Prana means breath and Ayama means control. By Pranayama is meant the control of Prana and the vital forces of the body. Pranayama begins with the regulation of breath and ends in establishing full and perfect control over the life-currents or inner vital forces. In other words, Pranayama is the perfect control of the life-currents through regulation of breath. Breath like electricity is gross Prana. By establishing control over the gross Prana, you can easily gain control over the subtle Prana inside. The process by which such control is established is called Pranayama. Pranayama is the fourth limb of Ashtanga Yoga.
Prana is the oldest for, it starts functioning from the very moment the child is conceived. On the contrary, the organs of the body such as hearing, and so forth, begin to function only when their special abodes viz., the ears, etc., are formed. Prana is called the oldest and the best in the Upanishads because it gained the victory in the fight between mind and the five organs. In the end mind and the five organs unanimously declared: “O Master! O Prana! the supporter of this universe and the supporter of our very lives, the first-born! Adorations unto thee! Thou art really great. Do not depart from this body. We shall serve thee. We duly acknowledge thy superiority.” Prana functions even while the mind is absent during deep sleep.
Prana is the link between the physical and the astral bodies. When the slender thread-like Prana is cut off, the astral body separates from the physical body. Death is the result. The Prana that was working in the physical body is withdrawn into the astral body.
The sum total of the Rajasic portion of the five subtle elements forms the Pranas which are five in number (the five Pranas are: 1. Prana, 2. Apana, 3 Samana, 4. Vyana and 5. Udana.), and separately forms the hands and the other four organs of action. The five organs of action are contained in the Pranamaya Kosha (vital air sheath).
Prana digests the food, turns it into chyle and blood and sends it into the brain and mind. The mind is then able to think and do reflection (meditation) on the Self.
Prana is the universal principle of energy or force. It is vital force. Prana is all-pervading. It may be either in a static or dynamic state. It is found in all forms, from the lowest to the highest, from the ant to the elephant, from the unicellular amoeba to a man, from the elementary form of plant life to the developed form of animal life. It is Prana that shines in your eyes. It is through the power of Prana that the ear hears, the eye sees, the skin feels, the tongue tastes, the nose smells, the brain and the intellect perform their respective functions. The smile on the face of a young lady, the melody in music, the power in the emphatic utterances of an orator, the charm in the words of one’s own beloved wife—all these and many more have their origin in Prana. Fire burns through Prana. Wind blows through Prana. Rivers flow through Prana. The steamer and the aeroplane, the train and the motor-car move about only through the power of Prana. Radio-waves travel through Prana. Prana is electron. Prana is proton. Prana is force. Prana is magnetism. Prana is electricity. It is Prana that pumps blood from the heart into the arteries. It is Prana again that does digestion, excretion and secretion.
Prana is expended by thinking, willing, acting, moving, talking, writing and so on. A strong and healthy man has an abundance of Prana or nerve-force or vitality. The Prana is supplied by food, water, air, solar energy, etc. The supply of Prana is received by the nervous system. The Prana is absorbed in breathing. The excess of Prana is stored up in the brain and nerve-centres. When the seminal energy is sublimated, it supplies abundance of Prana to the system.
A Yogi stores up enough and more of Prana by regular practice of Pranayama just as the storage battery stores up electricity. That Yogi who has in his store an amazingly large supply of Prana radiates strength and vitality all around. He is a big power-house. Those who come in contact with him imbibe Prana from him, and get strength, vigour, vitality and exhilaration of spirits. Just as oil flows from one vessel to another, Prana also actually flows steadily from a developed Yogi towards weak persons. This can be seen actually by the Yogi who has developed his inner Yogic vision.
If you can control Prana, you can control all the force of the universe, physical and mental. A Yogi can also control the Omnipresent Manifesting Power from which all energies like magnetism, electricity, gravitation, cohesion, nerve-currents, vital forces or thought-vibrations and, in fact, the total forces of the universe take their origin.
If you can control the breath or Prana, the mind is also easily controlled. He who has controlled his mind has also controlled his breath. If the one is suspended, the other also gets suspended. If the mind and the Prana are both controlled, you get liberation from the round of births and deaths and attain Immortality.
There is intimate connection between mind, Prana, and semen. If you can control your seminal energy, you can also control your mind and Prana.
Owing to the vibration of Prana the ten senses (the five organs of action and the five organs of knowledge) do their respective functions. If the Prana is controlled, all the senses come under your control. Go through the parables in the Kaushitaki and the Chhandogya Upanishads. You will find that the senses recognised in the end the superiority of Prana. You can live without food and drink for days together but you cannot live without air even for a few minutes. What to speak of Prana then!
As long as you speak, you cannot breathe; then you offer the breath in the speech. As long as you breathe, so long you cannot speak; then you offer the speech in the breath. These are the two never-ending immortal oblations. When you want to hear a faint sound, the breath gets suspended for a while. The porter carrying heavy bags of rice or wheat at the wharf instinctively fills his lungs with air and practices unconscious retention of breath (Pranayama) till the bag is lifted on to his back. This retention of breath augments his strength and vitality. It immediately provides him with an abundance of energy. It induces great concentration of mind. When you cross a small rivulet by jumping over, when you practice long jump and high jump and various other exercises at the parallel bar and trapezium, you practice retention of breath instinctively.
