Swara Yoga - Part 1: Essence Of The Breath

Swami Muktibodhananda Saraswati

One branch of yoga about which little has been revealed today is swara yoga. The word 'swa' means one's own self, while 'swara' means the breath and pertains to the sound of the breath. Therefore swara yoga is the science of one's own breath.

But why should the breath be so important that a science could have developed from it? Many philosophers, and scientists agree that in the act of breathing, cosmic energies are drawn into the body. Thus the breath becomes the intermediate link between man and the universe, between the gross and subtle realms of existence. Tantra teaches us that whatever exists in the macrocosm exists in the microcosm. So, the individual body is but a replica of the cosmic body, the breath being the mediator of the two.

It is written in the Swara Shastras that analysis and manipulation of the breath brings the consciousness into the transcendental realms and ultimately to enlightenment. However, before this can take place, there is a particular sadhana which has to be perfected dealing with the fundamental functions of the breath. The science of swara explains the significance of the energy pulsing through the body and how to directly utilise, control and equalise the force by the medium of the breath. When control is established and every aspect of man's being works in perfect harmony, a greater power than mere physical energy can be manifested.

Philosophical significance of the breath

The Tantra Shastras and Upanishads state that the subtle life giving energy called prana, and the mental energy of consciousness which is chitta, are absorbed into the body by means of inspiration. The breath is also referred to as the vehicle of the cosmic energy known as Shiva or Brahman according to the Taittitya, Brahmana and Maitri Upanishads. In the Prashnopanishad (Ch.3) it says that: "Prana springs from the Atman and is as inseparable from the self as a shadow from he who casts the shadow."

Even in the Bible (Gen.2:10) it is written : "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathing into his nostrils the breath of life, he became a living soul." This implies that the physical body has been given consciousness and energy through the breath. The breath itself, being imparted by the cosmic self, thus contains the cosmic force.

Taoism also expresses the same view that "by meditating on the breath, the cosmic deities or forces can be seen manifested inside the body. By sustaining oneself on the breath rather than on coarse food, one can be purified and strengthened. Thus the consciousness is able to ascend to the heavens where eternal life is experienced by the body and the soul."

In the Swara Shastras it is written that if the breath can be analysed and its significance understood, deeper knowledge of the cosmos will unfold and the knowledge of the Vedas can be realised. These shastras declare that the science of swara was first imparted by Lord Shiva to his disciple Parvati, saying that in all the seven lokas he knew 'no greater wisdom or treasure than swara.' Shiva is the guru representing pure consciousness while Parvati symbolises the individual consciousness, or jiva. This implies that the individual consciousness can perceive cosmic consciousness by means of swara.

Accordingly, it is said that the breath, carrying both prana (vital energy) and chitta (consciousness) vibrates from the force of these energies and sound is thereby produced. The Yoga Chudamani Upanishad (V. 31-33) explains that: "The breath goes out making the sound Ham and comes in producing the sound of So. The jiva is therefore repeating the mantra Hamso continually 21,000 times, twenty four hours a day. This is called ajapa japa." If one listens carefully to his breath he may hear the sound of Hamso or Soham. Further, the Upanishads declare that constant awareness of this japa of the breath can free man from all karmas. So this is the philosophical significance of the power of swara.

Prana - light of the ages

All the ancient texts refer to the subtle and vital life giving force called prana, which is described as being similar in nature to lightning. Solely due to prana, the whole universe exists and without its presence no creature can live. Although prana exists in the air and in all forms of matter, it is neither of the two. Nor is prana the breath, but it is contained within the breath, being a part of the swara.

Prana maintains all organic life. Just as a battery stores electrical energy, so it is essential for every organism to store prana in order to enable activity and mobility. By practising swara yoga, the store of prana can be increased, thereby activating the latent areas of the brain. Swara yoga directly controls the input and output of prana, enabling us to regulate our whole physiological system.

