by Swami Krishnananda
It will be observed that we hold our breath during any act of concentration in our daily lives. When we are walking along the edge of a precipice, we hold our breath. When we climb a tree, we hold our breath. Perhaps when walking on a tightrope, the circus performer also holds his breath. When we are about to do something which requires our total attention, or at least most of it, our breath is automatically held. It is not that we are deliberately doing pranayama here, but our breath is suspended of its own accord. This shows the mutual relationship between thought and the vital force. It is impossible for the mind to concentratedly pay attention to anything when the breath is heaving like a bellows. When we concentrate while listening to a lecture, we hold our breath. When we gaze at an object with awe-inspired wonder, we hold our breath.
All these are instances in life which demonstrate the relationship of prana with thought—and vice versa. All acts which need total attention of our whole personality draw up our energy together with the thought. Attention is another name for the concentration of our whole being. Wherever there is attention, the whole of us is there. In this form of mental attention, it is not merely the breath that is suspended, but all the sense organs as well. We cease to see, hear, smell, taste and touch at that time. When we are concentratedly looking at something or gazing at an object with attention, we will not hear sounds unless they are very loud. We may not even be able to see things moving near us or persons walking around us in this concentrated state. In this instance, the concentration of the mind, the cessation of the function of the breath, and the withdrawal of the senses all take place together.
Hence it is that in one single effort of yoga preparation, pranayama, pratyahara and dharana take place simultaneously. It is towards this end that the practice of pranayama is practised, as it is an essential limb in the concentration of the mind. One of the aphorisms of Patanjali says that the connection of the vital energy with the mind is such that the stoppage of the breath, even for a few minutes, would bring the mind to its normal condition. There are agitations of force which affect the mind, and these agitations are called “tendencies to pleasure and pain”. Intense exhilaration and intense grief are the two points between which the mind roves in its usual activities. In both these functions of the mind, the vital energy is carried along together with the mind.
If a bird is tied with a thread to a peg, and the thread’s connection with the peg is broken, the bird carries the thread wherever it moves because the thread is connected with the bird and not with the peg. Likewise is the mind’s relation with the prana. The oscillation of the mind is the same as the vacillation of the prana, and it is impossible for the one to function without the function of the other. Oftentimes a comparison is made between the relationship of the two and the relationship between the inner mechanism of a watch and its hands. The mechanism moves the hands, and the hands themselves have some sort of effect upon the mechanism working within so that when we hold the hands, the mechanism is suspended within for the time being. In the same way, if we stop the mechanism, the hands cease moving.
A deep exhalation and retention is what Patanjali prescribes in one of his aphorisms to bring about a balance in the thinking process. Intense agitation of the mind caused by any external factor can be brought to a cessation, temporarily at least though not permanently, by deep expulsion and retention of the breath. If we do not want to think something, we can expel the breath and hold it, and the thought will cease to operate. The teacher assures us that if this process is repeated for a few minutes the mind will get accustomed to this cessation of function, and the agitation will cease. Any kind of extreme in thinking will be rectified by exerting a pressure on it through the operation of the prana in this practice of expulsion and retention. The retention can also be done after inhalation, and not merely after expulsion. The retention is called kumbhaka which means ‘holding or filling’ in Sanskrit. Kumbhaka also means ‘a pot’, and filling something as if filling a pot is kumbhaka. We fill ourselves with the force of vitality in the practice of kumbhaka. The filling is done either after deep inhalation or after deep exhalation—both these are important means of pranayama.
There are four types of kumbhaka described in the aphorisms of Patanjali. One is, as I mentioned, expulsion and retention. We breathe out, deeply and calmly, and hold the breath for a few seconds. Breathe in deeply and calmly again and hold the breath again for a few seconds. These are twin pranayamas—internal kumbhaka and external kumbhaka. The third type is the kumbhaka that is practised by alternative breathing, which means breathing in deeply through the left nostril, then holding the breath and then exhaling through the right. This coupled process of inhalation, retention and exhalation is supposed to be one round of pranayama. Easy, comfortable pranayama it is called—sukha-purvaka. This pranayama is easy to practise when it is done together with this alternate system of breathing. This is the third type of retention, along with the others that are coupled with expulsion and inhalation.
