In Yoga and various meditation practices that have evolved across the world, one is often advised to focus on the incoming and outgoing breath through various types of breathing exercises or Pranayamas. Pranayam is the precursor to Dhyana or meditation. Various historical books & religious scriptures talk of enlightened personalities (right from Vedic sages to Buddha, Christ or even Mohammad) having undertaken some form of meditation before their transformation to “realized” beings . This paper is a small attempt to know the philosophy behind Pranayama, it’s role in meditation and how it is different from normal breathing.
What is Prana: Ayurveda
According to an ancient analogy, prana is the life force that strings body, mind and spirit together like beads on a strand of breath. Prana is not air, though oxygen is one of its vehicles; prana is the force that causes the physical Yukti necessary to keep living being alive.
Ayurveda recognizes three doshas viz kapha, pitta and vata, which are present in the human body. When an organism functions at peak efficiency the three doshas are produced in quantities just sufficient to meet physical needs. In systemic imbalance, the doshas are overproduced or underproduced at the expense of the body’s vitality, adaptability and immunity.
The flame of life called Tejas or agni is different from pitta, which is only its more reactive form. Likewise, vata is the unstable form of Prana, or vayu, and kapha the inert, “dead” form of ojas or soma. Prana,tejas and ojas are the essence of the air, fire and water elements as applied to the embodied life. Prana can be compared to electricity and vata to the light that electricity can produce when it is directed into a bulb.
What is Pranayama: Yoga Sutra
The word Pranayama consists of two components, prana and ayama. Prana is energy or self-energizing force that embraces the body. Ayama means stretch, extension, expansion, length, breadth, regulation, prolongation, restraint and control. When this self-energizing force embraces the body with extension, expansion and control, it is pranayama.
Pranayama is one of the 8 limbs of Yoga as per Patanjali Yoga Sutra.Through the practices of yama, niyama, asana and Pranayama, the body and its energy are mastered. The next stage, pratyahara, achieves the conquest of the senses and mind. When the mind becomes ripe for meditation, the senses rest quietly and stop imploring the mind for their gratification. Then the mind, which hitherto acted as a bridge between the senses and the soul, frees itself from the senses and turns towards the soul to enjoy its spiritual heights.Pratyahara, the result of the practice of yama, niyama, asana and Pranayama, forms the foundation for dharana, dhyana and samadhi.Through practice of these five stages of yoga, all the layers or sheaths of the self from the skin to the consciousness are penetrated, subjugated and sublimated to enable the soul to diffuse evenly throughout. This is true sadhana.
Pranayama as breath control is an ancient practice that can be found in the old Brahmana texts. It involves breath suspension viz rechaka- where breath is suspended after exhalation or prasvasa; puraka- where Breath is suspended after svasa or inhalation and kumbhaka, the simultaneous suspension of both. It is often stressed that concentration on one’s object of meditation has to accompany Pranayama. One must clear the mind of vrittis in conjunction with suspending the breath. Yogic Pranayama helps to arrest the vrittis of the mind and makes it one-pointed.
In the Srimad Bhagavatam, the story is told of how ‘the nectar of immortality’ was produced through the churning of the ocean. This story, as will be understood from the interwoven explanation, symbolizes what takes place in the human body in the practice of pranayama. The strength of the asuras (demons) alarmed the devas (angels) , who, fearing that vice would dominate virtue, approached Lord Siva, Lord Brahma and Lord Indra, who in turn approached Lord Vishnu, the protector of the Universe, for help. Lord Vishnu suggested the churning of the ocean to bring out the nectar (Amrita) of immortality hidden in it. He advised the devas to discuss with the demons the effects of the nectar, and to persuade them to jointly churn the ocean. Lord Vishnu said that he would do the rest. The angels and demons decided to use Mount Meru as the churn-staff for the churning, and Lord Adisesha, the serpent, the couch of Lord Vishnu), as the rope for whirling the mountain.Plants, creepers, various grasses and herbs were gathered together and thrown into the ocean as raw materials so that they might be churned to produce the nectar of life. According to ayurveda, the body is made up of seven constituents (dhatus)and three permeating humours (doshas). The seven elements are so-called because they sustain the body. They are chyle (rasa), blood (rakta) , flesh (mamsa) , fat (meda) , bones (asthi) , marrow (majja), semen (sukra). They keep the body immune from infection and diseases. They are churned together in Pranayama for the production of the nectar of life. Mount Meru represents the spinal column, it acts as a whisk to churn the breath to produce energy. Lord Adisesha represents sushumna: it is the rope which dashes or controls the spine in respiration. The head and tail of Adisesha represent the pingala and ida nadis (energy channels) or the upward and downward course of the in- and outbreath. As Adisesha was used as a rope for churning, so inhalation and exhalation are the two ends of the central nervous system, the rod that churns to create the energy that is then stored in the seven chambers (chakras) of the spine. Together they churn the inbreath and outbreath to generate the vital energy known as Prana.
