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Pranayama

by Swami Sivananda

1. What is Pranayama

That (Asanajaya) being acquired, follows Pranayama or the control of breath - the cessation of the movements of inspiration and expiration.

NOTES

Pranayama is said to be the union of Prana and Apana. Pranayama, in the language of Yoga, means the process by which we understand the secret of Prana and control it. He, who has grasped this Prana, has grasped the very core of cosmic life and activity. He who has conquered and controlled this very essence, has not only subjected his own body and mind, but every other body, mind and power in this universe. Thus, Pranayama or the control of Prana is that means by which the Yogin tries to realise in this little body the whole of cosmic life, and tries to attain perfection by getting all the powers in the universe. His various exercises and training are for this end. A comprehensive knowledge of Prana and its function is absolutely necessary for Pranayama. Here, I will give you a short description. For detailed information and different exercises, refer to my book Science of Pranayama.

2. What is Prana

He who knows Prana knows the Vedas, is the important declaration of the Srutis. You will find in the Vedanta Sutras, For the same reason, breath is Brahman. Prana is the sum total of all energy that is manifest in the Universe. It is the sum total of all the forces of nature. Heat, light, electricity, magnetism are all the manifestations of Prana. All forces, all powers and Prana spring from the fountain or common source - Atman. Whatever you behold in this sense-world, whatever moves or works or has life, is but an expression or manifestation of Prana. The Prana is related to the mind and through mind to the will and through will to the individual soul, and through this to the Supreme Being. If you know how to control the little waves of Prana working through the mind, then the secret of subjugating universal Prana will be known to you. That which moves the steam engine of a train and a steamer, that which makes the aeroplane glide in Akasa, that which causes the motion of breath in lungs, that which is the very life of this breath itself is Prana.

Pranavadins or Hatha Yogins consider that Prana-Tattva is very superior to Manas-Tattva, the 'mind-principle.' They say, Prana is present even when the mind is absent during slumber. It is through the vibrations of psychic Prana that the life of the mind is kept up and thought is produced. You see, hear, talk, sense, think, feel, will and know through the help of Prana. Prana is the very essence of cosmic life, that subtle principle which evolves the whole universe into its present form and which is pushing it towards its ultimate goal. The Prana may be defined as the finest vital force in everything which becomes visible on the physical plane as motion and action and on the mental plane as thought.

Though Antahkarana is one, yet it assumes four names, viz., Manas, Buddhi, Chitta and Ahamkara according to the different functions it performs. Likewise, though Prana is one, it assumes five forms, viz., Prana, Apana, Samana, Udana and Vyana according to the different functions it performs. This is termed as Vritti Bheda. The principal Prana is called Mukhya Prana. The function of Mukhya Prana is respiration; Apana does excretion; Udana does deglutition; Vyana performs circulation of blood; and Samana does digestion.

3. Yoga Nadis

Nadis are the astral tubes made up of astral matter that carry the subtle Prana. It is through these Nadis that the vital force of Pranic current moves. Since these are made up of subtle matter, these cannot be seen by the naked eyes. These Yoga Nadis are not ordinary nerves, arteries and veins that are known to Vaidya Sastra. The body is filled with innumerable number of Nadis that cannot be counted. Nadis play a vital part in this Yoga. These subtle tubes - Yoga Nadis - have influence in the physical body.

4. Chakras

Wherever there is an interlacing of several nerves, arteries and veins, that centre is called as Plexus. Similarly there are plexuses or centres of vital forces in the Sukshma Nadis. These are called as Chakras or Padmas. All Nadis spring from Kanda. It is in the junction where the Sushumna Nadi is connected with the Muladhara Chakra. Of the innumerable Nadis, Ida, Pingala and Sushumna are the most important. Ida and Pingala Nadis are on the two sides of the spinal cord and Sushumna is within the spinal cord. Ida operates through the left nostril and Pingala through the right nostril. When the breath operates through Sushumna, the mind becomes steady. This steadiness of mind is termed Unmani Avastha, the highest state in Raja Yoga. If you sit for meditation when Sushumna is operating, you will have wonderful meditation. When the Nadis are full of impurities, the breath cannot pass through the middle Nadi. So, one should practise Pranayama for the purification of Nadis.

5. Prana and Mind

The mind of a man can be made to transcend ordinary experience and exist on a plane higher than that of reason known as superconscious state of concentration and gets beyond the limit of concentration. He comes face to face with facts which ordinary consciousness cannot comprehend. This ought to be achieved by proper training and manipulation of the subtle forces of the body, so as to cause them to give an upward push to the mind in the higher regions. When the mind is so raised into the superconscious state of perception, it begins to act from there and experience higher facts and higher knowledge. Such is the ultimate object of Yoga. The control of the vibratory Prana, means to a Yogin, the kindling of the fire of Supreme Knowledge, the realisation of the Self.

