by Swami Krishnananda
The Yoga-Vasishtha says that Pranas are distracted in various forms. And when they are highly distracted, it is not safe to resort to Pranayama, especially with retention. There should be an appreciable calmness in emotions, and in the mind particularly, before any effort is made in Pranayama. The Pranas are very distracted, and sometimes very forceful in a particular direction, due to intense desire, worry, anxiety and emotional disturbances of various types. Where there is any waxing problem sitting in the mind, it would be dangerous to close the breath or do Pranayama, because the mind and the Pranas are related in an inseparable manner. Any kind of nervous or psychological frustration must be treated first, and the tension released to the extent necessary, before the breathing process is resorted to.
In the earliest of stages, the technical Pranayama of the Yoga system will not be practicable. Only deep inhalation and deep exhalation will be possible. Most of us do not breathe in the proper manner. We breathe in and breathe out in a shallow way. There is no intensity either in inhalation or in exhalation. There is no sufficient intake of breath. The intake is not as much as is necessary for the health of the system. So, it would be proper to practise deep inhalation and deep exhalation. And this should be done in a well-ventilated place, and not in a closed room, because fresh air is necessary. Fresh air does not mean a cold blast, but a comfortable breeze. A little movement of air is necessary to derive the benefit of this breathing exercise – deep inhalation and deep exhalation. This inhalation and exhalation itself is very conducive, not only to physical health, but also to mental peace.
There are varieties of Pranayama in the Hatha Yoga Sastra. But, all of them, as in the case of the Asanas in the Hatha Yoga system, are only contributory in their effects; they are not the main intention behind the practice. The various methods of breathing known as Pranayama are finally directed to a kind of mastery over the breathing process in an appreciable measure. The standard type of breathing is known as Sukha Purvaka Pranayama. Perhaps this is what is in the mind of Patanjali when he speaks of Pranayama, though he does not use this word Sukha Purvaka. Exhalation, inhalation and retention – Rechaka, Puraka and Kumbhaka – are the three types of the Pranayama process. In the beginning, there should be an expulsion of breath. The Sukha Purvaka describes that the right nostril should be closed with the thumb of the right hand, and then through the left nostril the breath should be let out. There should be a very slow, gradual, but deep exhalation, and then a calm, deep indrawn breath in the form of inhalation through the left nostril. There is no need of retention in the beginning. After the inhalation, the breath should be let out through the right nostril by releasing the thumb and holding the left nostril with the ring finger; and the same process should be continued in a reverse process once again, by inhalation through the right nostril, and then exhalation through the left, and so on and so forth continuously. This is a more advanced form of breathing than the mere inhalation and exhalation through both the nostrils without holding the nostrils with the fingers. So, this may be said to be the second stage of the attempt. In the earlier stages, we do not hold the nostrils. We simply breathe in and breathe out slowly as an ordinary physical exercise. We may breathe through both the nostrils, or through one, as the case may be; but in the second stage, this improvement is made by alternate breathing without retention.
Then, in the third stage, we can consider the extent of the necessity to hold the breath, which holding is called Kumbhaka. This should be done with great caution, and one should not jump into extremes, because while Yoga prescribes the retention of breath as a necessary prelude to the higher techniques, it is not the whole of Yoga, and to spend the whole of one's life in mere breathing processes would be like spending the whole of one's life in studying the grammar only, and not going further to literature and the purpose behind it. We may say that Pranayama is the grammar of Yoga, but that is not the whole of Yoga. Pranayama is an essential thing, but not the entire thing.
Three Pranayamas are mentioned by Patanjali, and these are the Rechaka, the Puraka and the Kumbhaka. The expulsion also is a Pranayama process, the inhalation also is a process of the same kind, and retention is also that. But, the author of the Yoga Sutra seems to prefer a fourth type as we can gather from the way he speaks in his Sutra. This type of Pranayama is called the Kevala-Kumbhaka, a sudden retention of the breath without attention being paid either to inhalation or to exhalation, as it happens for instance, when we do something which requires concentration of the mind. When we lift a heavy weight, for instance, the breath stops immediately. Or when we walk on a narrow bridge or a precipice, we walk with great caution lest we should fall, and we instinctively hold the breath for a while, and we do not think of the breath at that time. Perhaps we are not even aware that the breath is being held. We neither breathe in nor breathe out; we suddenly stop it. And this happens whenever we do anything which requires attention or concentration. So, Kevala Kumbhaka seems to be that method whereby an automatic holding up of the breath takes place, due to the attention of the mind getting fixed on one particular object.
