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Pranayama – part III


I can’t help but come back to the breath. As we all do. We have to do. Otherwise we would not be here. I call these series Pranayama (breathing techniques) but I expand a bit into how breathing physiologically and psychologically can affect all our systems at work, our brain, mind, thus affect the way we think, act and react in everyday life..

Pranayama I ~~~

I’m still learning (slow, long, enjoyable process!) how Pranayama was significantly important in many spiritual traditions in India and this or that technique can open energy channels that were previously locked for the sake of enlightenment. My path towards spirituality and total bliss at present is looking for more earthly definitions and reasoning that I personally need to go through. Fact is…energy is there. We know it…We feel it and sense it…The way one manipulates it for own’s benefit has to go through a certain amount of reasoning and practising. Then, according to knowledge but mostly dedication and commitment sometimes spirituality follows.

Patanjali (in Yoga Sutras) says a few very important things about Pranayama but doesn’t say anything about how to practice or what to practice…Besides, there were so many techniques known already… What he does, is that he provides the reasoning that we need, regarding the definition of Pranayama and simple ideas about its benefits. That’s enough to start the practice isn’t it?

Definition ~~ Yoga Sutra, 2.49 ‘tasmin-sati-śvāsa-praśvāsayoḥ gati-vicchedaḥ prāṇāyāmaḥ’

When the shtira (stability) sukha (comfort) elements of the asana (posture) are achieved, then we understand how the breath behaves and the unconscious patterns of breathing are being replaced.  Then we are using less force for inhalation and exhalation, we are softening and through this softness, we understand the flow of Prana. Interestingly, Patanjali uses the term śvāsa-praśvāsa (Inhalation and Exhalation) in the first chapter (1.31) but he is referring to the breath which is irregular and uneven due to interruptions. Consequently a translated śvāsa-praśvāsa could mean the breath that is disturbed, a dysfunctional breathing pattern. What Patanjali actually saying here in 2.49, is that Pranayama is the cutting or stopping (vicchedaḥ) of the irregular breath. Or another way to translate it, is to cut and thereby create a regulated breath with a ratio between Inhale and Exhale…IN – PAUSE – EX – PAUSE..implying the importance of cultivation of Kumbhaka (pause) in Pranayama practice. Well, there are teachers and traditions that Pranayama is seen as Kumbhaka alone. Not in TKV Desikachar’s tradition; where Kumbhaka is very important but is not the definition of Pranayama . Sri Desikachar actually believes that in the sutra 2.49, Patanjali is referring to the cutting of irregular breathing, the stop of erratic breathing (and that is when shtira and sukha in asana is established). This works for me. At least for now.

Talking about ratios and the PAUSE between inhalations and exhalations that I said earlier…about Pranayama defined as the practising of the pauses and gaps between the breath for some teachers and traditions… Although I don’t belong in these schools, I was reading lately about Kumbhaka (retention) and how holding the breath increases significantly strength, flexibility and can affect even the craving for food, making healthier choices (forget the postures, cardio exercises or any other physical activity – These qualities come by exercising the breath!!!!). The tremendous compression in the body while you hold your in-breath increases carbon dioxide in the body which then strengthens and widens the blood vessels carrying more blood and oxygen to the brain and heart. Also with Kumbhaka, we learn to breathe slower so the nervous system calms down,  we allow more air to enter into the lungs as the breathing muscles become more flexible and generally we unconsciously make healthier choices. And yes, it is well known due to all these reasons and more, that breathing slower and less (hypoventilation), increases the life span (basically that is what Y.S. 2.49 is talking about…extending and slowing the breath).

Tools and Qualities ~ ~ Yoga Sutra, 2.50 ‘bāhya-ābhyantara-stambha-vṛttiḥ deṣa-kāla-saṃkhyābhiḥ paridṛṣṭaḥ dīrgha-sūkṣmaḥ’

The three aspects of breath are explained into this sutra (inhalation, exhalation and the pauses) and also Patanjali refers to the tools we have in order to explore the breath. There is the concept of  ‘paridṛṣṭaḥ’ where we are observing the breath from different points of view and the different tools we can do that.  We have desa (place in the body where we experience the breath), kāla (length of the breath maybe a ratio), and saṃkhyā (maintaining the practice for certain time). The last part of the sutra is referring to the qualities we are seeking in an effective Pranayama practise. And these are dīrgha (long) and sūkṣmaḥ (subtle). My teacher translates the length of the breath a bit into more depth as the lengthen defined from 30 secs to 40 secs.. is almost as if within the length of the breath there are pockets or holes…where the breath appears to be almost stretched out..pockets of timelessness..bubbles of each breath a different dimension, leading it to deeper and subtler stages. There he expands into the subtlety (sūkṣmaḥ)…example is the Ujjayi…first we experience the sound, then it becomes a deeper sensation and inner opening and transformation. These two tools affect radically the quality of the breath.

Goal ~ ~Yoga Sutra 2.51 ‘bāhya-ābhyantara-viṣaya-ākṣepī caturthaḥ’

This sutra is the most esoteric of the Pranayama sutras and difficult to approach, as it talks about a forth aspect of Pranayama which is a lot subtler than the gross breath as we understand it; as said before, the vrittis of the breath are the inhalation, the exhalation and the pauses. The goal is to come to a state of breath where the actions of inhale and exhale are no longer present (caturthaḥ).  A clue to understand this, moving to the 2nd sloka of HYP, it says that ‘when prana moves, chitta (the mental force) moves. When prana is without movement, chitta is without movement.’ So, linking the Y.S with Hatha Yoga Pradipika, we can say that as our Pranayama practise deepens and the relationship with our breath deepens, prana becomes more subtle and the limit of that process is where the movement of the breath becomes so subtle that the mind becomes very focused and still. The practice becomes so internal that it feels like the breath appears to stop, we come to a stage of deep stillness. I actually have glimpses of it in meditation and many of you know what I’m talking about.

Results ~~ Yoga Sutras 2.52 ‘tataḥ kṣīyate prakāśa-āvaraṇam’

Through these practices and processes, whatever is covering the light is being removed. Prakāśa…light…is used in Samkhya Karika also as one of the qualities of Sattwa..radiance, clarity ..Mental confusion, heaviness and dullness are being reduced, some inner light becomes strongly apparent.

At this point, the Y.S. continue, the mind is prepared for concentration, fit for Dharana.

There are some amazing facts concerning the breath and its limitless mechanism influencing all levels of our being. Breathing techniques are necessary for optimum health on a physical level, and as you go deeper you might encounter few bubbles of infinity..<3


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