Pranayama, the conscious and deliberate manipulation of the breathing, is the fourth limb of practice in the Hatha and Raja schools of Yoga. The Hatha Yoga goal is to purify the system and move the concentrated prana through the central sushumna nadi, awakening each chakra on the ascent to the crown chakra. Samadhi is the stated outcome of this process.
In Ashtanga Yoga pranayama is focused on purifying the mind to remove the klesa (mental impurities) and to bring the insight known as Knowledge – of – the – difference, the ability to discriminate between Purusa (Pure Conciousness) and Prakriti (Nature).
The first three limbs of Yoga are to be practised as a preparation to purify and prepare the system. The exacting discipline of yama and niyama check the self-seeking activities of the ego and put in place a healthy and peaceful situation with our external relationships and our own lifestyle. Asana brings good health, breath control and comfort in a seated posture for pranayama.
The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali has five verses on pranayama, Chapter 2 verses 49 – 53. Verse 49 begins simply by saying that pranayama is to remain in a yogic posture and control the inhalation and exhalation. Verse 50 gives the main parameters of the practice; bahyabhyantara – stambha – vrttir –desa –kala samkhyabhih paridrsto dirgha –suksmah.
Bahya means exhalation, abhyantara means inhalation, stambha is to hold and vrttir is action. The instruction is to control the inhale and exhale and be able to hold the flow of breath at will.
Desa means the place that we can control the breath. They are the throat, nostril, tongue or diaphragm.
Kala means time, indicating the length of the breath. For example we may breathe in for 5 seconds, hold for 5 seconds, exhale for 10 seconds and hold for 5 seconds. One breath would take 25 seconds.
Samkhyabhih means number. We should practice for a certain number of breaths. Starting with a comfortable amount the number of breaths should gradually be increased.
Paridrstah means total concentration. Unwavering attention is to be given to the aspects of practice mentioned.
Dirgha means long and sukshma means fine. The breathing should be long and smooth.
By varying these components of pranayama different effects can be attained. We can also practice pranayama with mantra. Samantraka pranayama is practice with mantra, amantraka pranayama is without mantra.
In verse 52 of the sutra Patanjali describes the benefits of pranayama; tatah ksiyate prakasa – varanam.
Tatah means from the practice (of pranayama).
Ksiyate means removed or destroyed. It implies a gradual reduction until complete removal is achieved.
Prakasa is light or clarity. Avaranam is a veil.
By the practice of pranayama the veil of darkness covering the light is destroyed.
In his commentary on the Yoga Sutra Sankara says that; ‘By the practice of pranayama , the light-veiling karma binding him to the world becomes powerless, and moment by moment is destroyed.’
He then quotes Manu saying; ‘There is no tapas higher than pranayama; from it come purification from taints, and the light of Knowledge.’
The darkness covering the mind is termed mahamoha (great illusion) and it impels one to actions that should not be done.
Ashtanga yoga only claims to do two things; remove the taints (klesa) and attain viveka khyati. The klesa are ignorance, ego, aversion, craving and fear. Viveka khyati is the discriminating insight that the pure consciousness (Purusa) is distinct and different from the mind/body complex that we habitually identify with.
Pranayama is an essential component of ashtanga yoga to bring knowledge of our true immortal nature.
(c) Steve Brandon