In the commentaries on the Yoga system, great details are mentioned – details such as the period of time for which we have to sit for the purpose of Pranayama, the counting process for recording time for Kumbhaka, Rechaka and Puraka, and so on. These detailed instructions are not necessary for the beginner wanting to practice elementary exercises in Pranayama. They relate to highly technical Pranayama exercises, which are neither practicable nor necessary for students in the beginning stage. However, we have to bear in mind that Prana is a very important item and that we cannot ignore its existence. Our health, our strength, and to some extent, our peace of mind also, is dependent upon the nature of the Prana's movements inside. Our strength is due to the harmonious movement of the Pranas and our weakness is due to their distracted movement or chaotic activity.
Many times there has been a controversy as to whether Prana influences the mind or the mind influences the Prana. This is a futile controversy, because both are interdependent. We cannot say which influences what. They influence each other mutually. When the Pranas are disturbed, the mind is also disturbed, and vice versa. So, it would be good and wise on our part to take into account the thinking process as well as the breathing process simultaneously. Raja Yogins have said that the calming down of the mind, especially in its emotional aspect, is more important than the holding of the breath merely. Calming down of the mind is of primary importance, because the mind is the internal mechanism behind the movement of the breath outside. Therefore, it is necessary to pay more attention to the mental processes than their outward expression in the form of the movement of the Pranas. When the mind is steadied, the Prana settles down of its own accord in a proper manner. But, if the mind is unsteady and is disturbed for any reason, any amount of holding of breath may not help, though it may contribute somewhat towards the achievement of mental control. So, Pranayama and Pratyahara are twins, as it were, in this internal Yoga technique of self-control.
Regulation of the breath is necessary not only for purposes of mental concentration, but also for maintaining physical health. For the practice of Yoga, we should not be too much sick, though all of us, as human beings, are prone to illness of various kinds. While the health of the Prana means the health of the body and the entire organism, the other factors which go to contribute to our ill-health should also be taken into account, and we should not place ourselves in such circumstances where we are likely to be drawn to ill-health in spite of our efforts. An unsanitary atmosphere, bad social conditions, and other types of tension of a similar nature may be factors which tend to ill-health. Physical ill-health is the first obstacle that harasses us in our attempt to practise Yoga. We wish to lie down and take rest. We have either headache or neck pain or joint pain; sometimes even temperature. We suffer from disturbances of this type caused by hundreds of ailments, all of which have to be taken into account in some manner.
The Yoga-Vasishtha has it that while the Pranas are no doubt disturbed by physical or physiological disorders or chemical disturbances in the stomach, more properly they are disturbed by unfulfilled desires. It is dangerous to practise Yoga with desires inside, because they will burst forth like dynamite. It is true that there cannot be a human being with no desires at all in his mind. Such a thing is not possible; such a thing is unheard of. But, there should not be such desires as will violently disturb us. There should not be a gusto of internal impulse in any direction. Mild, normal desires are present in every person. No one can be free from it. But, they are not harmful, because many a time we are not even aware that they are there, except when they actually manifest themselves in a grosser form, in a direction of fulfilment. All desires do not seek fulfilment at the same time. One by one they come, or one or two come at different times, according to the circumstance of each case. We have mild desires which have to be fulfilled because of the very nature of the body and the life we live in the world. But, there are tensions caused by other kinds of urges which are hard to fulfil, and the fulfilment of which may not be helpful also. Such emotions may rise due to physiological causes, or the social atmosphere in which we live, or reading literature of a type which may disturb the mind, or going to movies as it is the case these days. These emotions can upset the mind completely for days together, and it would be hard to bring this restless horse of a mind back to its resting place. So, if we are to be sincere in our efforts at the practice of true Yoga, we have to be socially sober and harmonised, and internally alert by means of Yama and Niyama, the canons of discipline.
