Breath of Life

Lecture by Swami Satyananda Saraswati in Monrovia, Liberia, W. Africa on May 12, 1977.

Everyone hopes to enjoy a long, active and useful life, free from disease and immune to the damaging effects of nervous stress and tensions. In this light yoga has something unique to offer and therefore it is most important that everyone knows and practises certain pranayamas and asanas on a daily basis.

The system of hatha yoga has undergone thorough scientific investigation in European, Communist and American countries. Pranayama which was once translated as 'breathing exercises' is now recognized by scientists throughout the world as a means of invigorating, enhancing and accelerating the revitalizing processes in the body.

Tube lights require a certain voltage to come on. If the voltage is supposed to be 220 and it goes down to 180, what happens? No light. Air conditioners have a booster attached which completes the circuit so that they can continue to function 'even when the voltage is low. However, if the voltage is very high, say 440, the tube light and the armature in the air conditioner will burn out. Similarly, in our bodies there is energy, shakti, which can be increased or decreased. When this shakti is decreased, the mind-body and all of its functions are impaired. On the other hand, when the energy level is raised too high, the brain becomes hyper excited or manic.

Prana is not the breath which you inhale; prana is shakti, subtle energy. But with the help of breath we can recharge the prana shakti in our body. In scientific investigations it was found that most people do not breathe correctly. Tests performed all over the world have shown that most people do not breathe enough to fulfil the needs of their body and brain. We five on prana and oxygen, supplied through the medium of breath, through the nostrils. Usually both nostrils do not flow at the same time; they flow for about eighty minutes, and both flow together for only a minute or two in between. This is the cycle of ida and pingala.

Both nostrils are directly connected to the left and right brain hemispheres, each of which controls certain functions of the body. Paralysis occurs when the brain is unable to direct nerve impulses to the body. When a man thinks or worries too much, if he becomes excited or emotional, his breath will automatically be affected.

Breathing affects the heart; a person having a heart attack can stop it immediately with correct breathing. You may have read about scientific investigation of yogis in India and abroad who can stop their heart at will. It was found that when they stopped their heart, they stopped their breath as well, but still continued to live. This means that with the help of pranayama it is possible to gain complete control over the voluntary as well as the involuntary functions of the heart.

Pranayama is based on the three stages of respiration: pooraka (inhalation), kumbhaka (retention) and rechaka (exhalation). By permuting and controlling these three, different pranayamas are obtained. Kumbhaka is a very important part of pranayama, especially for those who suffer from nervous break downs, poor memory and incorrect breathing habits like inhaling in short, quicker shallow breaths. When we do not breathe correctly, the brain is not supplied with sufficient oxygen and therefore breathlessness is experienced.

During pranayama the bodily secretions are arrested and controlled. Therefore the right time to practise pranayama is in the morning on an empty stomach. It should not be practised on a full stomach, not even after tea.

Pranayama is for all people regardless of age, physical or mental condition. Anyone can learn one and practise it. However, pranayama should be taught by a master, individually not collectively. Each person has his own physical and mental constitution. Therefore the teacher has to study his student's particular makeup and according to that the pranayama and its ratio has to be adjusted.

Preliminary pranayama practices

Breathing is a natural process; its normal rhythm is 15 rounds per minute, 900 rounds per hour and 21,600 rounds per 24 hour day. When the breathing rate is increased, longevity is decreased. Fifteen rounds per minute is the rate which correlates to 75 or 80 years of life. Ten rounds per minute lengthens life to about 100 years. However more than 15, say 30 to 35 rounds limits the lifespan, as with a dog for example, to 10 or 15 years.

Quick, shallow breathing is an ageing factor, and not really beneficial for emotional integration and balance. Therefore the first prerequisite in pranayama is conscious breathing. Learn to maintain the normal breathing rate of 15 rounds per minute. Relax your body and become aware of the breath. Stop thinking and worrying for one minute and the breath rate will drop down to 15. But if you continue to think, the breath rate will be higher. The thinking process affects the breath and the breath affects the thinking process.

