Mahendra {THE WORLD OF ANCIENT WISDOM} AND MORE.........: What is Pranayama?    
 What is Pranayama?
picture17 Sep 2005 @ 07:07, by Mahendra Bardiya

Pranayama is an important, yet little known part of Yoga. Its techniques have been practiced for centuries by ardent students of Yoga in remote ashrams, and have been preserved for us through many generations both in practice and in handwritten books. Until recently, this art and science of Yogic breathing was almost completely unknown to the common man like many other ancient Indian arts. Those who knew it used to be very reluctant to share their knowledge and experience with anyone, unless a student proved by tests that he was ready to receive it. During the last three decades, however, this situation has changed; and subjects such as Yoga, pranayama, meditation, and even Kundalini, are being discussed all over the world, not only by Yoga teachers, but also by the general public and by scientists. More recently, various techniques of Yoga have begun to attract the attention of physicians, therapists, and medical consultants. It is common to find both patients and doctors who can narrate their own experiences about the cure of various diseases by using Yoga techniques. It has been proved beyond doubt that Pranayama is a very important means for preventing and curing many ailments. Its aim is to bring the traditional knowledge of this great art of the common man, it can be used without much external help for the maintenance as well as the restoration of health.Its keeps diseases away by using the age-old techniques of Pranayama

Pranayama is the fourth part of the eight-fold Yoga described in the Yogasutra of Patanjali. This is the most authoritative book on yoga. It was written or according to many experts on the subject, in the second century before Christ. The eight limbs of yoga mentioned in Patanjali's system are: (1) Yama, (2) Niyama, (3) Asana, (4) Pranayama (5) Pratyahara, (6) Dharana, (7) Dhyana, and (8) Samadhi.

Pranayama is also mentioned in the Gita, which is, by far, the most popular book on yoga. But a detailed account of how pranayama is to be practiced is not found in the Gita or the Yogasutra. For that we have to turn to the texts of Hathayoga and to some later Upanishads which are called Yoga-upanishads; These texts are of approximately the fifteenth century AD, and later. It should not be concluded from this that the techniques of pranayama have been known only for the last five hundred years. Many direct and indirect references to pranayama, what it car do, why it is practiced, and what its importance is, occur in Vedic literature, in ancient Upanishads, Smritis, Puranas. and treatises such as the Yogavasistha. This shows that aknowledge of pranayama and its practices was known since the time of the Vedic rishis. But it seems quite certain that the practice of pranayama was taught to very few. It was never widespread. Even the few who learned it, followed it more as a part of religious observances than as a discipline for the body and mind.

The credit for making the practice of pranayama popular as a discipline in its own right and as a means for maintaining the health of the body and mind goes to the followers of Hathayoga. They gave it a place of great importance among the practices of Hathayoga, and it was they who described various techniques of pranayama, emphasizing the utility of each of them. Hathayoga is said to consist of four main types of practices, namely, asana, pranayama, mudras, and nadanusandhana, that is, being aware of the inner sounds. These four types of practices are supposed to lead ultimately to the state of sarnadhi, which would bestow upon the individual aspirant of yoga absolute knowledge, or self-knowledge, which in its turn leads to emancipation or liberation from the cycle of rebirths.

When we start thinking about pranayama with this background some questions arise in our mind. We shall discuss them here one by one. The questions are as follows: -

1. What is pranavama?

2. How did pranayama originate?

3. Why do we breathe at all?

4. Why should we control the breath?

5. What can pranayama do?

Pranayama is control of breath

In simple terms pranayama may be called the control of the breath. Its essence lies in the modification of our normal process of breathing. Breathing is an act in which we take air from the atmosphere into our lungs, absorb the oxygen from it into our blood, and expel the air again into the atmosphere together with carbon-di-oxide end water vapour. This act of inhalation and exhalation is repeated every four to five seconds. Thus normally we breathe about fifteen times every minute, each time taking about 500 ml. of air into the lungs. So we inhale and exhale approximately seven liters of air per minute. Every modification of this normal breathing process would not count as pranayama. The normal breathing pattern shows marked changes under various conditions. For instance, while we are lifting or carrying loads, walking uphill, running, or doing any physical exercise we breathe more rapidly and more forcefully. At high altitudes, in a rarefied atmosphere our breathing becomes heavy. Its pattern changes with emotional excitement and in the case of disorders such as asthma, tuberculosis, bronchitis and other lung affections. Modification of breathing under these conditions is brought about involuntarily and perhaps without awareness of it unless there is difficulty in breathing. In fact we are hardly ever aware of the fact that we are breathing.