The fourth one is the most important of all, and it is this which is of consequence in the yoga practice. This is supposed to be the culmination of pranayama, and it is generally reached by some sort of training in the other three processes. The earliest stage would be expulsion and retention. Then the next stage would be inhalation and retention. The third would be alternate breathing and retention. Through a graduated practice of these one has to gain control over the breath. The fourth one, which is regarded as more important than all others, is called kevala kumbhaka, or automatic suspension of breath, and it is not attended with inhalation and exhalation. If we are suddenly taken unawares by something which we did not expect, we hold the breath without inhalation or exhalation. We do not know what is happening to the breath. It just stops, that is all. The mind is suspended in its function at once, because of the unexpected arrival of an event. Suddenly thought stops and breath stops. In concentration of any kind, the retention that follows is of this kind.
The raja and jnana yogins especially lay stress on this type of pranayama. As a matter of fact, they do not otherwise lay stress on pranayama at all, as this higher form follows automatically in the wake of concentration. The emphasis is more on concentration of mind than on the retention of breath as a lower process. When our interest in anything is immense, our concentration also is comparatively great. When we read a book with tremendous interest, our concentration on the subject is such that our breath will slow down automatically, and pranayama is automatically practised there. When we are to appear for an examination and there are only fifteen minutes till the bell rings and we are trying to remember some passage quickly, we will be earnestly turning through some pages. Our concentration on the theme would be such that we will not be listening to anything nor seeing anything at that time other than the crucial theme. Our minds are on the subject in such concentration that our breath also is there. When the breath and the mind go together hand in hand, neither function. The kevala kumbhaka, or the automatic suspension of the breath, is coupled with the act of concentration of mind, and it is difficult to say where one begins and the other ends. They are like two parallel lines moving side by side, starting together, moving with the same speed, and ending also at the same point. Kevala kumbhaka and the stoppage of the mind are parallel movements of a single force.
Here we may be reminded of the great controversy concerning the body-mind relationship. Materialists and behaviourists contend that the mind is controlled by reflexes of the body functions—going even to the extent of saying that the mind is only an excretion, as it were, of bodily energy. The idealists contend that the body is regulated and operated upon by the thought force, rather than the other way round. The debate has led to philosophical disputes with both arguing for two different points of view or angles of vision, one emphasising the mind and the other the body. Neither of them led to definite conclusions, because the fact seems to be that the one is not dependent on the other, as these schools seem to think.
It is not true that the body is entirely the master of the mind as the realists, materialists or the behaviourists think. Nor is it true to go to the other extreme of the idealists, in saying that the mind is entirely the master of the body, and the body would do whatever the mind says. There is no such total dependence of the one on the other. They seem to be moving in a parallel manner towards a destination common to both, like two legs walking, where we cannot say which determines the other. We cannot say that the right leg is the master of the left or the other way round. The two walk together symmetrically towards a purpose common to both. There seems to be a purpose transcending the movements of the legs, and it is this purpose that keeps the movements of the two legs in balance.
Likewise, there seems to be a higher purpose regulating the body and the mind. It would not be wisdom to think that one of them is the master of the other. The two are regulated by a single tendency, and this tendency is purposive and teleological, as the philosophers tell us. This realisation is important in our consideration of the practice in yoga. In all philosophical discussions people take either this side or that side, and it is difficult to encompass all sides at the same time. This is why philosophy has not helped mankind much, because the philosophies ended only as theories, schools of thought, doctrines or arguments. We have big books on philosophy, but finally we are told nothing conclusive although so many things have been said. To shift the arguments and to organically relate them to a systematic whole is a hard thing, because that requires a mind which can see through to the substance of the different arguments and into the good points and the necessary connecting links of the different sides of the discussion. This process, albeit difficult, has to be employed in our understanding of the relationship between mind and body.