If the breath is unsteady, the mind also is unsteady. If the breath is steady and calm, the mind is also steady and calm. A Yogi gets longevity of life by the practice of Pranayama. Therefore the practice of Pranayama is indispensable requisite. Just as it takes a long time, patience and perseverance to tame a lion, an elephant or a tiger, so also you will have to tame this Prana gradually. Then it will come under your perfect control.
Just as a goldsmith removes the impurities of gold by heating it in the blazing furnace and blowing the blow-pipe vigorously so also the student of Yoga should remove the various impurities of his body and mind by blowing his lungs, i.e., by the practice of Pranayama. The fundamental aim of Pranayama is to unite the Prana and the Apana and to take the united Pranapana slowly upwards towards the crown of the head. The fruit of Pranayama is the awakening of the sleeping Kundalini-Shakti.
The room in which you practice Pranayama must not be damp and ill-ventilated. It must be dry and airy. The practice can be carried on by the side of a river or a lake, at the top or foot of a hill or a secluded part of a pleasant and beautiful garden, or at any place where the unconcentrated mind gets concentrated easily due to the exceptionally good spiritual vibrations. Whatever place you may finally select, take particular care to see that it is free from chill and strong draught, mosquitoes, bugs, ants and all other flies or crawling insects. If you wish to practice Pranayama in your own house, have a separate room under lock and key. Do not allow anybody into the room, no, not even your dearest and nearest friends and relatives. Let it be free from all other disturbing elements. There seated on your favourite Asana with the mind firmly fixed on Truth, perform Pranayama daily. Then the Chitta or the mind-stuff gets absorbed in the Sushumna (Sushumna is the most important of the Nadis (nerve-currents). Situated at the back of the anus it extends to the crown of the head (Brahmarandhra) and is invisible and subtle. It runs along the centre of the spinal column with the Ida and Pingala Nadis running to its left and right. If you sit for meditation when the Prana moves in the Sushumna, you will have deep meditation. The Kundalini-Sakti lying dormant at the Muladhara Chakra, when roused by the practice of Pranayama, passes through the Sushumna Nadi to the crown of the head. This is the goal of life. This is perfection). The Prana becomes steady; it does not fluctuate. In India the banks of the Ganga, the Jumna and the Kaveri are extremely favourable for the practice of Pranayama, Rishikesh (Himalayas), Brindavan, Varanasi, Uttarakashi and Ayodhya are all very nice places for the purpose.
The practice of Pranayama should be commenced in spring and autumn because success is assured. In the beginning you can have two sittings, morning and evening and as you advance in your practices, you can have four: morning, midday, evening and midnight. Your diet should be light and moderate. In the early stages, food of milk and ghee is ordained; also food consisting of wheat, green pulse and red rice is said to favour the progress. Assuming your favourite Asana, practice regulation of breath first for the purification of the nerves (Nadis). Sri Sankaracharya, the greatest exponent of the Advaita philosophy, that India has ever produced says in his famous commentary to the Svetasvatara Upanishad: “The mind whose dross has been cleared away by Pranayama, becomes fixed in Brahman; therefore Pranayama is prescribed. First the nerves are to be purified, then comes the power to practice Pranayama. Closing the right nostril with the thumb, through the let’s nostril, fill in air according to capacity; then without any interval, throw the air out through the right nostril, closing the left one. Again inhaling through the right nostril, eject through the left, according to capacity; practicing this three or five times at intervals of four hours of the day, before dawn, during midday, in the evening, and at midnight, in fifteen days or a month purity of the nerves is attained; then begins Pranayama.” For complete success in Pranayama, regular persistent and systematic practice is essential.
Patanjali Maharshi defines Pranayama as follows: “Regulation of breath or the control of Prana is the stoppage of inhalation and exhalation, which follows after securing that steadiness of posture or seat.” But you need not wait for practicing Pranayama till you get full mastery over the posture. You can practice Asana and Pranayama side by side. In course of time you will acquire perfection in both. Pranayama can be practiced while sitting in the chair also by sitting erect.
Each Pranayama consists of three distinct processes viz., Puraka (inhalation of breath), Kumbhaka (retention of breath) and Rechaka (exhalation of breath). Kumbhaka gives longevity of life. If you can retain the breath for 10 seconds, know for certain that so many seconds have been added to the span of your life. By taking the breath to the crown of the head and keeping it there under his full and firm control, the Yogi defies and conquers death and drinks the Nectar of Immortality.
