Prana and Pranayama

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati, Ganga Darshan, 26.11.1987

We have a very peculiar concept about pranayama being simply a practice of breathing. There are also many other aspects of pranayama, like the influences of the breath on body, mind and psyche, and then there is the aspect of prana.

There are two different things - the breath is separate from prana, and prana is separate from the air which we breathe. Prana has a definite influence on the physical body, on the brain, consciousness and energy, but before we go into this topic we first have to understand exactly what prana is. I will give you one living example to explain prana. It is absolutely true.

It concerns research done by the Meninger Foundation in the United States, involving a Swami by the name of Nadabrahmananda who was put in an airtight glass cage with a monkey and a burning candle. The swami was asked to practise Kumbhaka (internal breath retention) and at the same time to play the tabla. The researchers plugged his nose, ears and mouth. There was not the remotest possibility of him breathing through any of the holes in his body. When they shut the cage, the candle-flame burnt out after about three or four minutes while the monkey fell down unconscious after fifteen minutes, but the swami continued to play the tabla in the state of internal breath retention for forty-five minutes continuously.

This seems to destroy the theory that breath is related to prana, for the swami said that while he was practising kumbhaka he was only aware of a type of energy moving throughout his body. He was not aware of any agitation of the heart nor high blood pressure, for when you retain the breath for an extended period of time there is just plain awareness of energy pulsating throughout the body. He felt that there was no need to breathe at all. He could have continued for a very long time without breathing, longer than forty-five minutes.

Yoga makes it very clear that prana is a form of energy which is generated within the body and it depends a lot on the state of the mind, consciousness, emotions and thoughts as well as the positive and negative aspects of the personality. This is known as the awakening of prana. Once you are able to awaken the pranic energy the breath will automatically cease, but of course, it requires a lot of practice to perfect kumbhaka.

We have to remember that, although pranayama is a simple technique of inhalation and exhalation, internal breath retention and external breath retention, many physiological and psychological changes take place within the body and we have to become aware of them. First of all, let us consider the breath. We know that through the breath we can alter the function of our nervous and cardiovascular systems and the brain, and induce a state of relaxation. We can also induce a state of tension in the body and brain.

The process of inhalation creates some physical resistance and this resistance or tension is not limited to the body alone but also affects the mind. When we exhale we eliminate that tension, that build-up of energy, and we reach a state of tranquillity by observing the breath. By means of the breath we can control the level of tension whether it is muscular, nervous or emotional. How can simply changing the pattern of the breath influence the sympathetic or the parasympathetic nervous system, or the right and left hemispheres of the brain, or the ida and pingala aspect of energy within our personality?

Many people believed that when we practise pranayama there is a build-up of oxygen in our system and that this oxygen is transferred to the brain which becomes active, but many studies have shown that we do not increase the quantity of oxygen in the system, in the blood, or in the brain, but that we eliminate toxins from the body, either in the form of heat, or in the form of sweat. Many times we experience this when we practise bhastrika pranayama for an extended period. Through the process of breathing also we eliminate CO2 and so naturally we will feel that the level of oxygen is increasing.

I will give you one example: if the quantity of oxygen within the body is ten per cent and the quantity of toxins within the body is eight per cent, we consider that we have two per cent of oxygen, but if through the practice of pranayama we reduce the quantity of toxins in our system by four per cent, the oxygen quantity will increase to six per cent. This is what actually happens at the time of pranayama. Through the purification of toxins there is a feeling of energy, lightness, vitality, stamina, clarity of mind and perceptions, and maximum performance of the brain. This is one aspect of pranayama.

The second aspect of pranayama is that when we breathe the air from our environment we inhale the positive and negative ions into the body, regardless of the quantity of these ions. A scientist might say that in the air there are five hundred particles of negative ions per square centimetre, which make us feel very light, fresh, energetic and vibrant. Whenever we go to the mountainside, and even after a thunderstorm, the air is charged with electricity which is known as negative ions. When we perform pranayama, even if we do it in a room, after some time we will create a type of static electricity within the body. If we draw a comb or brush through our hair, it becomes electrically charged with static electricity and you can lift up pieces of paper with it.

The same principle applies with pranayama also. We generate a type of static electricity within the body which attracts negative ions from the environment into our system, therefore even in a confined space, in a closed room where there are not many negative ions per square centimetre, after the practice of pranayama, we will still feel vibrant, energetic and light, because we have built up this form of static energy which is attracting the negative ions from the environment.

