What is Pranayama?

Pranayama is the perfect control of the life-currents through control of breath, and is the process by which we understand the secret of prana and manipulate it. You can hardly make any spiritual progress without the practice of pranayama. One who has grasped this prana has grasped the very core of cosmic life and activity. Through various exercises and training in pranayama the yogi tries to realize in this little body the whole of cosmic life, and attain perfection.

Breath is a physical aspect or external manifestation of prana, the vital force, and thus pranayama begins with the regulation of the breath. Breath, like electricity, is gross prana, while prana itself is subtle. By controlling the breath you can control the prana – just as you can control the other wheels by controlling or stopping the fly wheel of a diesel engine, and just as you can control the hairspring, cog wheels and the main spring of a watch by controlling the minute hand. Control of breath is achieved through manipulation of the lungs and the breathing process.

The lungs and the breathing process

The organs of respiration consist of two lungs, one on either side of the chest and the air passages that lead to them. The lungs are located in the upper thoracic cavity of the chest, one on each side of the median line, and are separated from each other by the heart, the greater blood vessels and the larger air tubes. The lungs are spongy, porous, and their tissues are very elastic, containing innumerable air-sacs or alveoli. Each lung consists of an apex and a base. The base is directed towards the diaphragm, the muscular septum, the dividing wall between chest and the abdomen.

The air passage consists of the interior of the nose, pharynx or throat, larynx or voice box, trachea or windpipe, right and left bronchi and the smaller bronchial tubes. When we breathe, we draw in the air through the nose and after it has passed through the pharynx and larynx, it passes into the windpipe, thence into the right and left bronchial tubes, which in turn, subdivide into innumerable smaller tubes called bronchioles, which terminate in minute subdivisions in the millions of small air-sacs of the lungs. When spread out over an unbroken surface, these air-sacs of the lungs would cover an area of 1,40,000 square feet.

The air is drawn into the lungs by the action of the diaphragm. When it expands, the size of the chest and the lungs is increased and the outside air rushes into the vacuum thus created. The chest and lungs contract when the diaphragm relaxes and the air is expelled from the lungs.

The lungs purify the blood. The blood starts in its arterial journey, bright red and richly laden with life-giving qualities and properties. It returns by the venous route, blue, laden with the waste matter of the system. From the right side of the heart the impure blood goes to the lungs, for purification. It is distributed among the millions of tiny air cells of the lungs. A breath of air is inhaled and the oxygen of the air comes in contact with the impure blood through the thin walls of the hair-like blood vessels of the lungs called pulmonary capillaries. The walls of the capillaries are very thin, like muslin cloth, and thus oxygen easily penetrates through the walls of these thin capillaries.

When the oxygen comes in contact with the tissues, a form of combustion takes place. The blood takes up oxygen and releases carbonic acid gas generated from the waste products and poisonous matter which have been gathered by the blood from all parts of the system. The purified blood passes into the different arteries of the body. It is estimated that in a day 35,000 pints of blood traverse the capillaries of the lungs for purification.

By controlling the motion of the lungs or respiratory organs, we can control the prana that is vibrating inside. The mind is fastened to prana, like a bird to a string; therefore, by control of prana, the mind can be easily controlled. Just as the bird that is tied to a post by a string, after flying here and there, finds its resting place on the post, so also this mind-bird after running hither and thither, to various sensual objects, finds its resting place during deep sleep in prana.

Beginning pranayama

You can take up the practice of pranayama after you have gained steadiness in your asana, seat or sitting posture. If you can sit for three hours in one asana continuously at one stretch, you have gained mastery over the asana. If you are able to sit from half to one hour even, you can take up the practice of pranayama.

An ardent enthusiastic student, with zeal, cheerfulness and tenacity, can acquire siddhi, perfection, within six months; while a happy-go-lucky practitioner with drowsiness and laziness will find no improvement ever after eight or ten years.

Plod on. Persevere with patience, faith, confidence, expectation, interest and attention. You are bound to succeed. Nil desperandum – never despair.

Inhalation, exhalation and retention

Pranayama has three components: the external breath, the internal breath and the steady state in between the two. When the breath is expired, it is rechaka, the first kind of pranayama. When the breath is drawn in, it is the second, termed pooraka. When the breath is suspended, it is the third kind, called kumbhaka, or retention of breath.

Kumbhaka increases the life-span of an individual. It augments the inner spiritual force, vigour and vitality. If you retain the breath for one minute, this one minute is added to your span of life. By taking the breath to the brahmarandhra, the fontanelle at the top of the head (said to be the connecting point between the spirit and the body) and keeping it there, the yogi can defeat the lord of death, Yama, and conquer death.

In the practice of pranayama, rechaka, pooraka and kumbhaka, are controlled and regulated by space, time and number.

The space of the breath

‘Space’ refers to whether the breath is inside or outside of the body, the length of the breath, and if the prana is held in some particular part of the body. During both inhalation and exhalation, the distance to which the breath extends inside or outside the body varies. This variation accords with the tattwa which is pervading at the time of practice. The length of the breath is respectively 12, 16, 4, 8, 0 angulas, finger-breadths, according to whether the tattwa – prithvi, apas, tejas, vayu or akasha (earth, water, fire, air, ether or space) is predominant at that time.

The ‘place’ or ‘space’ of exhalation lies within 12 angulas of the tip of the nose. This can be measured using a piece of reed or cotton. The place of inhalation ranges from the head down to the soles of the feet and can be felt through a sensation similar to the touch of an ant. The place of kumbhaka consists of the places of both exhalation and inhalation combined, because the breath can be retained at either or both of these places.

The time of breath

The duration of the inhalation, exhalation or retention is generally counted in matras (approximately a second). But here the ‘time’ also refers to how long the prana should be fixed in a particular centre or part. There are three types of pranayama categorized by duration: adhama or inferior, madhyama middle and uttama superior. Vachaspati describes them thus, “Measured by 36 matras, is the first attempt, udghata, which is mild. Twice that is the second, which is middling. Thrice that is the third, which is intense. This is the pranayama as measured by number.”

Adhama pranayama consists of a count of 12 matras, madhyama consists of 24 matras and the uttama occupies a time of 32 matras. This count is for pooraka in each case.

The ratio between pooraka, kumbhaka and rechaka is 1:4:2. So, if you inhale for a period of 12 matras you will have to maintain kumbhaka for a period of 48 matras and then the time for rechaka will be 24 matras. This count is for adhama pranayama, but the same rule applies to the other two varieties.

Extending the matra needs to be done gradually, first practise adhama for a month, then madhyama for three months, and finally begin uttama.

Number of pranayama

‘Number’ refers to the number of times the pranayama is performed, and thus is long or short according to the period of time it is practised. Just as water, thrown on a hot pan shrivels upon all sides as it is being dried up, so also air, moving in or out ceases its action by a strong effort of restraint in kumbhaka, and stays within. The yogic student should slowly take the number of pranayamas up to 80 in one sitting. He should have four sittings: in the morning, noon, evening and midnight, and should practise thus 320 pranayamas in all.

The fourth stage

After gradual mastery over these preliminary three kinds of pranayama, the fourth kind arises, where the breath is restrained by directing it to an external or internal object, “Bahyabhyantara vishayakshepi chaturthah” (Yoga Sutras 11:50). This stage involves fixing the prana in the various padmas, lotuses, of the chakras, and taking it slowly, and slowly, step by step, and stage by stage to the last lotus in the head, where perfect samadhi takes place. This is internal. In this fourth variety, one reaches different states of perfection, as it is being performed over time. After one stage is mastered, the next stage is taken up and practised.