Pranayama is of three kinds according to the strength and capacity of the practitioner. The best one is that wherein Puraka is for 20 seconds (Matra is the Sanskrit word for second. 1 Matra is equal to 1 second.), Kumbhaka for 80 seconds and Rechaka for 40 seconds. The middling one is that wherein Puraka is for 16 seconds, Kumbhaka for 64 seconds and Rechaka for 32 seconds. The lowest one is that wherein Puraka is for 12 seconds, Kumbhaka for 48 seconds and Rechaka for 24 seconds. You should inhale and exhale very, very slowly, without producing any sound all the while. The ratio between Puraka, Kumbhaka and Rechaka is 1:4:2.
If there are impurities in the nerve-currents (Nadis), the Prana will not enter the middle Nadi, the Sushumna. In ordinary people the Sushumna is closed up at the lower end, because of the various impurities of the body, mind and the nerves. When the nerves are purified, the Yogi can perform Pranayama with success. By the practice of Pranayama you can become a veritable god. Certain symptoms manifest when the Nadis are purified. Your body will become light and slender. There will be a peculiar lustre in your eyes and a remarkable glow in your countenance. Your voice will become sweet and melodious. The breath can be retained for a long time. You can hear the Anahata sounds emanating from your heart-lotus quite audibly. The digestive fire is augmented, you enjoy perfect health, and you are cheerful and happy.
The practice of concentration and Pranayama are interdependent. If you practice Pranayama, you will have concentration. Natural Pranayama follows the practice of concentration. A Hatha Yogi practices Pranayama and then controls the mind. He rises from a lower to a higher level; whereas a Raja Yogi practices concentration and thus controls Prana. He comes down from a higher level. They both meet on a common platform in the end. There are different practices for different temperaments. For some the practice of Pranayama is easier to start with, for others the practice of concentration.
There is neither rhythm nor harmony in the breathing of worldly-minded persons. A Yogi practices regulation of breath to establish harmony. When the breath is regulated, when there is harmony, the breath will be moving within the nostrils. The fruit of regulation of breath is Kumbhaka. The breath stops by itself when Kevala Kumbhaka (absolute and pure retention of breath) follows. The mind becomes quite steady. Then Samadhi (superconscious state) supervenes. Regulation of breath and Kumbhaka are of tremendous help in the practice of concentration and meditation.
Dear child! Take sole refuge in Pranayama. Be interested in the practice of Kumbhaka alone, if the mind is solely turned towards Pranayama. The Bhagavad-Gita says: “Pranayama-parayanah—solely absorbed in the control of breathing.” Take due precautions at every step. The practice of Kumbhaka produces tremendous heat in the body and thereby the Kundalini is roused and sent upwards along the Sushumna to the crown of the head.
Before I begin to deal with the various Pranayama exercises, I propose to give some preliminary instructions, which would enable you to practice them without any difficulty and attain quick success in Yoga. The following are the most important:—
(1) All the instructions given in the last lesson hold good here also. You will have to use your common-sense and discretion throughout the practice of Yoga.
(2) The rule of celibacy will ensure quicker and better results. Those who cannot observe this rule very strictly for one reason or another, should be very, very moderate in copulation.
(3) Be regular and systematic in your practices.
(4) A small cup of milk or fruit-juice can be taken with much advantage before the commencement of the practice, and another cup of milk and some light tiffin half an hour after the practice.
(5) Do not miss your practice even a single day except when you are seriously ailing from some disease.
(6) To start with, do mild Pranayama with Puraka and Rechaka only for a month. A rigid Pranayama-practitioner should abstain from all solid food. You can practice Pranayama while walking also. This will suit some busy persons who have not much time to spare.
(7) Practise the various exercises prescribed below one by one, step by step. Never be in a hurry. Never go beyond your capacity. Do not take up the higher exercise before completely mastering the previous one. This is the master-key to achieve success in Pranayama.
(8) There should be a feeling of joy and exhilaration after the Pranayama is over.
(9) Do not twist the facial muscles while doing Kumbhaka.
(10) Do not take bath for at least half an hour after the Pranayama exercises are over.
(11) Avoid as much as you can too much talking, eating, sleeping, mixing with friends and all exertion.
(12) Do not expect fruit after doing Pranayama for 2 or 3 minutes only for a few days. At least you must practice for 15 minutes daily in the beginning for some months.
(13) Success in Pranayama can be gauged by the duration of Kumbhaka. By slow and steady practice you will be able to retain the breath for at least 5 minutes. Real concentration of mind ensues when the breath is suspended.
(14) If you want rapid progress in Pranayama, you must have four sittings daily, at 4 a.m., at midday, at 4 p.m., and at midnight. You must do 4x80=320 Kumbhakas altogether.
(15) As there is always some drowsiness and laziness when you get up from bed, do a few Kumbhakas just to drive off the drowsiness and to make yourself fit for meditation.
In the first stage of Pranayama you will have perspiration of the body. You will experience a tremor of the body in the second stage. In the third stage levitation manifests. In the final stage the Prana goes to the Brahmarandhra (the Hole of Brahma) at the top of the head. Sometimes the practitioner may jump like a frog. When you perspire, do not use a towel to wipe off the perspiration. Rub it well on the body itself with your hands. This will give firmness and lightness to the constitution.
Quoted from Kundalini Yoga by Swami Sivananda.