Pranayam- Breathing for health and consciousness
Pranayam very simply put can be termed as breathing exercises. The word Prana means vital life force and Yam means control. Hence pranayam means establishing control over our life force. Another explanation is pra means first unit na means life and ayam means expansion, hence pranayam means the expansion of the first unit of life or in simple words of vital life force and consciousness.
Yogah is the science of controlling the mind to achieve higher states of consciousness. (Yogah is not a set of physical exercises commonly called Asans as is understood by most people.) To have a higher level of consciousness means to develop one’s intellect and to have more love and compassion for all beings around us.
Most of us take our breath for granted and normally we rarely pay much attention to our breathing, but we can take the breath voluntarily or involuntarily. For almost all humans, except for the rare yogi, the breathing remains involuntary however for some yogis the breathing is voluntary and they have complete control over each breath.
Our modern system of education is designed to give us a spirit of enquiry, yet the truth is that we fail to enquire or understand that which cannot be measured by our machines. Though the modern world has created and uses very sophisticated instruments and technologies, yet there are many things that remain immeasurable. Our latest equipment can via satellite and related technologies, photograph and record events occurring in another part of the world and at almost the same time, relay all these events to us. But can this sophisticated technology tell you how much your husband or your wife loves you? Emotions among many other things remain difficult to measure.
Though some modern equipment may measure the breath but it has its limits to what it measures. From the Yogic point of view like many other things the breath too cannot be measured by modern science nor is the impact of the quality of the breath understood by it. The only instrument that can measure the breath is the human mind. The breath has the quality of becoming subtle as one regularly practices yogah. In turn the mind too becomes subtle and therefore it can continue to observe the breath. In the world a good mind is considered as a sharp mind but in Yogah it is the subtle mind that is valued. In Yoga there are two different fields of knowledge that deal with breath. One deals with controlling the breath by performing many physical exercises that is known as Pranayam. The other deals with the mind body complex and is called Shiv Swarodaya or Swar Yogah the science of breathing rhythms.
I would also like to point out that the sciences associated with the breath and meditation on the breath are all beyond any form of religion or associated paraphernalia. The breath is just pure breath, pure consciousness, pure life force. It is not Christian or Hindu or Jew or Muslim or anything else except our life force, for there is no life without breath.
The importance of breath was understood in depth by the Rishis, the Siddhas and the adepts of the science of Yogah. These people experimented with the breath, discovering and perfecting various practices. These practices were passed on through each generation of the Guru Shishya Parampara (Teacher-Student Tradition) and are preserved and in use to this day and age.
Pranayam is the science of manipulating the breath voluntarily or one may very simply call it breathing exercises. In the Yog Sutras Maharishi Patanjali gives the Ashtanga process of Yogah. The sequence is as follows: Yam, Niyam, Asan, Pranayam, Pratyahar, Dharana, Dhyan, and Samadhi. Each step supports the next; therefore logically we can conclude that each step must lead to the next. The most important result of yogic practices is the stage of Meditation. It is not the stage of exuberant hyperactivity but rather a calm composed state of the mind, a mind that is focussed and in control of itself, not a mind that is entertained, amused or scattered.
The regular practice of Pranayam gives the following:
- It helps in clearing the mind.
- It helps focus the mind.
- Correctly done pranayam leads to removal of diseases of the body and mind.
- Helps in reducing Blood Pressure.
- Many people are known to lose weight.
- Resolves psychosomatic diseases.
- Helps manage and cure diseases of the lungs as well as asthma.
- Pranayam if done regularly is known to lengthen the life span.
- It removes stress from the mind and body.
- Helps control mood swings.
- Helps remove depression.
- Makes a person more alert.
- Makes a person more relaxed.
- Helps in developing a better memory.
- It helps in achieving a state of calm.
- Helps in changing one’s habits to develop positive habits.
- Makes the practitioner more effective and efficient in work.
- Helps establish control on the mind.
- Acts as an aid to one on the spiritual path and helps in deepening the peace within.
- Concentrates vital life force or prana.
- Helps to awaken Kundalini Shakti.
- Helps achieve deeper states of meditation.
- Increases consciousness and that leads to develop higher intelligence.