Pranayama consists of modifications of the breathing process which we bring about deliberately and consciously. We can modify breathing in three different ways:

1. By inhaling and exhaling rapidly, taking shallow breaths.

2. By inhaling and exhaling slowly, taking long or deep breaths.

3. By stopping the act of breathing altogether.

The first way of modifying breathing is not usually included in pranayama proper, although it is sometimes closely associated with it. The second and third ways mentioned above do belong to the domain of pranayama. In fact, pranayama practice may very well be summarized in these two ways.

There is one more condition to be fulfilled if any breathing modification is to be called pranayama. That is regarding the posture. Pranayama is practiced in a sitting posture. There are about half a dozen postures available for this purpose. They are called meditation postures, because they are very suitable for meditation. The most renowned among them is Siddhasana. The simplest and most comfortable and less strenuous is Swastikasana. Padmasana is the one which is most recommended traditionally for pranayama. We shall describe these postures in detail in a later chapter. It may be enough to mention here that pranayamais defined by Patanjali as a modification of breathing in a sitting posture which is steady and comfortable. Such a posture is an essential part of pranayama.

Thus pranayama is a complex act in which after assuming a suitable posture the student inhales and exhales slowly, deeply, and completely, and also stops the breath. Inhalation in pranayama is called parka, which literally means ‘the act of filling’; Exhalation is called recheck, meaning ‘the act of emptying'. Retention of breath is called kumbhaka Kumbha means a water pot. Just as a water pot holds water when it is filled with it, so in kumbhaka the breath is held after filling the lungs. Actually, kumbhaka can be practiced in two ways. We can hold the breath in after a puraka, or we can hold the breath out after a rechaka. The first variety is recommended much more in traditional books. It is called abhyantara kumbhaka or antah-kumbhaka. The second variety of kumbhaka is called babyakambhaka.

In traditional writings the two words pranayama and kumbhaka are often used as synonymous words. This may be explained by the fact that kumbhaka is the most important part of pranayama. There seems to be a difference of opinion among experts about whether a modified way of breathing which does not include any kumbhaka can be called pranayama at all. For instance, if one practices only puraka and rechaka without any kumbhaka, then can it be said that one is practicing pranayama?

Some writers, who have argued that kumbhaka is an indispensable part of pranayama, would insist that mere puraka and rechaka do not form pranayama. But there are others who do not agree with this way of defining pranavama.

How did pranayama originate

Howsoever we define pranayama, that is to say, whether we make kumbhaka an indispensable part of it or not, one essential feature of pranayama according to any definition, is, that it involves a control of breath. Breath is called prana in Sanskrit. Prana also means the soul. In the word pranayama prana does not mean the soul, but the breath The association of these two meanings of the word prana is obviously quite close. Breath and life go together. When any living being dies, breathing stops. This close association between breath and the soul attracted the attention of the ancient Aryans more, because they believed in a cycle of rebirths, until the soul became emancipated by attaining moksha or mukti.

This is called the belief in transmigration of the soul. This belief is very clearly expressed in the following slakes of the Bhagavadgita:

``Just as one throws away old clothes and takes new ones, so, too, the soul, i.e., the dweller in the body, leaves old bodies and enters into new ones." (Gita: II.29)

"Whosoever is born is sure to die, and one who dies is sure to be born again. This cycle is unavoidable. Hence it is no use being unhappy about it." (Gita: Il.27)

The observation that so long as one is breathing one is living, and that when the breath stops life comes to an end, accompanied by the belief that the soul transmigrates from birth to birth, must have played an important role in the initial ideas about pranayama. Our ancients first came to see that for the preservation of life we must preserve breath, and preserving breath entails two things, i.e., breathing slowly, and then not breathing (for a short time) at all. This idea was further strengthened by the belief that the length of one's life is to be measured not in terms of days or years, but in terms of how many times one is destined to breathe. From the fact that the stoppage of breath and the end of one's life coincide, our ancients probably conceived the idea that when the number of breaths one was destined to take was exhausted, one could not live any longer. This idea is conveyed even today in phrases like 'breathing one's last,' for indicating death.

