THE REGULATION OF THE LIFE FORCE
THE PRACTICE OF PRANAYAMA
At some point in the development of Hatha Yoga, yogis must have realized one extremely simple phenomenon, namely that a limb becomes paralyzed when energy can no longer flow down the pathways that supply that limb with energy. Contemplating this simple observation, these yogis eventually concluded that all malfunctioning of the physical organism could be traced to some restriction in the flow of prana, and specifically, a restriction in the flow of prana along certain nadis. As time went by, yogis became aware that that the practice of asanas could curtail any restrictions in the flow of prana. With asana practice, the yogis were able to insure that no part of the body would fall victim to inertia, and that the body would be kept free of tension.
Of course, it should be pointed out that all this came much later in the development of Hatha Yoga. Earlier on, the primary focus was meditation. Therefore, initially, it was strictly the meditation postures that the yogis considered important. They observed that meditation would restore, and maintain the regular and unrestricted flow of prana throughout the body. Only when the unrestricted flow of prana was achieved, was a student thought ready for practice of pranayama.
Before we go on to discuss pranayama procedures, it is necessary to point out that the yogis would never have suggested that flow of prana could be corrected or kept flowing to all parts of the body merely by physical techniques alone. Although it may be common these days to use the phrase "the flow of prana in the body, " the yogis who first developed a science of pranayama never asserted that prana was confined to the physical body; not even the so-called "personalized" or "individualized" prana. They wouldn't have defined prana as energy that flows through the veins, arteries, or even cells of the body. Instead, they regarded prana as the energy that filled every cell of the body and as such, not confined to the body. In fact, they saw it as extending outside the body!
If you read the Yoga Vasistha, you will come across a chapter which describes prana as extending outside the physical body. The Vasistha insists that the pole of prana, which extends beyond the body, reaches a distance of approximately twelve inches. The term given for this is "vadasanta" or twelve finger-breadths from the body. " On one level, this was regarded as the field of prana. On another level, it was understood that prana, being cosmic, was not limited to this twelve-inch shell.
However, when it came to discussing the prana which had become associated with the 'me', the so called "individualized prana, " the yogis regarded it as every- thing which existed within this twelve inch field, or expressed in slightly different terms, as existing outside the body! This is quite different from the notion that prana becomes individualized when taken in through the nostrils. If you follow this, you'll also see that these yogis could not possibly have regarded prana as being synonymous with the breath. And, if you remember that prana is not breath, and that individualized prana is not limited to the physical body, you might find that your practice of pranayama can be done more... freely.
For a beginning practitioner of pranayama, it will be more useful to remember some Sanskrit terms, and the corresponding word meanings, rather than to attempt to recall the distinctions given in the various yoga texts. First, let's look at some of these Sanskrit terms. Then we can briefly examine some of the procedures.
There are three Sanskrit words that are often used in connection with the practice of pranayama. They are: puraka, kumbhaka,and rechaka. "Puraka" is loosely translated as "inhalation", but it literally means "filling. " This filling process commences twelve inches away from the body. Therefore, mental visualization is involved in the procedure of puraka. "Kumbhaka" means "pot. " You might understand this definition more clearly if you visualize your body to be a pot which you are filling up until it becomes completely full. When this filling is accomplished, like a pot with its cover on top, the breath is held, (shut in, so to speak) like a pot that holds grains. Lastly, the term "rechaka" (a word that sounds similar to the English synonym for vomiting, "retching") is usually translated as exhalation, but is more correctly understood to mean "holding the pot empty. " In other words, the breath is not only expelled, but also held outside.
Some Hatha yoga teachers refer to all the pranayama practices as kumbhakas This is because the essential part of the practice, according to the Hatha yogis, is the kumbhaka. These yogis say that when the pranayama is performed, the holding of the breath outside is the very thing that activates the prana, and maintain that you only come face to face with prana and therefore only know what prana is, by doing kumbhaka. This is the reason the various yoga scriptures mention that the breath should be held "as long as possible. "
Unfortunately, this instruction is not given due emphasis because most people aren't interested in doing anything that could be unpleasant. You may recall that Swami Sivananda modified this instruction into "Hold the breath as long as comfortable. This instruction is nicely phrased, because it's not likely to scare you off, and yet, it still leaves enough room for great discovery within the practice. There are still some who won't even try this. They modify "as long as comfortable" into "do what is the most comfortable. " You must be able to reach out, making every attempt to discover what the prana is, or you defeat the whole purpose of kumbhaka practice. The words "as long as" are important, and if you disregard them, you will not know prana.
