The breath of life: less is more.
The extensively adaptable, intelligent and integrated preparation of vinyasas and asana in the vinyasa krama system are preparation for Pranayama. In the tradition Pranayama is given a special seat of importance hence the way in which it is already so skillfully woven into the asana portion. However the long smooth ujjayi done in asana is not the stopping point. While the asana primarily work on the musculoskeletal system, pranayama and the various mudras/bandhas go a bit deeper into the internal organs and physiology. A good long pranayama practice (appropriate to the individual) also has the benefit of clearing stagnation and dullness in the mental state as preparation for antaranga sadhana (meditation)….Let’s see what the texts have to say…
From the Yoga Sutras:
As mentioned before, Krishnamacharya held the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali (along with Yoga Yajñavalkya and the teachings of Nathamuni) in high esteem for yogabhyasis. Therefore if something taught elsewhere was in conflict with the sutras it could typically be discarded or at least gazed upon with caution. So let’s start there in the Sadhana Pada 2.49-2.52
- Tasmin: in that (seeing previous sutras helps us to indicate that the reference here is a steady, easeful yogasana)
- Sati: remaining
- svasa: inhalation
- prasvasa: exhalation
- yah: and/of
- gati: movement
- vicchedah: to bring under voluntary control (vi: unique/various chedah- breaking)
- pranayama: breath control
Here pranayama is defined as remaining in the established steady and comfortable seat as prepared for in asana, and controlling variously the movement of the inhatlation and the exhalation. While Patanjali is terse and concise with his words this is not a simple instruction and certainly we cannot stop here. The number of ways in which these “various movements” of the breath can be adjusted is a prolific subject in and of itself as we see moving forward…
- bahya: external
- abhyantara: internal
- stambha: stationary (holding)
- vrttih: action
- desa: place
- kala: time
- samkhyabhih: number
- paridrestah: concentration
- dirgha: long
- suksma: subtle, smooth
This sutra defines the first 3 parameters of pranayama (all of which are present in the vedas)
- bahya vritti: the external action meaning the exhalation and all the various ways in which we can direct it.
- abhyantara vrtti: the internal action; meaning the inhalation and all the various ways and means by which we can direct it
- stambha vrtti: the holding of the breath after inhalation. Often the space in vedic rituals where mantra is chanted (Om, pranayama mantra etc)
All of these parameters are further expanded by three metrics:
- desa: the place in which the breath is controlled (nostrils, throat etc)
- kala: the duration of each aspect (the breath ratio)
- samhyabhih: the number of pranayams (breaths) in a practice
The recipe crafted from these parameters and their associated metrics provide varying effects within our physiological system. Patanjali wraps up this sutra with three additonal “musts.” It is also important that (except for kapalabhati and bhastrika) that the breath should be …say it with me regular yoga club friends…
- dirgha: LONG
- suksma: subtle or smooth, not rough or jerky.
- paridrestah: and that the concentration should be totally involved. I.e. the mind should be completely absorbed in the practice and the various parameters and their metrics
Ramaswami likens the inhale to drinking water through the stem of a lily. The lily stem is fragile and so the action would need to be delicate (suksma). He likens the exhale to pouring oil, again as this could easily cause a spill the action would need to be uniform and patient, taking ample time to complete (dirgha). These three parameters are a hallmark of pranayama AND the breath in asana for the vinyasa krama tradition.
- bahyabhyantara: exhalation and inhalation
- visaya: object
- aksepi: not entertained. observed
- caturthah: the fourth (aspect)
Patanjali continues by describing the fourth parameter (caturthah) of the breath (the object: visaya) which is not expounded upon in the vedas. Often touted as kevala khumbhaka or when the inhalation or exhalation can suspend at will. However Ramaswami offers another, potentially more practical, definition of this 4th parameter as: bahya kumbhaka -or- the suspension of the breath after exhalation (a long, smooth one of course). It is in this space of bahya kumbhaka that three bandhas can join together…for while some texts on Hatha Yoga indicate use of uddiyana bandha during antara khumbhaka (holding the breath at the top of the inhalation) this was cautioned against diligently by Krishnamacharya as it could be very injurious to one’s health and mental state. Only when the lungs are empty is it wise to exercise uddiyana bandha as this bandha moves the abdominal contents up placing a massage like pressure on the internal organs. Doing this with air in the lungs is forcing pressure to pressure and not a good idea for a healthy system.
All of this can be verified in the more elaborate treatise on Yoga by the sage Yajnavalkya. In the Yoga Yajnavalkya chapter 6 vs 2-3 pranayama is defined as the joining of prana and apana together and is said to consist of 3 components: inhalation (puraka), exhalation (recaka) and kumbhaka (collectively parts 3 and 4 of the yoga sutras description). Yajnavalkya also adds a particularly interesting point…that these three parts of the breath relate to the three syllables of A-U-M and that therefore pranayama is of the form of the Pranava (Om mantra) so named by Patanjali as the name of the divine Isvara… More on AUM later.