The idea that the breaths of everyone of us are numbered, that our life-span is dependent on how many times we shall breathe in a given life, and that, as a consequence of this fact, we must reduce the number of breaths so as to live longer— this idea was responsible for the origin of pranayama. We have this idea clearly mentioned at several places in the ancient texts on pranayama. For instance, it is declared in the Gorakshapaddhati (I.93), that

"Due to fear of death even Brahma, the Lord of creation, keeps on practicing pranayama, and so do manyyogisand minis. Hence it is recommended that a student of yoga must always control his breath."

In the same manner the Hathayoga-pradipika (II.39) says,

``All the gods including Lord Brahma became devoted to the practice of pranayama because they were afraid of death. We the mortals should follow the same path and control the breath."

It may be that the origin of pranayama, as is clear from the above references, was influenced by the idea of conquering death through the control of breath. But later on many other advantages must also have come to light. We shall have occasion to consider them at a later stage.

Why do we breathe at all

Taking it for granted that breathing means living, and viceversa, one may still wonder why life is so dependent on breathing, and why it comes to an end when breathing becomes impossible. All of us know that we cannot live without air. But very few of us are in a position to say why this is so. It would be very helpful to be aware of the processes involved In breathing in order to understand how pranayama can be used for the prevention and cure of disorders.

To begin with we must differentiate between breathing and respiration. In common usage these two terms are often used as synonyms. But actually respiration is a wider term. Breathing is a physical or mechanical act performed with the help of specialized organs, in which air, or more specifically, oxygen from the air enters the body, and then the air together with the impurities from the body such. as Carbon dioxide and water vapour, is drawn out of the body. Respiration, as a wider term, includes this act as well as the further process of carrying the absorbed oxygen to every part of the body and distributing it throughout the body. In case of man and higher animals we may say that they breathe as well as respire. But in case of plants, lower forms of life, and microorganisms, there is only respiration and no breathing, because there are no organs for breathing. A new-born baby starts breathing just after birth when the lungs are filled with air for the first time. Before birth, in the womb of its mother it does not breathe, but respiration still exists, and oxygen is supplied to each cell of its growing body inside the womb.

Now let us see why oxygen is indispensable for life. Every living tissue and cell requires a constant supply of energy to live. To be alive means to undergo certain bio chemical processes. These processes which are the essence of life cannot go on without energy. This energy is stored in the molecules of certain substances such as glucose, fructose, fatty acids, and amino acids. These molecules are the end products of the process of digestion of food materials which we eat. The energy stored in these molecules can be released from them only through a chemical interaction called oxidation of the energy containing compounds, which cannot take place without oxygen. In the absence of oxygen the process of release of energy comes to a halt, which means the death of that tissue. Oxygen is already present in the atmosphere on earth. At sea level there is about 20% oxygen in the air. This oxygen cannot be utilized by the cells and tissues of our body directly from the atmosphere. It has to be carried to each cell and tissue. This important job of carrying oxygen to each minute part of the body is done for us by the blood. This is called internal respiration. The task of bringing oxygen in contact with the blood is called external respiration. It is the same thin" as breathing. Thus breathing may be called the outer expression of the process of internal respiration. Thus if breathing stops, then each cell and tissue of the body which requires oxygen continuously for keeping on the process of oxidation in order to release energy stored in the end products of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, would be starved of oxygen. Lack of oxygen means no further oxidation, which means no supply of energy for the big-chemical process of living, and that inevitably results in the death of that cell or tissue. That is why life is solely dependent on breathing. This was perhaps the reason why our ancestors used the word prana both for the air we breathe and for the essence of life, namely, the soul. But even if it is true that breathing is so vital for life, one may still wonder whether there is any advantage in controlling the breath. That is our next question.

Why should we control the breath

It may tee observed that wherever we are required to go into action at once, such as while taking a long or high jump, or lifting a heavy weight with all our might, or hitting a hard blow, and so on, we automatically stop the breath. Breathing is also arrested when there is a sudden shock and when there is complete absorption of the mind in something interesting. This shows the relation between intense physical or mental activity and breath control. This control is brought about by the nerve centers in us which govern breathing activity. In pranayama, we control the breathing activity by bringing into action inhibitory impulses from the brain. This point shall be discussed in greater detail later on. Here we are discussing why we should control the breath at all.