There are eight kambakas mentioned in the scriptures: sahita, surya bhedana, bhramari ujjayi, murccha, sitali, bhastrika, and kavali. The first of these, sahita, has, over time, taken on a much broader meaning, and is even used as a synonym for any kumbhaka involving inhalation and exhalation. The last kumbhaka on this list, kevali, might be considered the opposite of sahita. "Kevali" kumbhaka implies a kumbhaka "without" inhalation or exhalation. In other words, in kevali, there is complete suspension of breath, and thus, no inhalation or exhalation. Is such a thing possible? Yes, it happens. I'm not talking about swamis and yogis. I'm talking about all of you!
Whenever you're in that state which you call "a state of shock, " a suspension of the breath takes place for a couple of seconds. The amount of time that the breath is suspended is related to the intensity of the "shock. " We all have had this in varying degrees. The mouth drops open; the eyes go glassy, and seem to stare straight ahead ...at nothing at all, and, there is no breathing at all; no inhalation; no exhalation. Unfortunately, as in the case of sleep, we are unable to observe it. That is why I hesitate to use the words "we have all experienced this. " Like sleep, either we are in it totally, or else at the very moment when we begin to observe it, we are no longer in it! That is our problem. Either we are in darkness, or in light, but not able to observe what this darkness is from inside the darkness. We never stand on the threshold. Never! We are either on one side, or the other. Our life is governed by the either/or pendulum. In spiritual life, however, as in the life of the Buddha, the "either/or" is displaced by "neither/nor. " If one is neither here, nor there, one is at the threshold. This is called "transcendence. "
The intent of practicing the next one, Surya-bhedana, is very apparent by a translation of the Sanskrit. "Surya" means "the solar force" and "bhedana" "to pierce", literally meaning, "to break open the shell of the solar fire. " The texts give the instruction to inhale through one nostril, and then hold the breath until perspiration is dropping from the body.
The Bhramari kumbhaka is easier to practice. "Bhramari" means "bee. " The kumbhaka is so called because in practicing it, one produces a humming sound in the throat that sounds like a bee. There are two different sounds involved: one with the inhalation, and one with the exhalation. The voiced inhalation is a very rough, course sound. It is referred to as the "male bee sound. " The exhalation is the sweeter sounding of the two. It's not surprising that this is called the "female bee sound. " Some yogis don't bother to do the sound on the inhalation.
For instance, when Swami Sivananda practiced bhamari, he preferred to make sound only on the exhalation. Perhaps he felt the sound made on inhalation was unpleasant. Whatever the reason, he usually only did the humming sound on the exhalation. He recommended this practice, not only because it facilitates concentration, but because the practice helps the mind gradually become introverted, and as such, it is an aid to meditation. This is also true of ujjayi kumbhaka.
"Ujjayi" literally means "lifting up. It's so called because after doing ujjayi, you naturally feel uplifted. It's also an extremely simple pranayama practice once you are shown how to do it. It involves closing the glottis just a little while breathing out (the mouth remains closed), making an unvoiced "ha" sound. Ujjayi is a good thing to do before starting meditation, because there is sound, and the sound invites the attention to follow. The student should first do bhamari kumbhaka. When the mind begins to become introverted, switch to ujjayi.
A very challenging kumbhaka practice is "murccha", which literally means "fainting. " Here you are instructed to hold the breath until you faint. If you approach murccha with the courageous attitude of "yes, I am prepared to hold the breath until I pass out, " it's possible for you to discover that power in you which makes you stop and breathe. You can only discover it if you are really and truly prepared to hold the breath until you pass out. You are not attempting suicide. You are just looking to discover prana. You hold the breath, and suddenly, just before passing out, something beyond the 'me' steps in, takes your hand away from the nose, and makes you take a breath of air.
Don't cheat yourself by calling this a reflex action. What exactly is it that makes you stop? It's not fear. Fear is something which you would have to introduce. We are talking about something which comes of its own accord. If you are prepared to hold the breath until you faint, until tomorrow morning if necessary, then you will witness something which springs up and stops you. What exactly is that?
Perhaps you can see the similarity of this question and the question that's been asked about sleep. That is, in the waking state, I am aware of... this world, and in the deep sleep state I am not aware of anything. In meditation, it is possible to see that there is a threshold. How do I slip from here to there? If I can see that for one split second, that's meditation, and there is samadhi . In the same way, what exactly is that which stops me from holding the breath? If that stage can be reached without passing out, you have come face to face with the power they call "prana. "
Before we go on, let's discuss some kumbhaka practices. Sit up straight, but stay relaxed. Begin by first visualizing the surrounding shell of prana. Let the visualization continue for awhile, because, after all, you are attempting to become intensely aware of this surrounding shell of prana. When you feel aware of it, begin to experience the sensation of filling by breathing in through the nose. After a complete inhalation, hold the nostrils at the tip. At this point, you will be attempting to experience the kumbhaka. Try to experience that the breath is held out only at the tip of the fingers. Feel the experience of the kumbhaka is taking place only there.
