The subject of Pranayama is a broad aspect of Yoga which could hardly be explained fully in these few pages. It is a complete and comprehensive science in its own right, which needs years of dedicated practice to perfect. However, there are a few elementary pranayama techniques which should be included in every yoga class, and these will be outlined in the course.
The Sanscrit word “Prana” means life force, vital force or universal energy. The word “Yama” means to control, to direct, to develop. Therefore, “Pranayama” can be described as a series of techniques which are designed to increase, control, direct and enhance that function of human personality which is based on the principle of energy or life force. The oriental spiritual sciences call this Chi, Qi or Ki. Modern western science calls it Bio-plasma. It is known to exist as a non-physical force which works within the laws of nature but which as yet, has not yet been sufficiently studied by the scientists to reveal its true nature and psycho-physiological effects as known already by the Yogis.
The Physical and the Subtle Breath
Although the actual pranayama techniques involve manipulation of the breathing process, Pranayama should not be thought of as just breathing exercises, nor should it be assumed that we are only dealing with something physical or respiratory in nature. Prana exists in all living things, in every creature. It is that element of existence which keeps things alive. By learning to understand and experience this truth, one can improve not only their physical structure but as well the mental, emotional, psychic and overall spiritual evolution of the personality.
The four pranayama techniques which are always included in a Beginners Integral Yoga Course, cover the most basic elements of the physiological breathing processes as well as the more subtle aspects of meditative energy control. There exist many more specific practices which can be learned in time, but a solid grounding and competence of these basic four are required before anything more advanced is attempted.
At first, you may experience resistance to Pranayama. A physical resistance, due to a lifetime’s bad breathing habits; a mental resistance to the necessary concentration needed; an emotional resistance to the feelings which can be triggered when locked emotions begin stirring; a psychic resistance to perceptions and states of Meditation which may be unusual for you at this present stage. However, all these initial impressions will be overcome with regular practice, and the changes experienced will astound you, as the quantity and quality of your life force are enhanced.
It must be mentioned at this stage the importance of breathing through the nose. Although it may seem an obvious truth to many people, it often needs re-stating that: “The nose is for breathing – The mouth is for eating.”
Yes, it may be necessary to breathe through the mouth in times of extreme exertion, emergency or nasal restriction, and it is a true sign of good design that we have a backup orifice for air intake. But the mouth is only that. A reserve or emergency apparatus for breathing. The nose is the proper receptor for healthy respiration.
There are very many gross and subtle reasons that the design of the human body was included with the facility of breathing through the nostrils, and in the modern world today, it must be the singular most ignored and abused aspect of human function. Without a proper function of breath through the nostrils, no proper state of physical health can be achieved and maintained. There will not be correct body temperature regulation; there will not be the correct sensory function; there will not be correct mental function or perception of the internal realms. There will not be the correct cardio-vascular function; there will not be correct digestive and eliminatory function. There can not be a progressive improvement in Yoga; there can never be Meditation; there can never be Enlightenment.
For many people today, mouth breathing is just a chronic and unconscious habit, due to both lacks of education about the importance of breathing through the nose, as well as a result of poor eating and excessive mucus secretion. Modern pollution also plays a part in irritating the natural breathing functions, but that is all the more reason to be using the proper filtering system of the nose. Of course, smoking is a foolish habit which only encourages the reversal of proper breathing by drawing the smoke and toxins in through the mouth. Think about it – how many activities of the day are encouraging mouth breathing? Eating, drinking, talking, running, smoking, swimming, snoring, and at many other times, the jaw is just left hanging open for uncontrolled breathing.
There is also a school of health educators who actually still teach the popular myth that we should inhale through the nose, but exhale through the mouth! This is also taught for pre-natal breath training in many places. According to both common sense and the Yogis, this is not correct.
When one first commences studying yoga breathing techniques, there becomes a sudden awareness of just how perpetually blocked or restricted one’s nostrils are. This makes many people want to give up. The problem may be a simple one such as dirt, or it may be mucus, cartilage, or can even be a bone deformity from a previous injury. In any case, the cause should definitely be investigated. The simple methods of relieving the airways should be tried first such as salt water cleansing and strong breathing. If this fails to clear them, a professional examination should be made. Even to go through the necessary surgical procedure to open blocked airways will be well worth the difference that full nostril breathing can make to ones physical and mental health.
Within the class, the teacher will constantly and consistently be reminding you to breathe only through the nose; in and out; except for a few special practices designed to utilize the mouth.
So what solution does the science of Yoga have for this all-pervasive modern dysfunction? Three things. Firstly a new awareness, secondly the technique of Jala Neti, and thirdly the practices of Pranayama.