By freeing your mind from emotional tension for half an hour, you can become aware of how you breathe. Psycho physiological experiments have proved that during moments of stress and strain the intake of oxygen is very high while consumption is very low, only about ⅒th of the actual need. This means that the greater portion of oxygen intake goes unused. Thus after learning to breathe consciously 15 rounds per minute, it is necessary to learn to breathe completely, to the full capacity of our lungs. This is the second prerequisite of pranayama.

Chest breathing is incomplete. In yoga the complete breath consists of abdominal (diaphragmatic) breathing, chest (thoracic) breathing, and shoulder breathing. This has to be practised for some time until you are able to train your system to breathe correctly. Complete breathing is done through the abdomen. In the beginning, practise with your hand on your navel. Relax all the tension in the chest and shoulders. Breathe a little deeper than natural and feel your abdomen expanding and contracting. When this is perfected - inhale, first expanding the abdomen and then the chest in one slow, smooth motion. When the maximum amount of air has been drawn into the lungs, the shoulders will raise automatically. Complete breathing will free you from colds, cough, allergic asthma, sinusitis, migraine and many other problems.

Pranayama for relaxation

In the western sense relaxation means an easy chair, a cup of tea or coffee and a television, 'Oh, I 'Oh I am relaxing now'. No! In yoga, relaxation means freeing the whole system from tension. Not only the physical body, but also the conscious and subconscious mind. Sometimes when the physical body is resting the mind is not. Sometimes the conscious mind is relaxing but the subconscious mind is not. If you take tranquilizers your conscious mind and body may be relaxed, but deep rooted worrying still goes on. Pranayama can be utilized very effectively to bring about total relaxation and emotional integration, because in this system we maintain perpetual awareness while bringing the mind down to deeper levels of the subconscious.

Abdominal breathing is a good technique for relaxation. This can also be done while lying down. Take a deeper breath than usual and during inhalation feel the movement of the abdomen. Forget your nose. Feel that you are breathing in through the abdomen. Feel the abdomen expanding and contracting with each inhalation and exhalation. Count each breath with total awareness from 100 back to 1 (don't count from 1 to 100). If you make a mistake or lose count, start again from 100. Practise like this- 99 yes, 98 I know, 97 I am aware, 96 I am still counting. It is important to register each number in your conscious awareness. Relaxation techniques stress total awareness of all mental functions, and in this particular practice awareness of the counting is very important. Awareness of the mind enables you to relax, but when you lose this awareness there is tension. So count from 100 back to 1 without losing awareness, without making any mistakes. At the same time feel that the diaphragm is breathing, moving up and down with each inhalation and exhalation.

Next go to the throat. Listen to the sound of the breath and feel that the throat is breathing. Count each round from 100 back to 1. Now move up to the nostrils; keep your concentration between nasikagra, the tip of the nose, and bhrumadhya, the eyebrow centre. Don't go beyond that. Feel that the whole breathing process is taking place between the tip of the nose and the eyebrow centre, and count from 100 back to 1.

We have found that abdominal, throat and nose breathing is very good for all those suffering from hypertension or high blood pressure. However, for people with normal blood pressure this practice is not recommended as it may cause their blood pressure to drop below normal.

Alternate breathing is a simple technique which anyone can practise. Lie down and feel that you are inhaling through the left nostril and exhaling through the right. Don't use your finger; just feel that you are breathing in through the right nostril and out through the left, and then in through the left and out through the right. This is 1 round. Do 4 rounds of alternate breathing and on the 5th round breathe in through both nostrils. Go on practising 6,7,8,9 rounds of alternate breathing and on the 10th round breathe in through both nostrils. Remember 1-4, 6-9, 11-14, breathe alternately and 5, 10, 15, breathe through both nostrils. Practise this and in a minute you will feel more relaxed. Alternate breathing is beneficial for everybody. You can start with 15 rounds and work up to 51 rounds maximum.