Following the same procedure as above), inhale completely, and hold the breath in the pit of the throat, or what could also be called the top of the chest. Since you have changed the point where the kumbhaka is taking place, you can forget about your fingers during this exercise. If you experience a little tightness in the throat, or chest, exhale a little to get this tightness out. Continue to hold the breath at the top of the chest. Feel that the kumbhaka is taking place there.
Again, try changing the place where you hold the breath. This time try holding it in the middle of the chest. You should be as relaxed as possible. Therefore, let your mouth fall open a little. Don't worry about where your tongue should be. It can be anywhere, so long as it is relaxed, and comfortable. Feel that the breath is being held in the middle of the chest and nowhere else. In other words, from the middle of the chest upward, feel that it's all "open." This is not easy to achieve. Nevertheless, it is possible to experience holding the breath there. In fact mentally, it's possible to hold the breath and also the prana anywhere.
There is another exercise that you should try before proceeding. Here are the rules of the game. Sit up straight, but again, comfortably and relaxed. You are going to use the fingers of the right hand to close the nostrils: The thumb will close the right nostril, and the ring and little fingers will close the left nostril. The other two fingers usually are rested on the palm (some people prefer to rest them on the space between the eyebrows). Even while the nostrils are kept open during this exercise it will be best not to entirely remove the fingers from the wings of the nostrils. In other words, as you perform this practice, breathing in and out the left and right nostrils variously in a changing pattern, you will do so without taking the hand away from the nose. So, if the right arm gets fatigued, use your left arm.
To begin, inhale through the left nostril, and as you fill up, the abdomen will expand outwards. Exhale through the right nostril, and as you exhale, pull the abdomen back as far as it will go. Inhale through the right nostril, expanding the abdomen outwards, filling up. Exhale through the left nostril, again pulling the abdomen back as far as it will go. Now, as you continue in this fashion, inhale through the left nostril, and as you hold the breath, concentrate on the solar plexus. Hold the breath as long as is comfortable. Some yoga books give a quite specific ratio for the amount of time one spends on the inhalation, retention, and exhalation. These books say to inhale for a a count of four, hold for a count of sixteen, and exhale for a count of eight . However, it's best not to start out trying to emulate this model. You should begin practicing without worrying about any of that. The four- sixteen-eight ratio was given by the yogis, because it is a very close approximation of the rhythm which is most natural. After practicing the exercise for sometime, you will probably find that you were already doing the four-sixteen-eight ration without even being aware of it.
Now add one more step to this exercise. After you have pulled in the abdomen, and have exhaled completely, let go of the abdomen, and hold the lungs empty! Try not to create any unnecessary tension. There will be some tension as you hold the lungs empty. Don't worry about that. There is no danger of harming yourself as long as you are the only person that is holding your nostrils. If you let someone else hold your nostrils, then, of course, there is some danger!
Be attentive to what happens as you proceed. It's best that I not tell you where to fix the attention, because a suggestion of that kind will make you unnecessarily tense. What's more, if I tell you something like "fix you attention between your eyebrows", or give you a how to visualize the prana, or where to visualize it, that will immediately occupy your attention and immediately interfere with your ability to hold the lungs empty, as well as your ability to watch what happens as you do so. Be like a child, and watch!
A translation of 'sitali kumbhaka', "cooling", reveals the benefit is to cool the body. It will also temporarily relieve thirst. Sitali kumbhaka will be easier to learn if you stand in front of a mirror. Stick out your tongue, and roll the tongue into a tube. If you are confused as to what to do, find someone who can demonstrate what the curled tongue is supposed to look like, or find a picture in a Hatha yoga book, and looking into the mirror, imitate it. once you get the hang of curling the tongue, you will be able to form the tube with your tongue without having to think about what to do. At this point, breathe through the "tube" which you make by curling the tongue, and as you breathe through the tongue, concentrate on the solar-plexus. It should be easier to concentrate on the solar plexus doing sitali than doing other kumbhakas, because one tends to feel pressure in the neck when breathing through the nose. With sitali, the pathway feels more open, so that the sense of blockage from tension in the neck is diminished.
Now, let's discuss bhastrika kumbhaka. Bhastrika looks very similar to the purificatory practice (which we briefly discussed) called Kapalabhati. The essential dif ference between bhastrika and kapalabhati is suggested by the root meanings of the Sanskrit. You might recall that we said that "kapala, " means "skull", and "bhati" means "shining, " and that when you practice kapalabhati, the brain cells are bathed in prana, and entire skull feels like it is "shining. If that does not happen, there is no kapalabhati. "Bhastrika" means "bellows. " When you practice bhastrika, the abdomen must work as a bellows. If that is not accomplished, there is no bhastrika. The bellows-like movement is not intended to cleanse, but is intended to cause to prana flow. So while kalpalabhati is strictly a purificatory exercise meant for the brain cells, bhastrika is a pranayama exercise intended to cause a stream of prana to flow, and specifically, to cause prana to f low through the sushuana nadi.