Pranayam is a science and hence should be treated like one. It must be practised very precisely and meticulously to receive lasting results.
If one is to read the Yog sutras carefully, the definition of Asan is that pose in which one can sit in a stable position and comfortably or in peace. Pranayam here is also looked upon as the control over the prana. In a certain sense the sutra speaks of slowing the breath by means of making it subtle or one could even say the reverse, making the breath subtle so that it slows down. It also indicates progression to subtler levels of the mind and eventually to nirodh or cessation of the modifications of the mind. The Hatha Yog Pradipika on the other hand deals with the Kriyas or the practices and processes of controlling the body and the prana and thereby the mind. Incidentally the Yog Sutras define Kriya yogah as Tapas, Svadhyaya, and Ishvarpranidhana and not as the form of Kriya Yogah that is a combination of hatha yogah and pranayam that most people know it to be.
By the grace of my masters and the transmissions that I have received through the lineage, I was taught to reach a level of calm and a meditative state through these practices. If done correctly, one can usually feel a gentle flow of energy all over the mind and body. The mind becomes rested and subtle. The mind then wants to fall into meditation, into a silence. This silence is the result of Pranayam, it is the pratyahar, it is the withdrawal of the mind from the surroundings. Pranayam is an excellent practice that helps to deepen meditation. Meditation in the simplest terms could be understood as stilling the mind.
One of the debates that I come across often relates to whether one has to practice asans before pranayam. The word asan however in common usage has many meanings. It means 1) pose in which one sits 2) exercises or poses that one does 3)The cloth or the seat that one sits on to perform spiritual practices. As one can see the yoga sutras defines Asan as a comfortable and steady posture. There are many simple sitting positions that are easy for most people such as the Vajra asan and the Sukh asan. It is easy to sit in these for long periods and no special practice of asans(physical exercises) is required, however if one does other asans (for health) then these help by developing the system holistically. One can even, simply sit in a chair with the spine, neck and head straight and practice these exercises. Nobody is excluded from practising pranayam except for the young under 14-15 years (who too may do pranayam but only under strict supervision), or perhaps people with unusual physical handicaps. There are some simple exercises that one can even practice while lying down on a bed.
One of the side effects of most genuine spiritual practices is that they help the mind and body by relaxing them and thereby removing the psychosomatic reasons for many diseases. Pranayam, Meditation and Yogah help to combat heart disease, stress, and several other ailments. Pranayam also gives enormous health benefits to people with asthma or other lung problems.
Pranayam if done correctly as a side effect, extends life to very lengthy periods. One of the Yogis I met in the year 2000 practised Pranayam and Kriya Yogah. He was about 165 years at that time. The key to this lengthened age lies in control over the prana.
On the other hand, if done incorrectly, pranayam can have negative effects too, so pranayam must be learned from a master who has received it through the tradition as there are numerous subtle key instructions that are to be taken into consideration while practising pranayam. Often I have observed that people who have not practised pranayam for extended periods under proper guidance commit many mistakes. Some people may feel-what can one possibly do wrong while breathing? but this is not so. Pranayam is a very powerful system that shows very quick results, the more powerful the system, the more likely that a small mistake in its practice will cause large damage. The mind is closely related to the breathing. In fact, Yogis say that the breath and the mind are two sides of the same coin. So a change in breathing pattern affects the mind. Incorrect breathing for extended periods leads to many mental and hence physical problems. Correct breathing resolves them. The mind, the body and breath are closely interrelated. A change in one affects the other but each at its own level needs individual attention, none can be ignored.
The origin of Pranayam is the system of Yoga in India. Pranayam has become so popular that world wide it is being used under different names even by doctors to provide health care to people especially heart patients. However not all the exercises being taught are correct as many people have not undergone the systematic training that pranayam needs. A small change seems insignificant but in reality it alters things in a big way. At take off, turn an aircraft only one degree and you will reach somewhere else. So pranayam must be done precisely. For example retention of breath affects the pulse rate and strains the heart. It also puts pressure on the spine. Thus people with heart problems and spinal injuries should not do retention. In our tradition we rarely do breath retention.