Now that we have the definition of pranayama (not just breathing) Let’s look at the result…
- tatah: from that (practice of pranayama)
- ksiyate: is reduced until destroyed
- prakasa: light, clarity (here refering to the sattva guna)
- avaranam: the veil (here referring to the veil of tamo guna)
And so as shown here in sutra 2.52 the result of an intelligent and consistent pranayama practice after careful preparation in asana is to reduce and eventually remove (ksiyate) the veil of darkness (avaranam/tamas) and shine light (prakasa/sattva) on the mind…Only a clear mind can overcome and as Samkhya philosophy tells us only a sattvic intellect can take up the task of true self recognition.
Therefore the way we utilize breath in asana is merely (neccesary) preparation for a more developed practice of pranayama, which is not merely breathing in and out.
From the Hatha Yoga Pradipika
Another popular 14th century text, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika has an extensive chapter on pranayama techniques and observations. Krishnamacharya was very specific about this text. It is a magnificent work with a myriad of techniques from yogabhyasas. Ramaswami encourages us to consider the depth of the text but also to listen to the Professor’s caution to tread with care as only some of the techniques presented are helpful to the householder, others carry a risk of ill health. Still, it really is a wonderful resource, and has many gifts to offer.
The author, Svatmarama, states that after restraining the exaggerated rajas (activity) of the body and senses through asana and tapas (specifically he mentions mitahara- or a moderate diet that doesn’t put a lot of strain on the digestive system) one should establish oneself in an asana (of course with the qualities of sthira and sukha) and then proceed with pranayama as taught by a competent teacher.
The aim and the alternative are presented in chapter 2 sloka 2:
translated by TKV Desikachar as…
“when the breath is disturbed, the mind (chittam) is unsteady. When the breath becomes focused, the mind becomes focused and the yogi attains steadiness (Sthanutvam: the body becomes rooted like the trunk of a tree, or as Ramaswami says like a Stick in the ground). Therefore, the breath should be restrained.”
The emphasis here according to Krishnamacharya is not only then on the inhalation and exhalation but specifically on (eventually) getting to a consistent practice of khumbhaka or suspension. The proverbial tree or stick here can be a metaphor for the spine. When we are established in pranayama the spine becomes stable and well prepared for the deeper results of the practice (arousing of kundalini for the flow of prana, a necessary component according to hatha yogis for the ultimate aim of kaivalya). Therefore kumbhaka is helpful as it is in that lower kumbhaka in particular where all bandhas are integrated creating a firm support for the spine. But stability in pranayama requires consistency, even more so than in asana. While asana prepares primarily the physical body to sit, pranayama cleans the nadis (energy pathways through which prana flows become clear and obstructed). Remember the analogy of oil and water before? Both substances can be considered purifying. Maybe an analogy would help. I’m no automechanic but it applies here too. Imagine a car…in your day to day life you consistently run the car on empty. During the pandemic maybe that car sat in the driveway for weeks at a time. There may have been a time or two you let the oil stagnate a bit too long before changing it because you know there is a list a mile long of things one must do day to day and who has the time? Gone on for too long this behavior of overdoing, crashing and not fueling has some ill effects. The gas can may get some sediment, the oil may dry up, the fuel lines clogged. You may need to take it to a mechanic. Now imagine your body/mind complex is like that car. You know yoga sadhana is of benefit, but you get distracted. The practice comes and goes and often times when we sit for pranayama it’s like starting all over again. There may be dryness in the airways or congestion, there may be discomfort in the digestion or in the lungs…The nadis are not clean. They are filled up with “sediment.” And so upon having this realization it is helpful to commit with consistency to a regular schedule of fueling the engine with pranayama. Keeping that “well oiled machine” purring smoothly.
Another questions aims to be asked for the scientific mind… how were yogabhyasis able to determine the benefits of pranayama without all the fancy measuring tools, computer programs and laboratories that we have today? The answer? pratyaksa! EXPERIENCE! Tried and tested direct experience through a longnlineage of devoted practitioners. The next sutra gives the foundation for why many took up the task then and still do today.
“Life exists so long as breath (prana) remains in the body. When prana leaves the body, it is death. Therefore one should restrain the breath.”
And there you have it…
Yes a lifetime of erratic breathing can lead to health problems and mental unrest. Just ask a severe asthmatic. But also the rishis measured one’s lifespan in the number of breaths they took. So restraining, slowing down the breath had a very practical application- to extend one’s life so that the yogi could continue on the path of burning past karma, not accumulating more karma and eventually releasing the entire karmic bundle (a term Ramaswami uses) allowing for kaivalya (not being born again- freedom from pain of wrong association with the body). Practically speaking think of it this way: The number of breaths a dog takes is around 30/minute at rest. A human at rest can take is about 12-16/minute with an average of about 15-20/minute in regular non-high impact activity. If we continue that observation across the spectrum the statistics hold pretty fast and true. More breaths = shorter life span. In pranayama practice we reduce our breaths from the above figure to much lower…often 2-4 breaths a minute (big difference!). (Again, the aim of this extension of life for a yogi is not immortality of the physical form, but the ability to eventually reside in the infinite (tada drastuh svarupe avasthanam) which takes some yogic effort in this form).
So whichever perspective you prefer…pranayama is life-long yoga! Less really is more. More clarity, more health, and a better seat from which to explore raja deepti- bringing light to the true nature of your self.
In conclusion I invite you to listen to Sir chanting the pranayama mantra…many of you may recognize this 🙂
See you tomorrow 🙂