The Cycles of Breathing The relationship of acting, feeling, thinking and intuiting is intimately linked to the breathing process. Each breath we take is just an aspect of ourselves in miniature. There are four parts of each breath cycle which relate to our life force as well as our mode of daily expression. The physical and metaphysical correspondences are as follows.
Inhalation represents that time of inspiring, drawing in, imbibing new and fresh life force, consuming, filling up. It is easy and pleasant. That which we always look forward to. Creating.
Internal retention represents being able to hold that energy, assimilating, to compress, pressurize, exchange bad for good, expand the storage capacity, maintain without loss, “chew over” and inwardly distribute that goodness which inhalation has brought in. Perseverance and sustaining.
Exhalation means expiring, letting go, passing out the staleness, the tiredness, the tension, tossing off that which is no longer needed, renouncing, self-depletion, approaching emptiness, contracting towards the end, exhausting, winding down. That which we tend to like the least.
External retention (the hardest of all for most people) is representative of holding out, forcing more life from nothing, going beyond the present limits, starving past exhaustion, giving more than we think we can, not yet letting in again, suppressing even below empty. It is the most potent aspect of transformation existing. It is the darkest moment before the new life force rushes in to explode us again into the beginnings of a fresh awakening.
Each and all of these four breathing phases accurately express our different personality strengths and weaknesses. They are like the four seasons. A small personal cycle of development and change. So by way of breath exploration and expansion, Pranayama can transform the whole of the human make up.
But there is also one last state of breathing (actually non-breathing) that exists, but this is not a practice or something that can be “done.” It is called Kevalya or Turiya Pranayama. It is a complete and total cessation of the breath. Suspension of the life force, not by effort or force or doing anything, but it just happens. When the forces are right; when the mind and body are perfectly balanced; when the quantity and quality of Prana are complementary; true equilibrium and “homeostasis” occurs. This final state of Prana is what must be attained by the practitioner before the deeper states of Meditation can be entered into.
The true purpose of Pranayama is not just for physical, mental, emotional, psychic health. It is an integral part of Hatha Yoga, Swara Yoga, Raja Yoga, Kundalini Yoga, Kriya Yoga and many other Yogas, all of which is to assist us with preparation to enter into deeper states of Meditation by transcending the processes of thought which impede self-realization.
The Four Breath Centres
In the human body, there are different parts of our breathing system. There are also different layers of awareness; different intensities of experience. In Yoga and Pranayama, we explore these functions, their meanings, and their effects. In the classes, you will be instructed on finding the four primary breath or energy centers. Many of the relaxation techniques, postural techniques, breathing techniques and meditation techniques revolve around these energy centers.
The Five Primary Nadis
Also in the relaxation and meditation techniques, you will be instructed to follow the breath awareness in the different subtle energy channels or Nadis. There are many thousands of subtle nerve currents and energy pathways in the psychic physiology of the body, but here we are concerned with only five. Initially, you may find these concepts a bit hard to understand, discover and experience, but certainly with practice as your abilities at Pranayama improve, you will discover the ever flowing life force within your internal energy channels.
In Hatha Yoga, there are described two opposing forces, two complementary poles of our human existence. These are called Ida and Pingala or Manas Shakti and Prana Shakti; the Mental force and the Action force; the Lunar force and Solar force respectively. As shown above, these two aspects of energy also flow in energy channels or Nadis.
In a Pranic and energy sense, when the two opposite poles of energy are balanced, when these two Nadis are cleared of blockages and are fully flowing, and when this occurs for an extended period of time, a 3rd or neutral force begins to flow. This force is known as Kundalini Shakti and flows in a third energy channel called Sushumna. This is the spinal passage as shown above.
The most fundamental technique for inducing this state of balance and harmony is called Nadi Shodhan Pranayama which you will be doing every week in the classes. The different polarities of psycho-human energy, sense, and control many different functions in the physical and non-physical universe. According to the science of Swara Yoga, the following table applies.
|LEFT NOSTRIL||BOTH NOSTRILS||RIGHT NOSTRIL|
|Right Brain||Whole Brain||Left Brain|
|Ida Nadi||Sushumna Nadi||Pingala Nadi|
|Manas Shakti||Kundalini Shakti||Prana Shakti|
Although you may at first only appreciate the physical nature of Pranayama breathing techniques, with time and practice you will be able to experience the more subtle psychological effects of Pranic energy control, and you will discover the practical benefits within your meditation practice as well as daily life.
When learning the Pranayama techniques, practice regularly the first stages of each until competent, and only then progress onto the next stage. If you have any difficulties or side effects, discuss this with your teacher before continuing with your practices.