Another point relates to any system and especially a spiritual system, being the Master-Student relationship. All spiritual practices must be received through the tradition and the master. The correct technique is one reason, often an overemphasized one, but there are many others too. The master has a higher level of consciousness. When one practices with a master who has higher consciousness then there is a change in the level of consciousness of the student. On one’s own it would take a very long time to reach that depth. The master has experience too as he has himself/herself done these practices. Like medicine, one has to understand how much is enough, and that can be very subjective, meaning it has to be appropriate. It may be too much or too little. The Master is able to see the psychological state as well as the needs of the student and will tell him what to do and what to avoid. At the appropriate time he will change the instructions by adding or removing the practices. Without the master the process becomes a trial and error method which is a very expensive way of learning. Without guidance, with pranayam and most spiritual practices the expense is often at the cost of one’s health and well being. As they say, if knowledge is expensive, try ignorance.
Most people take breath for granted and almost never pay any attention to it. A majority of people breathe incorrectly. Usually people breathe shallow through the chest, while many others breathe with the movement occurring in the lower abdomen; however the correct way to breathe is through the diaphragm. There are some specific exercises including sand bag breathing, as well as asans that help to rectify the incorrect breathing process so that our breathing is established correctly. If one observes a baby usually we will find that the breath is diaphragmatic. But most of us during our life forget proper breathing and consider it an involuntary function. Diaphragmatic breathing leads to better and more effective exchange of Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide. If proper breathing has the effect of a healthier life then improper breathing on its part leads to many ailments.
If one observes one’s breath you will see that the breath alternates between one nostril to the other, changing its course between every one hour to two and a half hours. If you were to meditate regularly on the breath, you will observe that in the beginning it may be hard but over time it will become soft and will seem to flow easily. You will find it has various patterns; sometimes it will be hard or heavy, sometimes soft. Sometimes you may feel it is longer, at other times shorter. And there comes a time when the breath is so subtle that the mind has difficulty in observing it. As we observe our breath it becomes subtler and subtler and at some point in time vanishes entirely. As we can see it is important to understand the process of breathing. There is so much more to it.
If we had to observe the pattern of the breath we would realise that the breathing changes its pattern during different activities. For example the breathing becomes longer and heavier during our sleep. Though the breath is heavier yet it is longer, however when we run we will observe that our breath becomes heavier but it slowly becomes shorter as we run out of oxygen. When we wake up after sleep mostly the mind is calm and rested, in the same way after a run most people find their mind to be calmer. It is the change in the length of the breath that calms the mind. A long walk in the open air will often calm the mind too, but most of us focus on the physical aspect of the walk but almost nobody pays any attention to the change in our pattern of breathing, but really, as we walk the pattern of our breathing changes too.
There has been an effort in some quarters of the researchers to say that pranayam helps by oxygenating the body and as we breath deeper we take in more air and hence more oxygen. They say that this calms the mind. Actually this is not a fact. One of the things that pranayam does by means of deep breathing exercises and other techniques is to expand the capacity of the lungs. As far as what concerns the oxygen levels most people focus on the oxygen but forget that at the same time there occurs an exchange between oxygen and carbon dioxide. As one breathes in deeper, if he is taking in more oxygen at the same time there is a build up of carbon dioxide as the process of exchange is a continuous one. The lungs have a limited capacity but more than that the blood has its limit to the amounts of oxygen and carbon dioxide that it holds. Most oxygen measuring apparatus will tell you that the oxygen level in the blood of most people remains between a very high but narrow percentage range. If the oxygen level falls below this range then the person becomes sick. A person with lower oxygen levels has health problems such as Asthma or Emphysema.
Though it is good to focus on the oxygen levels but we cannot ignore the carbon dioxide levels in the blood stream. There are some special and yet very simple techniques to balance the carbon dioxide, nitrogen and other toxin levels that build up in the blood stream, as the air we breathe contains other gases too. Many of these gases, though present in air in very low quantities, are toxins for our bodies and when we breathe air we breathe them in too. Besides this there are other man made toxins and pollutants present in air. Additional to this many people have health hazards with relation to their jobs and yet some others have habits such as smoking. So it is equally important to release these toxins from our blood stream and our bodies.
