Pranayama is the fourth of Patanjali’s eight-fold path to Yoga (union) and is an essential part of most ancient Indian scripture-based faith systems including Vedanta, Tantra and Upanishadic schools. It’s different aspects are mentioned and talked about in a multitude of scriptures and have historically been retained and taught as an accomplished means of Realisation.
As a modern-age practitioner of Yogic techniques which are rooted in vast experiential philosophies of sages through the centuries, it is essential to have the Right View of techniques you are engaging with. Unfortunately, Pranayama, like other few aspects of Yoga, is widely practiced as a set of breathing exercises mostly with a limited goal of maintaining good health. But for more serious practitioners it is best to understand the spirit of its philosophy and the end goal that it aims to reach.
Treatise of Pranayama is founded for an individual to willfully control and rightly manipulate the vital infinite manifesting force called Prana. Yogic ontology describes the whole of existence – manifest and unmanifest – into the principle of Akasha and Prana. Think of Akasha as infinite, omnipresent space or substance which holds the potentiality of manifestation. The basic substance of which the creation is constituted. The underlying material of everything that you’ve ever perceived by the means of seeing, feeling, thinking, touching or being. But despite its infinite potentiality, it is devoid of motion. It cannot manifest itself into any form by its own will. In other words, it lacks the possibility of force.
While Prana is the dynamic, vital force which makes any motion in existence possible. Whether it’s a blink of an eye or revolution of planets around the sun. The faculty of thinking or growing of a plant from a seed. The sole principle of any motion or manifestation is this vital force called Prana which throbs the entire cosmos with a quality of ‘livingness’. Without Prana, Akasha would remain unmanifest like a seed carrying the potentiality of being a tree.
Every being whether living or non-living is existing because of the Prana forming an unending matrix of energy particles. And all beings exist as this continuous, unbound Prana concentrates – like whirlpools in an ocean. It is because of Prana that the whole of existence is in constant motion – creating, changing, disintegrating, concreting – eternally. In a highly conscious state of mind you can perceive that everything is composed of subtle vibrations. Sum total of all energies are eternally evolving and involving.
With prana moves the consciousness. When prana is without movement, consciousness is without movement.Hatha Yoga Pradipika
Prana in an Individual
Pranic energy concentrates in an individual’s body and mind. It’s with Prana that all voluntary and involuntary motions of the body and activities of the mind take place. Thus the goal of Pranayama is to willingly control the Prana. Perfection in Pranayama makes it possible for the seeker to assume control of such physical and mental activities which are essential for deeper states of concentration (Dharana) and subsequent meditation (Dhyana). The practitioner can then control their thoughts, withdraw the physical senses and maintain optimum health.
Since Prana is imperceptible to most individuals, one needs to begin with the control of grosser motions of the body. Breathing is the single unique motion in our body, which is both voluntary and involuntary. In sleep, we are unconscious of our breath but breathing still continues. Yet if we want we can easily be aware of our breath and control the inhalation, exhalation and even cessation for some time. In Yoga, breath is also seen as an external manifestation of prana. Although the breath is gross and Prana subtle, the two are connected intrinsically. Please understand, breath here does not simply refer to the air that goes in and comes out, rather the motion of this air. The expansion and contraction of lungs – the force which results in this motion.
A simple experiment to understand this is to be aware of the involuntary breathing pattern while you engage in different activities both mental and physical. If your thoughts are calm and centered at a time, your breath will become slower and longer. If your thoughts are of anger and frustration your breathing will become irregular, short and erratic.
Thus Pranayama techniques are focussed on the act of breathing and comprise of various means by which to use control over breath to induce concentrated, calm and meditative states of mind and body.
In my following posts, I’ll write more about different Pranayama techniques and how they are rooted in this basic understanding of Prana.
Om Tat Sat Om