The kumbhaka, or retention, is the important aspect of bhastrika. As with many of these practices, you will find that there are various techniques for practicing bhastrika. One technique is to breathe through only one nostril at a time. Some yogis, recommend that both nostrils are used at the same time. Since Swami Sivananda taught bhastrika using both nostrils, that will be the procedure that we'll take a look at here.
Sitting up with the back straight, yet relaxed, assume any firm posture you like. Using both nostrils, the bhastrika begins with a vigorous "bellows" pumping motion of the abdomen. There should be no conscious movement of any part of the body other than the abdominal muscles . You may find that the shoulders move ever so slightly as sort of a reflex movement to the abdominal breathing. The inhalation may be as long as you like, but the exhalation is quite short and very forceful. By this vigorous diaphragmatic breathing, all the impure air is literally pushed out of the lungs. One continues with this pumping until there is an experience of slight lightheadedness.
The amount of inhalation-exhalations that it takes to produce this effect will vary from person to person. So make sure to continue until you feel that there has been some effect, and that you have had enough. If you do not feel anything happening at all, it means that the bhastrika isn't being done vigorously enough. On the other hand, be careful not to continue past the point where you feel some light-headedness. The aim of this practice isn't passing out!
When you have reached the point where you feel you have had enough, exhale and take another inhalation. The idea here is not to fill the lungs completely; the reason being that once the breath is held, the oxygen will be exchanged for carbon dioxide, and there will be some expansion of the gases in the lungs. By not filling the lungs completely, you are providing room for the gases to expand, making it possible for you to hold the breath longer. Concentrate on the solar plexus and feel that the breath is held there, rather than at the throat or nostrils; otherwise some tension in the throat may be felt, and some discomfort will be experienced. Having taken that last inhalation, drop the chin on the chest as you continue to hold the breath at the solar plexus. Again, hold the breath as long as is comfortable. Then exhale, take a few normal breaths, and try the bhastrika again.
Don't be disturbed if you cannot hold your breath for very long. You can always increase the kumbhaka part of bhastrika over a period of time. The important thing, as Swami Sivananda said is to reach out, and to attempt more than simply what is easiest and the most comfortable. Remember that it is the element of kumbhaka that will bring you face to face with this thing called prana. Finally, when kumbhaka is performed you will find that the mental activity becomes restricted. This is another major benefit of kumbhaka. Kumbhaka is not meant to increase your lung capacity. Such physical benefits are merely incidental to the practice .
In practicing the kumbhakas, yogis employ some additional techniques. This involves performing certain bandhas. The word "bandha" can be translated to mean "tying up", "restricting", or "binding. " Let's take a look at some of the most important bandhas.
There are three bandhas that are done in the sidhdhasana posture: mula-bandha, jalandhara-bandha and uddiyana-bandha. The mula-bandha, involves closing the rectum and pulling up on the alimentary canal. "Hula" is translated as "root" or "base", and so you are restricting or binding the base. In the beginning stages, if you are doing mula-bandha correctly, there will be some pressure felt in the pit of the throat. The pressure is caused internally, and shifting or moving will not cause it to stop.
Jalandhara-bandha is commonly known as "the chin lock because it is done by holding the chin firmly against the chest. " "Jala" means "net" or "wire mesh. " It is performed in order to tie up the network (jala) of the nadis. Uddiyana-bandha involves pulling in of the abdomen. The motion starts from the very bottom about the pubic region, and is best described as a scooping movement which is both up and inwards. You will find a caution in some of medically orientated Hatha yoga books which warns not to do "uddiyana-bandha more than three or four times a day". This is because it creates a pressure upon the diaphragm, and therefore, upon the heart.
In practicing kumbhaka, the mula-bhanda will be done after inhalation, and following the exhalation. The jalabhandhara, or chin lock, comes in between inhalation and exhalation. In addition jalandhara-bandha can even be done while the lungs are being held empty. The usage of uddiyana, or pulling up of the abdomen, is, of course, during the exhalation.
Putting all that together, one would inhale, do retension performing mula-bandha and jalandhara-bandha, exhale performing uddiyana-bandha, and then hold the lungs empty adding the jalandhara-bandha once again. At this point, you might note that all three bandhas come in to play at the very same time, and as such, holding the lungs empty could be viewed as the peak of this paricular kumbhaka practice. It can be a most powerful experience, and is even regarded by some to be one of the most powerful exercises for arousing the kundalini. Of course, we can only speculate as to the "why's and wherefore's" of the arousal of the kundalini energy. One thing is certain, doing this practice can fill you with new found energy. And, who knows, perhaps, after doing it, you might look up, and see a new world.
YASODHARA YOGA TALKS
Copyright © 1997