Observing Breath:- Buddha’s way
In Kashmiri Shaivite tradition “Vigyan Bhairava Tantra” is one of the rare but important texts.Vigyan (pronounced Vig-yaan) means knowledge or understanding. Bhairava means God. Vigyan Bhairava means either knowledge of God or God consciousness. Vigyan Bhairava gives 112 techniques through which one can unite with God. The text is a dialogue between Lord Shiva and his consort, Parvati – between God and the Goddess. The Goddess is, in reality, not separate from God. She has taken on the form of being separate here, to help mankind. She asks God those questions that we, as individuals seeking enlightenment, would ask. Many techniques mentioned at the beginning in Vigyan Bhairava Tantra deal with observing breath at various stages. For purpose of this discussion we will only discuss the first technique, the English translation of which is:
Sri Bhairava (Shiva) said: Paradevi (Parvati), whose nature is visarga, or creation, manifests as the upward prana and the downward apana. By fixing the mind at the two points of generation (of prana and apana), the state of fullness results. (BVT 24)
Another translation: The Supreme Energy (breath) goes upwards with exhalation and downwards with inhalation. By concentrating on the two places of its origin, one acquires the state of fulfillment.
Osho has in his commentary on the Vigyan Bhairava Tantra has described this sutra in following words:
“After breath comes in – that is, down – and just before turning out – that is, going up – THE BENEFICENCE. Be aware between these two points, and the happening. When your breath comes in, observe. For a single moment, or a thousandth part of a moment, there is no breathing – before it turns up, before it turns outward. One breath comes in; then there is a certain point and breathing stops. Then the breathing goes out. When the breath goes out, then again for a single moment, or a part of a moment, breathing stops. Then breathing comes in. Before the breath is turning in or turning out, there is a moment when you are not breathing. In that moment the happening is possible, because when you are not breathing you are not in the world. Understand this: when you are not breathing you are dead; you ARE still, but dead. But the moment is of such a short duration that you never observe it.
For tantra, each outgoing breath is a death and each new breath is a rebirth. Breath coming in is rebirth; breath going out is death. The outgoing breath is synonymous with death; the incoming breath is synonymous with life. So with each breath you are dying and being reborn. The gap between the two is of a very short duration, but keen, sincere observation and attention will make you feel the gap. If you can feel the gap, Shiva says, THE BENEFICENCE. Then nothing else is needed. You are blessed, you have known; the thing has happened. You are not to train the breath. Leave it just as it is. Why such a simple technique? It looks so simple. Such a simple technique to know the truth? To know the truth means to know that which is neither born nor dies, to know that eternal element which is always. You can know the breath going out, you can know the breath coming in, but you never know the gap between the two. Try it. Suddenly you will get the point – and you can get it; it is already there. Nothing is to be added to you or to your structure, it is already there. Everything is already there except a certain awareness. So how to do this? First, become aware of the breath coming in. Watch it. Forget everything, just watch breath coming in – the very passage. When the breath touches your nostrils, feel it there. Then let the breath move in. Move with the breath fully consciously. When you are going down, down, down with the breath, do not miss the breath. Do not go ahead and do not follow behind, just go with it. Remember this: do not go ahead,do not follow it like a shadow; be simultaneous with it.Breath and consciousness should become one. The breath goes in – you go in. Only then will it be possible to get the point which is between two breaths. It will not be easy. Move in with the breath, then move out with the breath: in-out, in-out. Buddha tried particularly to use this method, so this method has become a Buddhist method. In Buddhist terminology it is known as Anapanasati Yoga. And Buddha’s enlightenment was based on this technique – only this. All the religions of the world, all the seers of the world, have reached through some technique or other, and all those techniques will be in these one hundred and twelve techniques. This first one is a Buddhist technique. It has become known in the world as a Buddhist technique because Buddha attained his enlightenment through this technique. Buddha said, ”Be aware of your breath as it is coming in, going out – coming in, going out.” He never mentions the gap because there is no need. Buddha thought and felt that if you become concerned with the gap, the gap between two breaths, that concern may disturb your awareness. So he simply said, ”Be aware. When the breath is going in, move with it, and when the breath is going out, move with it. Do simply this: going in, going out, with the breath.” If you go on practicing breath consciousness, breath awareness, suddenly, one day, without knowing, you will come to the interval. Because your awareness will become keen and deep and intense, as your awareness will become bracketed – the whole world is bracketed out; only your breath coming in or going out is your world, the whole arena for your consciousness – suddenly you are bound to feel the gap in which there is no breath. When you are moving with breath minutely, when there is no breath, how can you remain unaware? You will suddenly become aware that there is no breath, and the moment will come when you will feel that the breath is neither going out nor coming in. The breath has stopped completely. In that stopping, THE BENEFICENCE. This one technique is enough for millions. The whole of Asia tried and lived with this technique for centuries. Tibet, China, Japan, Burma, Thailand, Ceylon – the whole of Asia except India has tried this technique. Only one technique and thousands and thousands have attained enlightenment through it. And this is only the first technique.”