As I have pointed out that the deep breathing techniques in pranayam calm down the mind. It is not the physiological effect of oxygenation of the blood but there is a much deeper connection between the body and the mind. The mind in yoga psychology is understood to be a field of energy, the mind it not the brain which is a physical entity. The mind is composed of several passageways of the mind, a single such passageway is termed as a nadi. Often in Ayurvedic and other literature one can find that the term nadi is used to express the nerves or the arteries. Most of the ancient literature is written in Sanskrit. In reference to Ayurvedic and other such literature this use too is correct, however most people do not realise that the same term in Sanskrit can be used in numerous places with different meanings. From the point of view of yogic literature the term ‘Nadi’ can be very simply understood as a pathway of the mind.
Pranayam has the effect of cleansing these nadis and this in turn leads to the effect of calming the mind. According to the Goraksha Samhita and Hatha Yoga Pradipika there are 72,000 nadis, according to the Prapanchsara Tantra there are 300,000 nadis whereas the Shiva Samhita states that there are 350,000 nadis. According to Yogic, Tantric as well as Vedic understanding there are many layers or sheaths in our mind. Possibly the texts differ in their count due to the difference in counting of the nadis within the layers. Irrespective of the difference even if we take the figure to be the lower one, we will realise that the structure within is like that of a whole city. Cleansing 72,000 pathways is a big task. There is a special exercise called Nadi Shodhan that is done to cleanse the nadis. This exercise has about 96 variations and usually a yogi will know atleast three variations. The exercise itself can be done in a small form or an extended one. Usually most yogi’s will do it atleast thrice a day.
All spiritual practices are associated with the Kundalini Shakti. Pranayam too is associated with Kundalini. There are two types of Kundalini called ‘Samashti’ or Common and ‘Vyasthi’ or individual. Kundalini energy can best be understood as latent energy. Latent energy in the entire creation and latent energy within the individuated Body-Mind-Jiva(individual being) complex. The regular practice of pranayam awakens the Kundalini too. Some people may feel this awakened energy as vibration, as a throbbing, as something running through one’s body, as something running in the spine upwards, sometimes as a movement in the body, as energy, as an electric current or a current and so on. There are many other different sensations that may appear or one may feel. Classically, one finds most texts saying that when the Kundalini awakens, one feels a current running from the bottom of the spine, the Muladhara chakra to the top of the head, the Sahasrara chakra. But in practice this may not be so. Usually the Anahata Chakra or the psychological centre on the spine at the level of the heart may be the first to awaken. An awakened Kundalini leads to a very rapid change and transformation in the personality, intellectual capacity and spiritual development of the individual.
Within the mind there are three main channels or nadis. These are known as Pingala (the solar channel on the right side of the body), Ida (the lunar channel at the left side of the body) and Sushumna (the central channel that has a fiery energy). These channels in yogic language are also called Yamuna, Ganga and Saraswati respectively. From the spiritual perspective pranayam aims at awakening the Sushumna so that the aspirant is able to meditate as energy flowing through this channel has the quality of helping one raise one’s consciousness. Nadi Shodan has the effect of activating the Sushumna. The Sushumna is the central channel or nadi through which the Kundalini Shakti rises. The Sushumna is also the only channel that takes one to Enlightenment and Liberation.
The mind has energies within it call Prana. These are of many types known as Prana Vayus, the main five types are known as Apana Vayu, Vyana Vayu, Samana Vayu, Prana Vayu and Udana Vayu. Here the term Vayu means energy or current. All these vayus are responsible for different functions. Apana Vayu for excretion, it has a down ward movement, Vyana vayu for the sexual function, for distributing the fluids and prana in the body, Samana Vayu for digestion, Prana vayu for balancing the currents in the heart area and Udana vayu is present in the neck and the head. Udana Vayu helps release the Prana at the time of death. These Prana Vayus are controlled better by pranayam. To be able to feel the vayus as well as the higher results of pranayam most people have to train for a long period.
Usually as we live each day one half of the brain is active and in most individuals one half of the brain dominates the way they behave and the work they do. The ancient sages of India knew this fact and devised some breathing exercises to align as well as activate both these halves of our mind. One of these exercises is Nadi Shodan. The other is Anulom Vilom. Regular practice awakens both halves of the mind thereby making the mind more active and focused on all our activities thereby making us more efficient and effective.