During the last half of this century, many renowned scientists have been delving into the nature of this pranic phenomenon, and it seems that they have finally come up with a feasible explanation. Recent studies have shown the atmosphere to be charged with electromagnetic ions from which all organisms absorb vital energy essential for preservation. The functioning of these ions has been observed to correlate with the ancient yogic concept of prana. Therefore, in order to help us understand swara yoga, the study of prana and its control, let us examine the theory of ions.

Electromagnetic fields and ions

It appears that the equivalent of pranic transmission can be found in the electromagnetic fields emanating from throughout the body. These are referred to by scientists and doctors as a type of bio-energy or bio-electricity. As early as the 18th century, Luigi Galvani observed the existence of energy fields when he wired up a frog's leg to two conducting rods, and witnessed the energy that pulsated between them. Discovery of Kirlian photography has enabled scientists to actually see the corona of these fields.

Today we are all aware of electric currents flowing through wire cables, but this energy has been artificially harnessed by man. Primarily, energy is inherent in the atmosphere, which geophysicists have only recently begun to explore. Although the discovery of electromagnetic ions has revived interest in the ancient science of swara yoga, the rishis who first developed this science were well aware of the principles of energy fields without requiring the aid of modern technology.

The advent of outer space exploration has brought science's attention to electromagnetic fields in the atmosphere which are conducted by the earth. These fields consist of positively and negatively charged fragments of molecules known as ions, upon which life is dependent for producing energy. A negative ion has the charge of one electron, and a positive ion the charge of one proton. Of the two, negative ions are the most active electrically.

Negative ions are produced by solar radiations in the upper layers of the atmosphere and are attracted towards the earth by positive ions. During their descent they become trapped by oxygen or nitrogen particles and thereby unite with them. As we breathe, our cells are automatically energised by the electrical charges of these ions in the air.

In this way we can visualise the earth as an enormous magnet, generating electromagnetic fields from its opposite poles. The northern and eastern hemispheres are positively charged while the southern and western hemispheres are negatively charged. These fields both attract and repulse ions, causing a current of movement around the terrestrial plane. Only recently these fields were found to vibrate through the physical body also, creating a flow of energy from one organ to the other.

Positive and negative poles

The body also assumes electromagnetic properties and can be divided into opposite poles. According to yogic texts, the upper part of the body corresponds to the positive, northern pole and the lower part to the negative, southern pole. The right side and back portions are also positive poles and the left and frontal portions are negative poles.

This is well illustrated by a case reported in an American theosophical journal concerning a ten year old boy from Minnesota whose body developed definite magnetic qualities. The doctors were amazed to witness lightweight metallic objects attracted to his left side, and in particular to his left hand, while the right side of his body remained unaffected. Of course, to the yogi, this is not strange. He is aware of prana entering through the left side, especially the left hand, drawing magnetic substances towards it, and the right side of the body expelling and repelling. Ordinarily, however, the current is not so strong.

These positive and negative charges of energy are the basis of swara yoga. The ancient rishis called the negative flow ida and the positive flow pingala. By controlling these currents, modern technology has developed the means of generating enormous amounts of electrical energy and even the ability to artificially ionise the air.

Similarly, the rishis of yore knew the techniques to channelize bio-energy or prana throughout the body. Just as electrical power is at our disposal by connecting a switch to the main power line, so the rishis knew how to connect the switches and circuits of energy in the body. They understood that the flow of energy, whether internal or external, is constantly being circulated from the more highly charged to the lesser charged centres in order to create a balance between the positive and negative poles. Swara yoga teaches us to manipulate the flow of breath through the nostrils, thereby controlling the energy switches in our own body which regulate the flow of positive and negative currents. It is by balancing these two poles of energy that the yogi brings about the awakening of kundalini, the high powered generator which illumines the fabulous, hitherto unexplored areas of the brain responsible for all of man's ingenuity, higher knowledge and self-realization.