The intention behind the practice of the process called Pranayama is the restraint of the senses. The senses are the instruments by which the Prana operates, in the direction of any particular object or goal in one's outward life, which is a means of satisfaction of the mind. The mind is the dynamo inside that generates the energy passing through the Prana, which moves through the avenues of the senses, in the direction of particular objects of sense. That is why we have the wise instruction in the third chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, where we are told that the senses cannot be controlled unless the mind is controlled, and the mind cannot be controlled unless the intellect is disciplined, and the intellect cannot be restrained unless it is rooted in the heart. "Indriyani paranyahur-indriyebhyah param manah, manasastu para buddhiryo buddheh paratastusah." In the Kathopanishad, the instruction goes into greater detail: "Manasastu para buddhih buddheratma mahan parah; mahatah paramavyaktam avyaktat purushah parah; purushan na param kinchit-sa kashtha sa para gatih." We will enter into the meaning of this verse further on, when we discuss the nature of meditation. So, it comes to this that the senses have to be restrained in their unnecessary activities, by a control exerted over the Prana, which again has to be achieved by subduing the mind to some extent. We cannot subdue the mind at one stroke. That is an attainment which comes to us in deep meditation, and not before. But, a preliminary attempt can be made as in medical treatment, where we employ certain methods to help improve the health, though the health is not improved wholly.
Each student of Yoga should be honest to himself or herself. Oftentimes, we cannot reveal our hearts to other people. Many times we cannot reveal our hearts to our Guru himself, because of diffidence, and sometimes because of the shame that we feel, or a weakness of a different type altogether which we cannot control, but of which we ourselves are afraid. Social circumstances in the world are such that many times we are forcefully converted into derelicts psychologically. There is something to say about the social condition in which we are living. It has not always been a helpful master. Many a time it has punished people unjustly, due to its own laws not understanding human psychology. But, Yoga is not a social discipline. It is a psychological discipline, and more primarily, a spiritual discipline. A Guru is one to whom we can open our heart wholly, and there should be no kind of hesitation or reservation in his case. This is because the Guru is not just a person in the world; he is a superior individual who has risen over individuality to some extent, and therefore, he can accommodate any kind of psychological repercussions through which a student has to pass, because he himself has passed through all those stages, and they would not be repellent to him. No disease is repulsive to a doctor, because he is a person who is acquainted with all diseases, contagious, infectious, repulsive, whatever they may be. So is the case with mental tensions and impulses and desires.
We are many a time fired up with a love for God, for which reason we feel like renouncing the world in a formal manner. This happens when some light is shed on our mind, due to certain peculiar circumstances in our life, when we are awakened to a higher reality. But it does not mean that this flash of insight, which has created in us a spring of the spirit of renunciation, is the same as a control over our mind. When a large flood overwhelms the little streams that flow in their natural course, their very existence is not seen, but when the flood subsides, we can see these little streams in their true colours. Likewise, when a flood of inspiration overwhelms us in the form of a spirit of renunciation or God-love, we may not be aware at all that we have any desire in our minds, because we are possessed at that time. And any person possessed by something cannot know what he is. But, the possession does not continue for long. No one can be possessed by anything throughout one's life. So, when the possession is no more, we are normal persons once again, and we then know what we are in our true colours.
So, again, we are in this peculiar situation where we need a guide. To imagine that we are masters is a foolhardy attitude. Not one can be so sure that he will be able to plant his feet firmly on the ground of the spirit. A day comes when we totter. So, guidance is necessary. In the restraint of the senses which is Pratyahara, the withdrawal of the energies of the sense-activity, we have to be psychologically guarded and intellectually alert, though at the same time we may be spiritually aspiring. God's grace is the greatest strength, and there can be no greater strength than that. We will finally find that we have not got that strength to control the senses or to control the mind. At a stage, we feel helpless. In the beginning, we seem to have great powers. We can perform great feats of self-control. We can fast, we can observe vigil, and do Japa and meditation, and do Svadhyaya and everything. All seems to go well, until we are faced with that terrific whirlwind of counter-action from the powers of Nature which we will not be able to face, and here God only is our help. Who can face this world? It is a mighty demoness and our puny efforts will not stand the fury of the forces of the world.