Mindfulness: The power of Now
In the “Power of now” Eckhart Tolle has written about living in the present or “now” which is basically the concept of “mindfulness”, in vogue these days. “Ego” means false self created by unconscious identification with the mind. (Jiddu Krishnamurthi has explained the same by saying that the actual self is veiled by our thoughts which are a result of our conditioning since birth.) To the ego, the present moment hardly exists. Only the past and future are considered important. The present moment holds the key to liberation. But you cannot find the present moment as long as you are in your mind.
The moment you start ” watching the thinker “, a higher level of consciousness becomes activated. When a thought subsides, you experience a discontinuity in the mental Stream _ a gap of “no mind”. At first, the gaps will be short, a few seconds perhaps, but gradually they will become longer.
The essence of meditation is when you draw consciousness away from mind activity and create a gap of no-mind in which you are highly alert & aware but not thinking.You can measure your success in this practice by the degree of peace that you feel within.
Conclusion: Shrimad Bhagavad Gita
सर्वद्वाराणि संयम्य मनो हृदि निरुध्य च । मूर्ध्न्याधायात्मनः प्राणमास्थितो योगधारणाम् ।।
ओमित्येकाक्षरं ब्रह्म व्याहरन्मामनुस्मरन् । यः प्रयाति त्यजन्देहं स ।।8.12/13।।
Having controlled all the passages, having confined the mind in the heart, and having fixed his own vital force in the head, (and then) continuing in the firmness in yoga. He who departs by leaving the body while uttering the single syllable, viz Om, which is Brahman, and thinking of Me, he attains the supreme Goal.
यत्रोपरमते चित्तं निरुद्धं योगसेवया ।
यत्र चैवात्मनात्मानं पश्यन्नात्मनि तुष्यति ।।6.20।।
Where the mind, controlled by the practice of Yoga, rests and where seeing the self by the self one is delighted by the self only
The gates are the senses of knowledge. Closing the gates means control of all senses by the practice of Pratyahara or withdrawal of the consciousness from them. Even if the senses are controlled, the mind will be dwelling on the sensual objects. Therefore the mind is confined or fixed in the lotus of the heart and there all the thoughts or mental modifications are also controlled. The whole life breath (Prana) is now taken up and fixed at the crown of the head (Brahmarandhra or the hole of Brahman). Krishna describes the process and consequences of Yoga Marga at various places in Gita. In 6.19 he describes the mental state of a Yogi “As a lamp kept in a windless place does not flicker, such is the simile thought of for the yogi whose mind is under control, and who is engaged in concentration on the Self.” In Verses 6.20/21, Krishna proclaims “Where the mind, controlled by the practice of Yoga, rests and where seeing the self by the self one is delighted by the self only. Where one knows that infinite happiness which can be grasped by the intellect but is beyond the grasp of the senses, wherein established one swerves not from that condition”.
What is that final stage where an accomplished Yogi ultimately reaches? The answer is given by Krishna in verse 8.15. “As a result of reaching Me, the exalted ones who have attained the highest perfection do not get rebirth which is an abode of sorrows and which is impermanent”. Thus, a true Yogi is able to reach the stage variously referred to as Kaivalya or Moksha or Nirvana or Brahmleen i.e. a stage where one escapes the cycle of birth & death and stays in eternal bliss. The stage where distinction between the Jivatma & Parmatma dissolves and is experienced as sat, chit and Anand i.e. the nature of Brahman or Ishwar.
1 Robert E. Svoboda -Ayurveda: Life, health and longevity
2. Osho – Commentary on vigyan Bhairav Tantra vol 1.
3. Ranjit Chaudhari- Vigyan Bhairav Tantra: Translation & Commentary.
4. Edwin F. Bryant- The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
5. BKS Iyengar:- Light on Yoga Sutra.
7. Eckhart Tolle- The Power of Now.