The third aspect of pranayama relates to the nervous system. Those people who have practised Swara Yoga and who are therefore more aware of their breathing process must know that the breath constantly changes its pattern of flow in the nostrils. Sometimes one nostril is clear, open and flowing while the other is blocked, and vice versa - these two flows change periodically. Each flow is related to a particular type of experience of the nervous system. When our sympathetic nervous system is active the physical performance is different. One is more extrovert, dynamic, outgoing, alert and aware - very much in the world. When the breath is flowing in the other nostril which influences the parasympathetic nervous system, then we feel more relaxed, tranquil, peaceful, more inside ourselves rather than outside, and this is very noticeable in respect to people who suffer from mental problems.

In the States where they taught pranayama to mentally disturbed people (hyper-actives), they found that by the practice of nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) only, they were able to bring down the hyperactivity of the sufferer and also induce a state of tranquillity. Pranayama was taught to catatonics (depressives) - if one of their arms is up, it will remain like that for hours without their bringing it down, or you will have to bring the hand down. Then again it will go up. They have practically no control over their external physiological expression or movement. Of course, first with the help of drugs, we extrovert the mind, because in this severely introverted state it is very difficult for an individual to practise pranayama. Some kind of stimulant is injected into their system and they become externalised. After their mind is externalised they are taught pranayama which activates the sympathetic nervous system and brings them out -bhastrika, surya bheda pranayama. They found that if these practices are done carefully and systematically, they become very effective. So, the effect of pranayama on the nervous system is a very big subject in itself.

Then comes another aspect - the brain. There are two things to look at here. One is the electrical activity of the brain, the other is the performance of the right and left hemispheres of the brain. We can understand electrical activity of the brain, because the more we become involved with the external world, with external day-to-day affairs, the more tense we become, the greater is the frequency of beta waves - so many cycles-per-second, between twenty to thirty. This reduces the efficiency of the mind. It diverts the mind in many directions. In our life, we have experienced it, we cannot decide for ourselves, because there are too many wants, too many likes and dislikes, too many ambitions! So we are never really relaxed.

Relaxation does not mean lying flat, closing the eyes and mentally going off to some place. Relaxation in Yoga means having control over the activity of the brain, because through the brain you can control the body, through the brain you can control the functions of the mind. This is why, after you lie in the prone position of shavasana, during Yoga Nidra or between asana you are especially asked to observe the breath. There is no other reason behind it. If this were not the reason, we would ask you to fantasise about anything, which may not be related with the breath at all - see a shiva lingam in your forehead for example. You will achieve relaxation by concentrating on a shiva lingam at the eyebrow centre but the state of relaxation of the brain will not be the same, and you will not be able to control the electrical impulses of the brain consciously.

Those of you who have used the biofeedback system, who have seen your brain waves and have will fully tried to change their frequency, by learning how to relax the muscles, control the breath, or divert the mind from the most immediate problem to another experience, will know how the frequency changes, how one brain wave is superimposed on another. This is exactly what happens when we practise pranayama in a state of mental conflict, tension and frustration.

There is a gradual reduction of the beta waves, but that does not mean that your alpha waves will increase. There are practices of pranayama in which you by-pass your alpha waves, theta waves and delta waves. From beta you go straight to shoonya - no activity!

This has been experimented upon by many good researchers and swamis. I had the opportunity to see the experiment of how a pranayama practitioner could go straight into the state of shoonya directly from beta waves without passing through the alpha, delta and theta phases. The experiment was done by the same sannyasin in the cage who stopped breathing for forty-five minutes and is a very great achievement.

The next aspect I want to cover is the right and the left hemispheres of the brain. There are many theories concerning this. We say that the right hemisphere has a certain area of performance and the left hemisphere has its own definite area of performance. Rationality, awareness, dynamism, tranquillity - these are all functions of the different brain hemispheres. The performance of the hemispheres changes according to the alternating flow of ida and pingala. Ida and pingala here does not mean the flow of breath in the right nostril or left nostril, but the flow and volume of prana, the quantity of prana within the system.

You know the example of a magnet attracting metal. If you put some type of thick paper in front of it, it will still attract metal but not as strongly as before. The greater the barrier in front of the magnet, the less its efficiency. The flow of ida and pingala is something like this. The more you remove the blocks from these pranic flows, (I am not using the word "toxins" I am using the word "blocks"), their magnetic power will increase. What are these blocks? Tension is one of them definitely. Emotional problems are certainly another one. The state of mind, "I want this but I cannot have it" and the state of suppression are others. It is removal of these different psychological blocks which increases the quantum of the ida and pingala flows and they, in turn, will affect the performance of the mind, intelligence, emotions and behaviour.

The fact that some people who are right-handed or left-handed, or who are more linear in their way of thinking, or who have the ability to visualise thing's can be understood more effectively when we take these facts into consideration. But more than this, it can be transcended, after we have achieved harmony between the left and right hemispheres of the brain through the practice of pranayama, by equalising the flow of ida and pingala.

