How do I prepare myself to practice pranayama? What must I do (or not do) for a safe and successful practice?
The practice of asana is a prerequisite for pranayama. The scriptures clearly state that you must not practice pranayama unless you are fully established in your asana routine. No matter how healthy you are, you should always assume that there are unknown problems hiding in your internal organs: heart, liver, lungs, thymus, thyroid, pancreas, spleen, kidneys, bladder, reproductive organs, endocrine glands, and nervous system. A comprehensive asana routine makes you aware of your body, its problems, and the need for overcoming them. Good hatha yogis eventually develop the capacity for intuitive diagnosis. As a result, they become realistic about the advanced disciplines of yoga, such as pranayama.
The scriptures clearly state that you must not practice pranayama unless you are fully established in your asana routine.
To stay on the safe side, do not overestimate your vitality and stamina. Study and practice yoga as a science, beginning with a basic understanding of the philosophy and the practice of classical asanas. If you are interested in experimenting with the endless nuances of yoga, it’s good to learn as many techniques and styles as you wish. However, it is the systematic practice of the 84 classical postures that opens the door to your pranamaya kosha (the pranic sheath).
These classical asanas have a dual purpose. First, they cleanse and revitalize our limbs and organs, especially the nervous system. Second, they awaken the vital force that, in normal situations, lies dormant in our pranic sheath. If the nervous system and the subtle energy channels in our body have not been purified, then this extraordinary awakening of the life force in the pranic sheath can overwhelm the body. And that is why, in order to truly practice the full range of asana, as taught in the ancient scriptures, we must include the disciplines pertaining to the yogic techniques of cleansing.
It is surprising to me that the modern way of teaching yoga routines, even at advanced stages, rarely touches on the cleansing techniques. Texts such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Vasishtha Samhita, and a host of the Upanishadsclearly describe how the full benefit of practicing asana can be gained only when our practice is accompanied by the full range of cleansing techniques: neti, dhauti, basti, nauli, agni sara, and trataka. The ultimate result of practicing the full range of yoga asana is that we begin to truly rest and relax. The space within our body is free from discomfort and is filled with a sense of joy.
Further, the classical asanas help us train our body to sit still and comfortably. Comfort and stability of body and mind are prerequisites to the practice of pranayama. How comfortably you sit indicates how healthy your organs are; how still you remain in your sitting pose indicates how freely your energy channels are flowing.
This doesn’t make sense. Pranayama seems to be less vigorous and demanding than the asanas, especially the full range of 84 classical poses. How can something as advanced as asana be a prerequisite to something as simple as pranayama?
Pranayama is not simple. Let us back up a bit. The most advanced asanas are the sitting poses. You may twist your limbs and turn your body into a pretzel; you may be able to do the splits, go into the peacock and scorpion poses, and stand on your fingertips (a step beyond the headstand), but you may still find it impossible to sit still.
To attain a comfortable, still sitting pose you have to have a healthy, strong, and flexible spine. Your lower back, hips, and thigh joints must also be in good shape. Furthermore, the weight of your body must be equally distributed on your buttocks, with the perineum as the center. Your respiratory and digestive systems must be strong and perfectly balanced. Your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems must also be perfectly balanced and coordinated. The spine has to be stretched up, the chest expanded, and the shoulders relaxed, giving complete freedom to the diaphragmatic muscles to expand and contract. Further, the curvature of the spine has to be just right. Only when all these conditions have been met can you sit comfortably and steadily. And this steady, comfortable sitting pose is what you accomplish by practicing the physical postures. The physical postures are subservient to the sitting postures, and the sitting postures are a prerequisite to pranayama.
The practice of pranayama takes us beyond our skeletal, circulatory, and muscular systems. It even takes us beyond our endocrine and nervous systems. In its truest sense, the practice of pranayama aims at attaining mastery over the life force itself. And this goal is accomplished by transcending the regular rules and laws of breathing. Normal, healthy breathing requires that you inhale and exhale gently, smoothly, without jerks, and without noise. Healthy breathing also requires that you do not create a pause between your inhalation and exhalation. Your breath should flow in a circular motion.
In its truest sense, the practice of pranayama aims at attaining mastery over the life force itself.
When breath retention takes place by itself and we don’t have control over it, it disrupts all the physical functions, disturbs the serenity of the mind, and damages the field of the life force. In healthy breathing, the pause is a killer. Each time you hold your breath, you are dying slowly. Attaining mastery over the extraordinary ability that lies deep within our body and mind—the goal of yoga—requires that you gain mastery over the pause. You do this by expanding it at will. This is called kumbhaka (breath retention). But when the same breath retention is done with proper preparation, it becomes a source of longevity. All classical pranayamas include kumbhaka. In fact, pranayama and kumbhaka are synonymous in yogic circles. But if you are not sitting in the correct posture, if your internal organs are not healthy, and if your nervous system is not strong and balanced, then the practice of pranayama/khumbhaka will have an adverse effect on both your body and mind. That is why pranayama is an advanced practice and why perfection in asana is the prerequisite.