6. Prana and Breath

That which travels in the nerves of the physical body is gross Prana. That which moves in astral tubes or Yoga Nadis of the astral body is subtle Prana or psychic Prana. Breath is an external effect or manifestation of gross Prana. There is intimate connection or close relationship between the gross Prana and subtle Prana. Otherwise Hatha Yoga is impossible. Just as the stoppage of the fly-wheel of an engine brings about the stoppage of all other wheels in a factory, so also, the control or stoppage of the external breath leads to the efficient stoppage or control of the whole gross and subtle Prana of the physical and mental factories. Hence Pranayama exercises are practised.

If mind and Prana cease to exist, then thought will not arise in any way. Both these are one only, like the flower and its odour or a sesamum seed and the oil in it. Prana and mind stand to one another in the relationship of the supporter and the supported. If either of them is slain, then the other also will cease to exist. The destruction of both will confer Moksha on all. The function of mind belongs to Prana; from Prana or life proceeds all (Chhandogya Upanishad V: 14 & 15). If Prana departs from the body, all functions of organs cease immediately.

7. Pranayama Exercises

Pranayama is of long duration or subtle according to the external and internal restraint or holding process regulated by place, time and number.

NOTES

Puraka, Rechaka and Kumbhaka vary according to place, time and number. The period of Kumbhaka must be gradually increased. Kumbhaka gives strength. If you want to increase the Kumbhaka for more than three minutes the help of a Yogic Guru by your side is very necessary. You can suspend the breath for 2 or 3 minutes without the help of anybody. This is quite sufficient for all persons for purifying the nerves and for steadying the mind and for purposes of health.

By place is meant the inside or outside the body and the particular length of the breath in the act. It is calculated by Yogis that the breath is respectively 12, 16, 4, 8 and 0 finger-breadths long according to the Tattvas Prithvi, Apas, Tejas, Vayu or Akasa. Time is the duration of these, which is counted by Matra: 12 Matras for Puraka, 48 Matras for Kumbhaka and 24 Matras for Rechaka. Matra means a measure or time-unit. Some take one second as one Matra. The time taken in making three rounds of the knee with the palm of the hand, neither very slowly nor quickly and snapping the fingers once, is called a Matra. The twinkling of an eye is sometimes taken as one Matra by some. Time taken by one normal respiration is taken as one Matra. Time taken up in pronouncing the monosyllable OM is regarded as one Matra. This is very convenient for practice. Many Pranayama practitioners adopt this time unit in their practice.

Number refers to the number of times the Pranayama is done. One should do by gradual practice 80 times in the morning, 80 in the evening and 80 at night and 80 times at mid-night. When Prana comes under the control of the Yogi, it is called Pranajaya or conquest of Prana.

When the breath flows towards the left nostril, it is called Ida or Chandra Nadi; when it flows through the right nostril it is called Pingala or Surya Nadi; and when it flows through both nostrils, it is called Sushumna or Agni. Meditation is very conducive when Sushumna is operating. The breath flows for two hours in each nostril. This time is distributed as follows: Prithvi flows for 1 1/2; Apas Tattva 1 1/4; Tejas 1; Vayu Tattva 3/4; and Akasa Tattva for 1/2 Naligas. (2 1/2 Naligas for one hour). If you read Svara Udhaya, you will understand these points fully.

In Patanjali Yoga Sutras there is a description of Kevala Kumbhaka in Sutra 51 of Chapter II. This is a very advanced course. One should practise from stage to stage, step by step for getting success in the advanced course. We have seen before, that, subtle Prana has intimate connection with the respiration. By regulating inhalation, exhalation and retention, one can understand and control the subtle Prana. For the regulation of respiration and for the practice of Kevala Kumbhaka, the following exercises will help the Sadhakas.

8. Preliminary Exercise

Sit on Padmasana or Siddhasana. Slowly inhale the air through both the nostrils without making any sound. Do not retain the breath. Immediately exhale the air very, very slowly. Repeat this process ten or twenty times both morning and evening. Practise this regularly for three months. Then you can attempt for the Sukha Purvaka exercise where there is retention of breath. Inhalation is termed as 'Puraka'. 'Rechaka' is exhalation and 'Kumbhaka' is retention of breath. Svasa refers to Puraka and Prasvasa refers to Rechaka. This is given in Sutra 49 of Chapter II.

9. Sukha Purvaka Pranayama

(Easy Comfortable Pranayama)

Sit on Padmasana or Siddhasana in your meditation room. Close the right nostril with the right thumb. Draw in air slowly through the left nostril. Now close the left nostril also with the little and ring fingers of the right hand. Retain the breath as long as you can comfortably do. Then exhale very, very slowly through the right nostril after removing the thumb. Now half the process is over.