Importance of keeping awake

You can practise these relaxation techniques tonight. You don't need to have a mantra or a special symbol. They can be done in any position, lying flat on the back or on either side. However, there is one important thing to remember, during relaxation 'do not sleep'. While practising relaxation techniques you must think, 'I am not going to sleep'. In yoga, sleep is considered to be one of the vrittis (modifications of the mind). Just as fear is a vritti, worry is a vritti, passion and greed are vrittis, so sleep is also a vritti, a mental pattern. Therefore during relaxation whichever practice is used, try your level best to keep awake and conscious. Be aware of what you are practising. This is where yoga and western psychology differ from each other. Nowadays when people are tense, they take a sedative and go to sleep. In yoga, however, it is just the opposite. If a man is very tired mentally or depressed we give him a technique to fix his mind upon and ask him to be aware.

Many times during relaxation you will not be able to complete the practice because after 3 or 4 rounds you will feel tranquil and enter into sleep. But a yogi does not go to sleep while relaxing the mind. This is called moha nidra, ignorance. If he has decided to practise 51 rounds of alternate breathing, he will complete it and then only will he sleep. The next time you are very tired mentally, remember this. Keep yourself inwardly more aware, rather than trying to escape from realities. Taking a tranquilizer and going to sleep at the moment of anguish is escapism. You must try to face yourself.

Pranayama will revitalize and give you the necessary energy to manage your daily problems and overcome all obstacles on your journey through life. During moments of anxiety, insecurity, fear and passion, instead of fighting with your mind through the intellect, take the help of pranayama and stabilize yourself. Systematic practice of pranayama will also remove diseases of the eyes, nose and throat. It is the way to mental peace, physical health, revitalization and longevity.

Ujjayi and khechari

Ujjayi is one of the most important, yet one of the simplest pranayamas. It is practised by contracting the glottis. When done correctly ujjayi sounds like a cat purring or light snoring. When a healthy child sleeps at night, he always breathes by contracting his glottis, and you can hear the breath in his throat. Ujjayi is a deep breathing practice which induces a meditative state. Ujjayi is perfected by relaxing the breath rather than forcing it. If you concentrate on the throat and relax the breath, you will find that you are breathing through the throat. Of course the breath goes through the nostrils, but the glottis is contracted so there is a light snoring sound.

Ujjayi is usually practised in combination with khechari mudra. Khechari means 'one who moves through space, akasha'. The direct concern of this mudra is to activate the psychic, physiological and endocrine processes responsible for cellular revitalization and longevity. To practise it, simply roll the tongue backwards so that the normally lower surface touches the upper palate. Try to bring the tip as far back as possible. Hold it there for as long as possible, from half a minute to 10 or 20 minutes. If khechari mudra is correctly practised in conjunction with ujjayi over a long period of time, the tongue goes into the upper nasal orifice, in the language of Kabir Das called the 'cave of the sky' where amrit, the nectar of immortality, flows constantly.

Just below the place where Hindus used to keep the sikha-chutia, tuft of hair, there is a centre called bindu chakra. Bindu means 'drop'. This centre is so called because of a small gland there which produces a secretion that is converted into nectar. This crude secretion drops down into a refining centre in the throat called vishuddhi chakra where it is purified. By practising khechari mudra for 2 to 5 years, you will be able to stimulate these 2 important centres. Then nectar will flow, rejuvenating the body. About this Kabir has written:

"When this nectar is tasted all fears, diseases, guilt and ignorance are burned away. Then inside, you will shine like the full moonlit night."

Now when you close your eyes, what do you see? Only darkness. But if you close your eyes when the nectar is flowing, you will see only light. The whole brain, the whole consciousness will be illumined. This is the aim of practising ujjayi with khechari.