One of the most wonderful effects of pranayam that appears after regular practice and can often be seen even after only 10 hours of practice is of the reduction in the levels of stress of the practitioner. The mind becomes cleared of the toxins as well as some mental depression. Each inhalation takes in fresh life and vital energy, each exhalation releases the toxins. Deep breathing calms the mind and each exhalation throws out a part of the negative tendencies of the mind.
One student found that his relationship with his wife improved within the one week that he practised with us. His mind was calm and clean, he was controlling his temper and his mind better. He became angry much lesser and was much happier. Another student who came to us was so stressed that he could not even smile. After 30 to 40 hours of practicing pranayam and similar techniques, he actually smiled. Physically he seemed to change and looked much more relaxed. Reduction in stress leads to reduced blood pressure as well as better overall health. There is a special technique of pranayam known as Maun pranayam that reduces the pulse rate and eventually lowers blood pressure.
Most may be aware of certain people who have extra sensory perception that may show itself in many forms. It is considered that as the mind becomes clearer, the mind is able to act like a mirror on which reflect the impressions of another’s mind, as well as in some cases, events in the past or the future. Though the yoga tradition looks down upon such special powers yet the regular practice of pranayam, meditation and other techniques leads to the development of these special powers.
In our normal lives most people breathe between a little less than 4 seconds to 5 seconds for each breath. One breath is both the exhalation as well as inhalation. So we can say approximately each exhalation and inhalation is about 2 seconds. In practice usually the inhalation is smaller. On an average a person breathes about 21,600 times in a day. As we breath we repeat the Mantra So- ham naturally. The Soham kriyas are based on this.
Amongst the most important Pranayam exercises in kriya yogah are the Om and the Soham kriyas. These kriyas are very gentle and are practised easily by most. They are also very effective, bring change quickly and penetrate deep into the mind almost without any physical effort. In the modern world most people are ill equipped to do very difficult physical exercises, hence these Om and Soham kriyas are easy and effective being especially designed to be done without exertion. Actually, very quickly, they recharge and relax the person who does them. There is also an additional set of kriyas that act directly on the chakras or the psychological centres within the mind. These give rapid spiritual progress.
OM is a word that has many meanings. It represents fire and freedom from the cycle of birth and death. It has many meanings. One of them is “Welcome to the gods”. Another is “May you be blessed with the Bliss of Enlightenment”. All mantras and the origin of all creation are considered to be the divine sound OM. The kriyas done with OM activate spiritual and positive energies thereby leading to quick overall spiritual development.
The practice of Pranayam has been likened to a story about a prince who was kept prisoner in a high castle. At the gate of the castle stood guards, who guarded the prince. The prince could look out of the window to the ground below but it was too high to jump. The prince wanted to escape, one of his servants came to free him with a rope, but the problem was how to give him the end of the rope. The servant stood below while the prince was high above in the castle. The Prince only had some thread. So he asked the servant to bring many ropes from very thin to thick. When the servant brought these the Prince let down the thin thread to the servant and he tied a slightly thicker thread. The prince pulled this up and then the servant tied a still thicker thread and again the prince pulled it up. And so it went till the prince could pull up the rope which he tied to a pillar and climbed down to freedom. The breath is that thin tread that we all hold in our hands and with regular practice each of us can free ourselves from this cycle of the stream of continuous births and deaths.
A Simple exercise
One of the simplest exercises that one may do to clear the mind, make it more focussed and calm, is called one is to one(1:1) breathing. Sit in a steady and comfortable pose. Keep your spine, neck and head erect. Now we start the practice. The breathing should be diaphragmatic. Start with an exhalation. Slowly breathe out to a count of 10, and then breathe in to a count of 10. The exhalation and inhalation should be equal, breathe slowly. The slower the breath, the better the result. Continue to do this for about 10 minutes. Observe the difference in your state of mind and the quality of your breath at the end of the process.
Usually in my experience pranayam has the effect of bringing about a very quick change. Even a single two hour session with a master shows immediate results however one should try to do an entire course of 10 hours within one week to see a deeper result. Regular practice will give a happier, healthier and longer life as well as a deeper spiritual life.