Traveling in Tibet in the 1920s, Alexandra David-Neel encountered a lama moving alone and fast in the remote Tibetan desert. "He ran like a ball bouncing," she wrote, levitating with each step, moving faster than her entourage on horseback, and seemingly in a trance, unaware of his surroundings. Eventually she learned that the training for this extraordinary capacity is not aerobic conditioning; it’s pranayama, the mastery of prana. Part of the training involves sitting in a small, below-ground pit, using the breath and mind to lift the body out of the pit with the power of prana.
“If you can control prana, you can completely control all the forces of the universe, mental and physical.”
So what is this mysterious prana? Prana is our vital life force. It works through the mind and in the heart, in the breath, and in digestion; in walking, running, talking, and thinking; and in projecting the personality in all ways. It’s also the sum total of all the energy manifest in the universe. Swami Sivananda, an influential yoga master of the last century, writes, “If you can control prana, you can completely control all the forces of the universe, mental and physical.” This explains the prodigious feats of memory and strength traditionally associated with yogis—things like the power to fly through the sky, levitate, and control body temperature. But perhaps more to the point for us, by controlling prana, the mind is also controlled.
Just to be clear, yoga is the mastery of the mind, and for yogis, pranayama is the ticket for learning to use all the wondrous powers of the mind. The yogic texts tell us the mind is tethered to prana like a bird to a string. And here’s the really good news: by controlling the breath, we can control prana, and thus the mind. And the really, really good news? Basic pranayama practices are both powerful and accessible to all of us.
Though many pranayama techniques are not that difficult physically, sustaining a practice and developing the mind can be tricky. Here are six pointers for getting started, and for improving, sustaining, and deepening your practice.
- Steadiness of body: The body must be comfortably motionless for a prolonged period of time, and yet support alertness, breath control, and mental focus. Asana practice is essential for pranayama, partly because it’s nearly impossible to maintain a balanced, still, comfortable sitting posture for any length of time without it. Just as importantly, asana activates and integrates the flow of prana, helps us develop the capacity to direct prana with bandhas (energy locks), trains the body to breathe diaphragmatically, and develops sensitivity to inner states of being. Preferred sitting postures for pranayama are sukhasana (easy pose), svastikasana (auspicious pose), and padmasana (lotus pose), but sitting on a chair is also an option.
- Diaphragmatic breathing: Just as your sitting posture is the foundation for the body in pranayama practice, diaphragmatic breathing is the foundation for the breath. This is where deliberate training of the breath begins in earnest. Don’t assume that because you have been practicing yoga for years, you are breathing diaphragmatically. Our breathing patterns are typically subconscious—controlled by persistent habits that are out of our awareness. Get started with Breath Training on the Pranayama Channel at YogaInternational.com for tutorials and tips to refine your basic breathing pattern, balance the nervous system, and reinforce a relaxed state of inner equilibrium.
- Balanced lifestyle: Avoid too much or too little food, too much or too little sleep, and too much or too little mental and physical activity. Be regular in your lifestyle habits. A fresh, nourishing diet is particularly important.
- Mental/emotional stability: Here’s my teacher, Pandit Tigunait, a masterful pranayama practitioner, on the subject of emotional balance: “To get the benefit of pranayama, you must be steady in thought, speech, and action. Without some measure of contentment in life, pranayama brings misery.”
- Regularity: In general, the benefits of yoga accrue from consistent, systematic practice for long periods of time. “If one practices pranayama continuously for a year, he is sure to attain wisdom,” writes Swami Rama, a modern master who demonstrated extraordinary control over his body’s autonomic functions. “With regulation of the breath,” he continues, “karma acquired both in this life and in the past may be burnt up.” This is a big job, and progress is necessarily incremental. After all, it took lifetimes to build your unconscious mind and habits, so naturally it will take some time to reshape them!
- Inner focus: Success in yoga depends on this. Becoming sensitive to the flow of breath, the subtlety of the breath, and finally the suspension of the breath, leads you to awareness of the force behind the breath—prana. Awareness of prana is the thread that links you to deeper states of mental awareness, independent of the physical body and the senses. This is the beginning of mastering the mind.
Finally, (and thankfully), my teachers also have this useful advice: Don’t bind yourself with too many rules.
So why delay? Start now, even if your sitting posture and diet aren’t perfect and equanimity isn’t your forte. In the memorable words of Swami Sivananda, “Start the practice this very second in right earnest and become a real yogi.”