This mind-body relationship has also led to debate between hatha yoga and the raja and jnana yoga schools. Just as in the West we have the difference between behaviourism and idealism in psychology, so too do we have the same debate between the hatha yogins and jnana yogins here in India. Hatha yoga emphasises prana and the bodily system more than the mind, whereas the raja yoga and more pointedly the jnana yoga emphasise the mind and the reason more than the body and the prana. The one says that the body and prana control the mind; the other says the mind and the reason control the prana and the body.
Neither of these need take much of our time, because these are viewpoints, and we know what a viewpoint means. It is only a picture of one side of a complete whole, and we should not look at anything from only one side. It is difficult to know the nature of any substance by referring to it by a few characteristics alone. In medical science and psychology it is seen that mental illness can affect the body, and bodily illness can affect the mind. We are supposed to be psychophysical organisms, not merely bodies or minds. We are an organic structure of body and mind taken together and not merely a mind thinking in the air without a body. Nor are we a body lumbering like a cart without a thought within. Hence, it is necessary to understand the proper relationship of prana and mind. In our study of yoga practice, attention should be given to the importance of prana as well as to the mind in their intrinsic relationship rather than their outer manifestation. It is the soul-force within us that acts as the relationship between the body and the mind. We have a soul, apart from the thinking process of the mind and the breathing activity of the prana.
This should not be missed in our study of yoga. Of course, to define the soul is such a difficult thing to do. Some peculiar something is this soul that we are, such that it expresses itself as thinking on one side and activity on the other side. This is the reason why when one side is touched, the other side also is automatically touched. To touch the right arm would be equal in effect to touching the left arm, because the communication will be conveyed through the system of the body. This is the reason why pranayama helps in concentration of mind, and why concentration of mind has an effect on the cessation of the breath. One acts on the other, and when we carefully consider the matter, we will realise both go together.
Any attempt at the harmonisation of the breathing process will not be a waste. There is no need to go to excesses on either side, as I have already mentioned. There are hatha yogins like the grammarians in Sanskrit, who go on studying grammar throughout their lives without actually learning the literature. Likewise, our lives may go only towards the practice of pranayama alone, and this would be a mistake which we should not commit, because pranayama and asana are not ends in themselves. They are supposed to help us in the practice of true yoga. May I once again mention that all the limbs of yoga are to act together in a concentrated focus, right from yama-niyama onwards, because yoga is the total effort of the whole system in which all the limbs of yoga get concentrated. Yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana—all get focused in one concentrated energy when we practise what is true yoga.
There is a difference between the rungs of a ladder and the limbs of yoga, thought many times we are told that the limbs of yoga are like rungs of a ladder. When we climb the second rung on the ladder, we do not continue to touch the first rung. The first rung is over, so that when we climb the higher rungs, the lower rungs are no longer touched by our feet. But this is not so in the case of the limbs of yoga. The rungs in the ladder are not organically connected, because they are mechanically fixed and thereby unrelated to one another. The limbs of yoga are not mechanically disconnected, but rather organically related. In an act of concentration or meditation, all the limbs of yoga take part at once. To give a humorous example, it is like monkeys attacking. When they attack, all attack together. They do not come one or two at a time—they come in a group.
Likewise, there is a deliberate mustering of all the forces which constitute the limbs of yoga. The whole soul practises yoga. In this attempt at the total concentration of the personality in yoga, it is difficult to say which limb is more important than the other and which is subsidiary to the other. The logical arrangement of asana, pranayama and pratyahara, in that order, is only for convenience in understanding and for ease in practice. It does not mean that they actually have to be arranged in that order.
The process of pranayama in yoga is a technique of the harmonisation of the vital energy through the simultaneous employment of the intermediary process of pratyahara, or the withdrawal of the senses, leading to a harmonisation of the thinking process. As I mentioned, in deep concentration the senses may stop functioning temporarily, and the breath also is held. When we enjoy a beautiful landscape when the sun is about to set, our whole attention is there, and we do not hear sounds or have sensory relationships to anything else. The breath also is temporarily held. Pranayama, pratyahara and dharana are the three terms used in Sanskrit, and mean respectively: the retention of the vital force, the cessation of the function of the sense organs in respect to their objects, and the concentration or attention of the mind. All these go together.