It is true that for carrying out various activities of daily life we do not have to control the breath at all. It is already being controlled and modified according to the needs of the body by the respiratory center without our being aware of it. For instance, while we are resting, breathing automatically slows down, whereas, when there is physical activity necessitating an increased supply of oxygen and the faster removal of carbon dioxide, breathing automatically becomes faster and deeper. Thus controlling the breath is not required for the usual activities of daily life. Control of the breath is, however, undertaken for another reason, which is of interest to all of us.

It is one of the basic pre-suppositions of yoga that the breath (prana) and the mind (chitta) are not separate or independent of each other. They are, in fact, considered to be two different expressions of one single basic entity. They are interdependent. They work together and stop working together. We are using both the entities, namely, breath and the mind constantly. Breath is important because our existence depends on it. Mind is important because everything that is necessary for success in life such as pleasure, happiness, enjoyment, our relationship with the world, our reactions to the happenings ire and around us, are all dependent on it. If the mind is well trained, peaceful, and full of contentment, that is to say, under one's control, then life becomes fruitful.

This fact is brought out in a very clear fashion in the Katha Upanishad (I. iii. 3 to 6) as follows:

"The soul is like a traveler who has set on a journey of life in the chariot of the body, driven by the intellect (buddhi) with the mind for the reins and the sense organs being the horses. The objects of experience form the way to be traversed. The soul, senses, and mind together form the enjoyed of pleasure and pain, i.e., the individual. If the midis not properly controlled, then the senses go out of hand like untrained horses. But if the mind is properly controlled (I ``kta) then the senses obey the orders of the master, i.e., the individual, like well trained horses. Indeed, such an individual reaches the highest goal of life."

Now to control the mind, howsoever essential it may be for success in life, is one of the most difficult things to achieve. All of us are aware that if we would control our minds we could make life happier and far more enjoyable both for us and for others. Still we find ourselves helpless. It is here that pranayama can come to our aid. The ancient masters of yoga knew that even if it is very difficult to control the mind directly, it can be controlled by controlling the breath. They mentioned this at several places in the yoga texts. For instance, the Yogavasistha (ii. 78.46.) has explained:

``When through continued practice of pranayama the vibrations of breath are silenced, that causes the mind, too, to become completely silent. That is the state of Nirvana."

This same point is brought out in the Hathayoga-pradipika (IV. 23) by saying,

``Where the mind is absorbed completely, the breath also is silenced, and vice versa."

The Annapoornopa~'isI7ad has gone a step further to make the point clear. It has emphasized (II.89) the oneness of mind and breath, and so, has stressed the importance of pranayama for controlling the mind thus:

`'The vibrations of breath or air (Panama) are the same as the vibrations of the mind. So the thoughtful attempt to control the vibrations of breath."

Many other statements from ancient texts can be quoted here to show the significance of pranayama for silencing the mind. But it is hardly necessary to multiply examples. The whole point of view may be summarized in the following declaration of the Anna poor no punished (II. 44J:

"Yogis control the breath in order to have peace of mind (chittashanti)."

It may be said on this that all of us are not yogis, and so pranayama is not useful for all of us. But that is not true, because every one of, us needs peace of mind, and if it can be achieved through the practice of pranayama, then pranayama would certainly be useful for all of us.

This does not mean that peace of mind is the only end for which pranayama is practiced. In fact, it is a rather distant goal, although it has been emphasized largely in the traditional outlook on pranayama. There are more easily achievable and nearer goals, such as the maintenance and restoration of health, efficient functioning of the various systems of the body, especially the respiratory system, and cure of disorders such as asthma, hypertension, diabetes, and so on. These effects of pranayama will be discussed thoroughly in a further chapter.

What can pranayama do

It is essential for everyone interested in learning and practicing pranayama to know what it can and cannot do. For instance, it should be understood that not every disorder can be treated by pranayama. Similarly, it is not equally useful to all of us. There are certain conditions under which pranayama can not end should not be practiced. It is also necessary to know how pranayama works, so that all possible dangers in its practice can be avoided.

A student who wants to learn pranayama and continue -practicing it needs to have a clear idea regarding its scope and limits. As a part of yoga, pranayama should normally be practiced along with other parts, such as asanas and meditation. This gives better results especially in the prevention or cure of disorders. We shall discuss in detail the utility of pranayama in relation to this in a later chapter. In the beginning it is helpful to eliminate some false beliefs about pranayama which are common even among some yoga teachers. We shall consider these beliefs in the chapter to follow.


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