of yoga belie its complex and technical nature.
Patanjali lists pranayama as one of the eight rungs of ashtanga yoga and summarizes it in six sutras (Yoga Sutra 1:34 and 2:49-53). He describes it as support for the yogi’s effort to attain concentration. While virtually none of the details of practice are provided, Patanjali implies that some aspects of breath training assist in developing concentration while others must wait until a very stable concentration has already been established. It is the role of the teacher to help the student find the right place to begin.
For the highly accomplished yogi, mastery of pranayama is a preparation for the study of svarodaya, the science of breath and the five subtle elements or tattvas(earth, water, fire, air, and space). Those who discuss this knowledge with authority state that it leads to a comprehensive understanding of the relationship between the macrocosm (the universe), and the microcosm (the human personality). The poetic language and symbolism of this system of yoga belie its complex and technical nature. Practicing svarodaya requires exquisite self-discipline.
The tantric science of kundalini yoga describes pranayama as one means of awakening the dormant energy at the base of the spine and leading it upwards along the central canal (sushumna). Pranayama practices are employed to create heat, arousing the kundalini and forcing it to ascend through the chakras. In this system, prana is described as the dynamic aspect of a much more vast resource of potential energy called “shakti” or “kundalini.” Only a tiny amount of prana is normally required to maintain the body and appease the demands of will and desire, but when kundalini is aroused, the flow of energy is magnified. The awakening of kundalini is not the result of a haphazard touch or glance. It is a moment of great spiritual attainment and the culmination of extensive training under the guidance of a teacher who has become assured of a student’s maturity and earnestness.
Starting a Pranayama Practice
Many of the barriers to practicing pranayama are self-created. They are the result of trying to achieve goals too quickly, without thorough preparation. Because pranayama is a science of energy, it is helpful to remind ourselves of the simple, readily available techniques for increasing energy. Many of these involve working with our four natural urges—food, sex, sleep, and self-preservation—and are prerequisites to formal pranayama practice.
A straightforward discipline, but one which is surprisingly difficult for many students, is to go to bed on time. When sleep is routinely delayed, it results in fatigue, and we develop a cycle of low energy, irritability, poor concentration, and inability to do our yoga practice. Although it takes time to gain mastery, an effective experiment is to go to bed on time, or half an hour before the time you consider to be your optimum bedtime, four days in a row. Do this with no expectation, and simply watch what happens to your mind and body as you gradually regain the energy lost by not sleeping punctually. Then decide for yourself whether to continue this experiment for a longer period.
Food habits are also important. While it is true that the source of most of our prana is the air we breathe, food is a key secondary source. The kind and quantity of food, the timing of our meals, and our emotional state as we eat all play a role in increasing or decreasing the energy we extract from food. If you are like most yoga students you have already become more conscious of your eating habits. Here’s a simple practice that will further increase your awareness of how food affects your mind and energy: do not eat between meals. Plan your meals to satisfy your food needs. This will keep your mind from being distracted by your sense of taste, and reduce the amount of energy consumed by consuming. If you are really hungry between meals, then try eating smaller meals spaced more closely together.
These are two simple examples. You can probably think of many other ways to alter your habits so that your energy is enhanced rather than depleted.
A Basic Pranayama Practice
If you are interested in preparing for pranayama disciplines, incorporate a systematic relaxation exercise into your daily practice. This is a powerful method for restoring energy depleted by strong emotion, physical exhaustion, sex, or mental fatigue. It takes only a few minutes, will form a natural stage of your relaxation and meditation method, and can easily be included in morning and evening routines.
Learn to breathe as if your whole body breathes.
Begin by lying on your back in the corpse pose (savasana), or sitting for meditation in the posture of your choice. Gradually let your body become still, and experience that stillness as a sense of deep physical quiet. Allow your body to rest. Feel the flow of your breath—allowing it gradually to become deep, smooth, and diaphragmatic. Learn to breathe as if your whole body breathes.
Travel through your body from head to toes and back to your head again, giving your attention to each muscle group—releasing resistance and allowing the muscles to rest. Follow the sequence listed below.
As you travel downward from head to toes, pause briefly for breath awareness at the nose, fingertips, heart center, and toes, but when you travel back up through the body to the crown of the head, omit the pauses for breath awareness.
Finish by relaxing your brain. Relax your mind. Now bring your whole body into your awareness from head to toe. Breathe as if all the cells, all the tissues, all the spaces within you are breathing. As you breathe out, mentally gather all the wastes and toxins and expel them gently and smoothly. As you breathe in draw in fresh energy and bathe every cell and space with a sense of well-being.
Continue this pattern of breathing for two or three minutes. Be clear in your mind that while the breath goes only to the lungs, energy is flowing through the whole body. You are breathing as if your whole body breathes. As you continue, you may experience a sense of lightness and ease throughout your body, and your mind will gradually become peaceful. Thoughts may come and go but your attention remains focused on the breath.
This practice, like many others that lay the groundwork for the formal practice of pranayama, will not result in dramatic experiences. But it will bring you a deep sense of rest and ease. If you continue with patience and constancy, you will find that you sleep better, your thoughts are less reactive, and your concentration improves. You will be inclined to practice—a great thing in itself.
This exercise relaxes the skeletal muscles, eliminates strain and fatigue, and energizes both mind and body. Resist the tendency to drift off—keep the mind alert as you travel through the body in this sequence:
scalp and forehead
eyebrows and eyes
pause for two relaxed breaths
cheeks and mouth
jaw and chin
throat and neck
pause for two relaxed breaths
pause for four relaxed breaths
pause for four relaxed breaths
Now reverse the order and omit the pauses.