Then draw in the air through the right nostril as soon as you can completely exhale. Retain the breath as long as you can after closing the right nostril and then exhale through the left nostril after removing the little and the ring fingers. These six processes constitute one Pranayama. To start with, do 10 Pranayamas in the morning and 10 in the evening. Gradually increase the number to 20 in each sitting. Gradually increase the period of Kumbhaka also. Have a Bhavana (mental attitude) that all the Daivi Sampat as mercy, love, forgiveness, Santi, joy, etc., are entering your system along with the inspired air and all the Asuri Sampat such as lust, anger, greed, etc., are being thrown out along with the exhaled air. Repeat OM or Gayatri mentally during Puraka, Kumbhaka and Rechaka. Hard-working Sadhakas can do 320 Kumbhakas in four sittings at the rate of 80 in each sitting. This Pranayama exercise removes all diseases, purifies the Nadis, steadies the mind in concentration, improves digestion, increases the digestive power, helps in maintaining Brahmacharya and enables one to attain Kevala Kumbhaka in due course of practice.

10. Kevala Kumbhaka

The fourth (Pranayama exercise) is going beyond the internal and external positions.

NOTES

In the previous Sutras, three kinds of Pranayama exercises are given, viz., internal, external and the period of suspension. In this Sutra the highest stage of Pranayama, i.e., going beyond internal (Puraka) and external (Rechaka), is given.

This exercise is Kevala Kumbhaka wherein is neither Puraka nor Rechaka. There is Kumbhaka only. This is for advanced Yogins. Kumbhaka is of two kinds, viz., Sahita and Kevala. That which is coupled with inhalation and exhalation is termed Sahita Kumbhaka, which is described in Sukha Purvaka. That which is devoid of Puraka and Rechaka is Kevala Kumbhaka. When you get mastery in Sahita, it is said: When after giving up of inhalation and exhalation, one holds his breath with ease, it is Kevala (absolute) Kumbhaka. He attains the state of Raja Yoga. The practitioner attains perfection in Yoga.

11. Benefits of Pranayama

Then the covering of the light is destroyed.

NOTES

The ignorance caused by the Karma covers the light of knowledge. By the practice of Pranayama this covering is destroyed by the development of concentration and knowledge. The next Sutra says that the power of concentration increases by Pranayama, as the distractions are removed thereby.

12. Mind Fit for Concentration

The mind becomes fit for concentration.

NOTES

The mind becomes quite steady after Pranayama. It can be fixed at any point. By the practice of Pranayama, Rajas and Tamas which screen the light of Purusha are destroyed. Then the real nature of the Purusha is realised. There is no Tapas greater than Pranayama. It causes Chitta Suddhi, Nadi Suddhi and Mano Suddhi. Pranayama practice destroys the Karmas which hurl down man in various sorts of activities. Karmas also act as a screen that destroys the purity of intellect. Pranayama serves as a Prayaschitta (that which nullifies the effects of Karma) for all sorts of sins. It removes the Doshas in the body, Indriyas and mind. Pranayama practice steadies the mind. Vikshepa is destroyed. Mind gets Ekagrata state. Constant practice enables one to observe perfect Brahmacharya.

13. Hints on Pranayama Practice

  1. In the early morning answer the calls of nature and then sit for the practice. Pranayama should be practised in a well-ventilated room. Pranayama requires deep concentration and attention. Do not keep anyone by your side.
  2. Before the practice, clean the nostrils thoroughly. When you finish the practice take a cup of milk after 10 minutes. Do not take bath immediately after Pranayama.
  3. Some people twist the muscles of the face when they do Kumbhaka. It should be strictly avoided. It is a symptom to indicate that they are going beyond their capacity. Such people cannot have a regulated Rechaka, Puraka and Kumbhaka.
  4. Pranayama can be performed just before Japa and meditation. It will make the body light and you will enjoy your meditation. The Asana should be steady when you practise Pranayama and Dhyana. Do not scratch the body every now and then during Pranayama practice.
  5. In the beginning of practise you should observe some time-unit for doing Puraka, Kumbhaka and Rechaka. The ratio is 1 : 4 : 2. When you have advanced in the practice, you need not distract the mind in counting and keeping time-unit. The lungs will tell you when you have finished the required rounds.
  6. Do not perform Pranayama till you are fatigued. Take a few normal breaths after some Pranayama. That will give you relief. Do not make any sound when you do Puraka and Rechaka.
  7. You should not expect the benefits after doing it for 2 or 3 minutes only for a day or two. Regular, steady practice is needed for a long time.
  8. Pranayama cannot bring about Manonasa (annihilation of mind). The Vrittis are quietened only temporarily. You should practise Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi.


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