Ajapa japa

When you practise ujjayi and khechari you must link the mind with the body and the body with the mind. An association, an interaction between the mind and body is to be created. So we make a passage from the navel up to the throat. Then while practising ujjayi we feel the breath, the consciousness ascending and descending along this path with each inhalation and exhalation. This can be practised with your eyes open or closed, as you like. Just sit down and start breathing in ujjayi. Feel the stream of breath flowing between the navel and throat.

When this is perfected you must discover the sounds of the breath. Each breath produces a sound. If you listen very carefully you will hear the incoming breath as 'so' and the outgoing breath as 'ham'. Your breath is constantly singing the mantra 'soham, soham, soham'. But when you are worried and tense, strangled by worldly affairs, you forget the breath and its natural mantra. Ordinarily man isn't aware of his breathing or of the breath's mantra, 'soham'. If you concentrate on your incoming and outgoing breath, after some time you will discover for yourself the mantra 'soham', the sound of the breath. 'Soham' is the nature of everyone. When 'soham' is reversed, it becomes 'hamso'. This happens when you exhale first (ham) and then inhale (so), 'hamso, hamso, hamso'.

According to yogic scriptures the two mantras of pranayama are 'soham' and 'hamso'. They should be practised first in the passage between the navel and the throat. Later on when you have perfected this, they are practised in the pathway to heaven. Now where are heaven and earth, and what is this path? In yoga the way to heaven is called the path of sushumna. It is when this path is perfected that immortal life is experienced. Physically sushumna is found in the spinal cord. Its starting point is at the root of the tail bone in mooladhara chakra, which symbolizes earth. The top of the spinal cord ends directly behind the eyebrow centre, the spot where Indian women wear a tilak (small coloured dot). This point is known as ajna chakra or the gateway to heaven. Ajna is the guru chakra. It is said that the real guru, the inner guru dwells in ajna chakra.

To practise the advanced stages of ajapa japa, you must learn to rotate the breath through the spinal cord between mooladhara and ajna chakras. Inhale in ujjayi and feel the currents of breath, of prana flowing through the spinal cord right from the bottom, mooladhara, to the top, ajna, When you are exhaling feel the current descending from the top, ajna, through the spinal cord, down to mooladhara at the bottom. This is ajapa japa, a powerful meditative technique.


Meditation is a very dynamic state of mind. It is not a passive state achieved by withdrawing the whole consciousness to a point of zero. Meditation is the process of expanding the whole mind from individual to cosmic consciousness. Our idea of the cosmos is very limited. There is not only one creation, but hundreds and thousands of creations. As long as we are in the land of mind and senses, this world is our cosmos, but when we transcend the mind and senses there is another cosmos. Worlds are infinite and eternal.

Cosmic consciousness is total internal awareness. In meditation when trying to cut off external awareness, often we find ourselves in a land of visions or total forgetfulness, without the seer or self-awareness. This is why specific meditative techniques are necessary; we need to focus our mind on some symbol or form, in order to maintain awareness. The self-awareness which is functioning right now under the garb of name and form, time and space has to be transcended in order to become cosmic. Now you are an individual and your mind functions within a zone, a limited area of time and space. But when you transcend these, only self-awareness remains, if, at the same time, however, you lose your consciousness or self-awareness, you will enter into a zero state, shoonya or void.

The term dynamic meditation applies to inner cosmic awareness. Many people misunderstand meditation; during my early years I was among them. Meditation is not closing your eyes and becoming void, forgetting your family and home, money and profession. No! Meditation is not a process in which you are trying to cut off or erase the mind; meditation is a system of awakening cosmic consciousness. This is why meditation is practised with a specific technique.

Ajapa japa, the previous technique, is a combination of pranayama and meditation. In raja yoga, after pranayama, meditation practices begin. Pranayama is like a door or a gateway. Through pranayama you enter the land of meditation.