Now let us consider the expansion of the pranic field - pranamaya kosha. We may have noticed that there is a time of the day when the biorhythms of the body, mind and emotions reach their optimum, and a time when they come to their lowest ebb. In the morning we often feel tired, even after eight or ten hours of sleep, because the energy level is low. There are periods in the afternoon when we feel tired because our energy level is low, but after some time, we again feel energetic. Ten or twenty minutes ago, I was feeling tired, but now again I am feeling energetic, why? I did not go to sleep. I did not go to bed. I did not do anything. It is a general experience related to the biorhythms of the body, intellect or emotions which have again come up.

These biorhythms are not related to the charts we buy in the market, the nineteen, twenty one, or twenty-three-day-cycle biorhythm, not the biorhythm book in which you use your birth date and the present date, etc. It is a very simple fact related with the breath and prana. Just as the flow of breath changes in each nostril every forty-five minutes to one hour; just as the flow of prana increases in the ida and pingala passages from time to time, at a certain time of the day the nervous system, the respiratory system, the brain, the emotions the mind, the prana, all go up or down according to the cycle, and the pranamaya kosha is affected by the fluctuation of these biorhythms.

It is in fact our inability to maintain a state of harmony in the level of prana which makes us feel tired, exhausted, depleted of energy. If we were able to maintain a constant level of prana, no matter how tired our body became, we might be panting and sweating, and our muscles aching, but we would not collapse because of exhaustion. We would undergo the symptoms of fatigue, but we would recuperate very quickly. Prana combats this accumulation of various acids, hormones and toxins within the body. The accumulation of lactic acid within the muscles as they get tired, as well as the constant flow of adrenaline, which can be corrected and controlled through prana alone.

So, from when we wake up in the morning to when we go to bed at night, our body and mind and pranic level undergo many ups and downs, but if we are somehow able to increase the level of prana again we will overcome the tiredness, the lethargy, the laziness, the feeling of exhaustion and again be completely awake, alert, tranquil and relaxed, without any after effect. You know what type of after-effect I am referring to. If we do not sleep for one night, the next morning we say, 'My nerves are shot. I cannot do things properly. I cannot think properly. I am trembling. I am having this experience. I am having that experience'.

Some time back, some swamis and doctors did an experiment in Australia with the Kirlian system. Every morning they used to wake up, take a print of their hands and see the emission of the electromagnetic energy or prana and note the colours. Everyone gives a different name to this energy, some call it aura, some call it bio-magnetic field, some call it by other fancy names, but for our understanding let us call it prana. Then they went about their normal work. The doctors went to the hospital, the swamis went to teach Yoga. There were about six or seven people in the experiment. In the evening, as soon as they returned, they took fresh prints and compared them with the morning prints.

The morning prints showed an emission of three quarters of an inch in length, because people were relaxed. Everybody had slept without tension. At night however some people showed no emission at all, because they had given out a lot of energy during the day and accumulated much tension. They were mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted. Now came the most difficult but interesting part. For one day through the practice of asana they used to try to increase the prana in their system, and observe through the photos how much it used to increase after five minutes of asana, then another asana, then another. They selected five asana only. The next week they tried with pranayama only - five pranayama, one each day. Then they used mudras and bandhas (moola bandha, jalandhara bandha, uddiyana bandha) and the corresponding mudra (ashwini mudra, vajroli mudra, agnisar kriya, etc.) then Yoga Nidra, then pratyahara, Ajapa Japa, mantra and breath visualisation.

They found that with each practice they were able to increase the quantity of prana and in the emission of prana from various parts of the body, especially from the fingers, they could see a very noticeable difference before, after and during the experiment.

Of course, as we know that we are surrounded by the pranic body or field, and as we become emotionally and physically tired, the energy is utilised to again rejuvenate the energy within our system. When we are unable to rejuvenate the prana within our system we sleep, or we try to direct our mind. If we could rejuvenate the prana through various Yoga practices we could prevent the daily stress from affecting the performance of our body and mind. The most important practice of pranayama was surya bheda pranayama, sympathetic nostril breathing. Five rounds of this and they were again as active as in the morning.

So, these are some of the studies that have been taking place in many different parts of the world.

Mind you, this work is not yet complete, because we are still learning about the mental and emotional aspect of it, how we can influence our emotions - the feeling of anger, love and harmony, joy or greed and envy. These are things that we can definitely control and transform through the practice of pranayama, and some studies have been made. We are learning about the psychic aspect of it also, the effect of pranayama on the conscious, subconscious and unconscious mind. Many studies have so far been done but pranayama is a very lengthy topic and there are still other aspects which I have not covered here.